The Stats War Is Over

It started with a whisper. Almost as soon as the NHL began to display every relevant stat in it’s play-by-play, the data was being recorded and turned into discernible information by websites like www.BehindTheNet.ca and TimeOnIce.com. Neither were overly user friendly, but they caught on quickly with the more data inclined analysts of the hockey blogging community; becoming prevalent methods of analysis for subsidiaries of both the Nations Network and SB Nation blogs.

As the audience increased for both networks, so too did the acceptance and widespread use of these data sets. It would be just as easy to find an article that referenced Corsi on Bleacher Report, Rant Sports, Puck Rant or The Hockey Writers as it was any given Nation Network blog. The movement (if you want to call it that) was slow in growth, and required a lot of soul searching throughout — to this day much of what the analytic community experiments with and applies practically is still in it’s infancy. There were growing pains along the way, but as the data became more transparent and readily available, new discoveries were made on an almost annual basis that have changed the way people look at hockey.

There were always detractors, but as the correlation between some of the stats referenced in the analytic community and long-term success became more apparent, these voices became fewer and farther between. Heading into the eighth season of what is often referred to as the “Behind the Net” era of hockey analysis, those opposed to the use of analytics are starting to seem as irrelevant and dated as the +/- statistic that is being left in the dust. They lead the charge with misinformation and despite the fact that they couldn’t tell you what a Corsi event is, they know they don’t like it.

Steve Simmons, Dave Staples and Mark Spector headline the list of the clueless and opposed, but this particular strain of resistance to progressive thinking is hardly limited to them. The media is ripe with those who are plainly in denial, lacking information or downright antagonistic about the very idea of numbers based analysis. But at this point they are just noise and every bit as relevant in this debate as climate change deniers to ones of environmental policy.

 

They may not like these big numbers – that anyone with even the most remedial understanding of basic math concepts can comprehend – but they are here to stay. That is not to say it is the responsibility of the hardcore fan, casual observer or analyst to use. Expecting that is ridiculous. Ending this pointless argument over the efficacy of these numbers? That’s considerably overdue.

The Stanley Cup winner this season? The league’s best 5v5 possession team. Their competition? The East’s third best possession team. The year before that, the third best possession team faced off against the fourth. It’s an overly simplistic selling point for these stats, sure. But for myself, the premise behind these numbers and their practical application wasn’t a new concept. Growing up my father always told me “hockey is a game of keep-away”. You know what else? He hated dump and chase hockey.

The neat thing about these numbers and terms like “possession” being applied to hockey is that well before the Behind the Net era, they had a role. Craig Button has gone on record saying that Dean Lombardi was applying them during his days with the Minnesota NorthStars. The concept of any stat being advanced is fluid and relative, so I have to imagine that well before and after Lombardi with the NorthStars, franchises were ripe with this drive for new information that provided a competitive edge.

This summer we’ve seen that drive for an edge manifest itself in a net like scouring of the soft underbelly of hockey media. Bloggers – one of which I am lucky enough to consider a friend – have been getting hired in droves, leading Yahoo! to declare this “The Summer of Fancy Stats”. Big wigs of the movement, bloggers like Eric Tulsky, Tyler Dellow, Sunny Mehta, Kyle Dubas, Cam Charron, Daryl Metcalf and Rob Pettapiece lead the way in this regard. The most invested team in this slew of fancy hires are the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have for years been diametrically opposed to these numbers; Dubas, Charron, Metcalf and Pettapiece are all Maple Leafs since.

Worth keeping in mind, though, is that these are only the hires that have been made public. For all we know there’s been several more behind the scenes already, and I find it hard to believe that there won’t be more to come.

Which, as far as I’m concerned, ends the debate on the worth of these data sets and their practical use in hockey. It’s over… and done. That’s not to say that there isn’t land in the world of analysis that hasn’t been chartered! Even the best calculator-concubine will tell you that the application of these numbers is useless without keen observational skills to accompany them. If not moving on to new numbers, the shift in analysis should be more film and system oriented. If not that, then yeah, more numbers! Lets just have a look and see what we’re missing.

The world isn’t flat, the sun doesn’t revolve around it and Yeezus was a horrible album. These are truisms. As is the fact that possession metrics are here to stay, relevant and make for a more entertaining brand of hockey. The focus shouldn’t be on trying to disprove them, because, well, you probably (definitely) can’t. The focus should be on expanding these numbers; as well as our understanding of the systems employed by teams, and how they relate to them.