Blogs With Balls, Advanced Stats & the Buffalo Sabres

written by Ian C McLaren

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend Blogs With Balls 5 in Toronto. Apart from the informative and entertaining hockey panel (which you can see here, courtesy of theScore), one of the sessions that stood out to me was entitled ‘Moneyballs – Measurement & Analytics in Sports Media‘. What was most interesting to me about this topic was the idea that stats have the power to tell a certain kind of story about sports in general and specific athletes or situations in particular, and that traditional measuring sticks can only reveal a limited view of a much bigger narrative that is being played out every time we turn on a game.

Accordingly, traditional stat markers can only tell us so much about any given player. As Tom Haberstroh  pointed out (using basketball as an example), “just because you score a lot doesn’t mean you’re the best player on the court. It just means you take a lot of shots.” When it comes to digging a bit deeper into the realm of advanced stats, one can begin to uncover another part of the story unfolding, one that challenges traditional notions of what constitutes a valuable player.

Advanced stats, therefore, are all about the kind of story you’re telling about the sport you cover.

Buffalo Sabre Jason Pominville – Photo by Andy Martin Jr

A couple months ago, I wrote a piece on a new hockey-based metric, and more specifically what this quantification revealed about a team’s crop of forwards in 2011-12. Introduced by Eric T from NHLNumbers.com, the stat (referred to as TOI Qualcomp) is a “competition metric based on ice time” wherein stat heads and fans alike can get a better idea of a certain player’s value based on the average ice time of the forwards and defensemen they are stacked up against.

In other words, using a simple plot graph, we can see the average minutes played by the opposing team’s forwards and d-men, giving us a good sense of the level of competition that any given forward was up against when he was out on the ice.

What the graphs reveal is as follows:

  • If Forward X was matched up with defensemen that average few minutes, but against forwards that frequently jump over the boards, he was probably sent out as more of a shut-down, defensive-type forward (and he would be plotted more near the bottom-right of the graph).
  • If Forward Y was matched against forwards who averaged fewer minutes, but against d-men who averaged big minutes, he’d be more of an offensive specialist and less likely to be called upon to to hold things down in his own end (top left).
  • Forward Z (located in the top right of the graph) is likely to be one of the team’s top guys, not only because he’s seen as a threat to score by the opposition, but also because he’s able to keep their top weapons in check as well.
  • Oh, and players located near the bottom left end of the graph? Draw your own conclusions.

Here’s a look at the Sabres graph from 2011-12.

via Eric T, http://nhlnumbers.com

With this quality of competition metric in mind, several presuppositions about Buffalo forwards are reframed; in other words, within this more specific context, we can pinpoint not only who did what, but against whom, putting their performance (or lack thereof) into a whole new perspective.

For example, Thomas Vanek – widely considered to be the Sabres ‘star’ player – was given a lion’s share of the load and experienced a decent measure of success against a high level of competition. However, it was the less highly touted Jason Pominville who was more consistently matched up against the opposition’s top talent (at both ends of the ice) as he progressed towards leading the team in goals (30), assists (43) and total shots (235). Derek Roy, on the other hand, largely disappointed last year (with only 17G & 27A in 80GP), and may indeed have benefited from more time played against 2nd or 3rd line forwards and bottom 4 defensemen.

Along those lines, it’s no secret that Ville Leino struggled mightily under the weight of his lofty new contract with the Sabres, and this is further reinforced by the fact that he appeared to be held back a bit in relation to opposition forwards. This would suggest that that he should have been able to spend a good chunk of time in the other team’s zone while not having to worry about their top offensive weapons, and should have been able to improve on his paltry average of just over 1 shot per game. Even with that bit of safety netting placed around him, he quite simply wasn’t able to get the job done. On another down note, Drew Stafford was matched up mainly with middle-tier forwards and D-men, and his modest production augments his perceived inability to truly live up to his potential. While he did manage to pour on 226 shots, his 8.8% rate kept his goal total down, meaning he might need to create more of a presence around the net in order to make the most of his attempts.

It should also be mentioned that both Tyler Ennis & Cody Hodgson were somewhat shielded by Coach Ruff last season, mainly matching up with the opposition’s mid-level D-men and forwards. Both averaged around 0.4 PPG in their limited amount of games with the Sabres, but it’s all but certain that both will vie for a spot closer to the top right of the graph, especially in light of Derek Roy’s departure. It will be interesting to see how they perform in those situations, and which one of these budding stars can handle an increased level of competition.

Among the rest of the top 9, we see that young Luke Adam saw quite of bit of the opposition’s better D-men, and was able to generate more shots than Leino in almost 20 fewer games played. Nathan Gerbe was sent over the boards against a high level of forward talent, demonstrating that he has earned the trust of Lindy Ruff to outwork the opposition in his own zone. As for the departed Brad Boyes, well … to classify his 8G and 23 points versus a low level of competition as a disappointment would be an understatement.

Finally, it would also be relevant to check where Steve Ott aligned on the Stars graph, where we see that he faced the highest level of forward competition in Dallas last season. It would not be surprising to see him have a similar role in Buffalo, holding the opposition in check and allowing his teammates the opportunity to match up with and produce against top defensive competition.

All this to say that surface level stats only tell part of the story. Of course, we’re really only wading into the shallow end here in terms of a real look at advanced stats, but just by examining a simple graph, one can gain a heightened appreciation for those who thrive against top talent, reassess those who should fall under the category of ‘star’ players, and continue to shake your head at the size of another player’s contract in relation to his lack of production versus lesser opposition. It also begs the question as to who will fill key spots moving forward, and reveals who the coaches trust in certain situations.

It’s easy to ignore information like this, and certainly there is always some measure of resistance when you try to bring a new perspective into an old story. But in the words of ESPN’s Michael Smith, “if you’re not using analytics, you’re a fool.” Perhaps that might come across as strong language for some, but sometimes a fresh look at an old story can be quite successful and meaningful. It may be helpful to think of it in terms of having only ever watched the Kilmer or Clooney presentations of Batman, without having taken the time to appreciate the Nolan / Bale installments; in other words, you can settle for a more whimsical account, or you can dig deeper and gain a sense of the more subtle nuance of a much bigger and ultimately more effectual narrative.

I was challenged this past weekend to take a closer look at and be more mindful of the kind of hockey story being presented here. We can keep looking at the game through a certain lens (ie: straight up, basic numbers), or we can take off those traditional if not yet outdated spectacles in an honest attempt to look at the game and those who play it in a whole new light.

Just one example of what it might mean to have a blog with balls, I suppose.

Ian C McLaren

Ian C McLaren

NHL News Editor at theScore
NHL News Editor at theScore / General Contributor for THW.
Ian C McLaren
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