Probably the last thing any hockey fan wants to read right now is yet another chapter in the manufactured "stat wars."
You know, that half-mythical conflict between a strawman nerd "cult" that allegedly views hockey through spreadsheets and "doesn't watch the games" but knows who's better by looking at last night's Corsi, versus a strawman neanderthal camp of tradition-revering hockey fans (and lazy columnists) who value grit and heart over skill and absolutely know which is the better player because they watched them, or because they looked up his points and plus/minus and saw into his soul the way George W. Bush saw Vladimir Putin's.
If you as a hockey fan found yourself not accurately described by either of the two characterizations I used above, then congratulations: You are a typical human being! You're in the bell curve of people who are minimally enjoyable company.
The "stat wars" debate is tired, but I would like to make one (hopefully final) plea for understanding, for recognition of common ground, for stepping back to observe what, truly, is going on here. It's actually not that big of a deal.
In reality, the extremes that only PACs and lobbyists would have you believe are the majority are actually the fringe -- they do not represent the vast middle of regular people going about their day, generally open to adjustments to their thinking when it's presented in an accessible manner.
What's Valued, and How It's Best Measured, Has Changed. A Little.
I have been a fan of hockey since before save percentage, that now very basic (and still imperfect) goalie stat, was even tracked. I valued the dynastic Islanders for all of their skill and heart and clutchitude and intimidation and every other cliche you can think of.
I also know that, just as that kind of dynastic hoarding of talent is no longer possible in today's NHL, so too can hockey no longer be evaluated on the simple tools we had back then. GAA tells you almost nothing about a goalie, plus/minus tells you an almost deceptively minimal bit about a player, and so on.
The game has changed, and so has the informational tools available to us to sort out differences between 30 teams, 60 goalies, and 700+ players -- very few of whom any of us are able to "watch" on a regular enough basis to have a thoroughly grounded opinion.
Take it not from me, a lowly fan and writer, but from Darryl Sutter, a longtime coach who was considered (including by yours truly) a "defensive-minded" coach who couldn't adjust to today's game and was fired as GM in Calgary after making way too many "old school" decisions:
"The big thing in today’s game is you have to be able forecheck and backcheck, and you have to have the puck ... You can’t give the puck up. We don’t play in our zone, so there’s not much defending."
"I’ve coached in three decades now and this stuff where they said Marian [Gaborik] had to play in (former Minnesota Wild coach Jacques) Lemaire's system is a bunch of bullcrap," Sutter said.
"The game’s changed. They think there’s defending in today’s game. Nah, it’s how much you have the puck. Teams that play around in their own zone (say) they’re defending but they’re generally getting scored on or taking face-offs and they need a goalie to stand on his head if that’s the way they play," said Sutter.
Sutter's won two of the last three Stanley Cups. The Chicago Blackhawks, the other team that most excels at what Sutter is describing, have won two as well.
Corsi et al is Just a Means to an End as the Game Evolves
If hearing "Corsi" or "Fenwick" makes you break out into hives like Doug MacLean griping on the radio, fear not: They're not that big a deal.
All they are is general (and proxy) measures for the value Sutter is talking about: How much a team or player has the puck, and how much it's kept out of his own zone. Then you try to figure out how much he's contributing to that.
Garrett of Hockey-Graphs summed up the general context earlier this year:
Corsi is part of the larger puzzle in trying to gain greater understanding of the game and how a player can affect their team’s chance to win. Like all statistics though, it needs appropriate sample size and context, and will never tell you everything.
… but it is a very important part of the puzzle.
Another proxy measure for this concept (albeit on a hybrid level involving both player ability and coach's deployment) is a team's proportion of offensive zone faceoffs. Last year the Cup champ Kings fielded an absolute army of beasts in that department, while the Leafs and Sabres had zero players in the black.
It's not a complex concept. It's not even all that different from traditional hockey values.
But with today's prevalence of speed and skill throughout lineups (instead of the horrible 3rd/4th lines and 3rd pairs of yesteryear) and the removal of obstruction as a skill equalizer and unfettered fighting as a reason to carry a lineup consisting of 20% enforcers, the relative importance of different team attributes has shifted.
A Plea for Understanding the Big Picture
So while the hiring of stats-oriented Kyle Dubas as assistant GM for the league's most media-hyped franchise created a spasm of "stats win!" vs. "I'm a columnist and I know hockey" polarity fights, the true underlying message is simply this:
- The game has changed over the years, as all sports do.
- The tools available to evaluate and track performance under these changes have greatly improved.
- Teams (and fans) are wise to add these tools to their existing evaluation practices, and to question traditional practices that might no longer apply.
That is all.
At the most basic level, then, the "analytics" revolution and the stats now available are just about being a better critical thinker, and an observer who is honest about their own weaknesses and biases: Someone willing to question assumptions, take in new information, and evaluate or consider it honestly rather than falling back on assumptions that worked just fine back in 1992.
People who have been immersed in one "side" or the other of this war will sometimes tend, in moments of exhaustion at needless repetition, to dismiss or insult people and lump them into the extreme groups I described at the beginning of this post. That is rarely helpful, and does no one any good.
Personally, I don't like sifting through spreadsheets or sorting player data. But I love the additional context I get from it (or better yet, when someone else much better at it does it for me). It's helped me learn a lot, it's sometimes confused me, and most importantly, it's helped me prove my belief in the divinity of Frans Nielsen.
But as hockey fans and people who watch a game for entertainment purposes, we should be past the point of insulting others who take a different level of depth, observation, or liking to different parts of this entertainment diversion. We should be able to accept that new information can be helpful, while also acknowledging that new stats are constantly being honed and rarely tell the full picture.
Critical Thinking: Just Add Water
A recent column on the Leafs' hiring of Brendan Shanahan, by the Boston Globe's Fluto Shinzawa (an underrated beat writer if there ever was one) sums it up best (emphasis mine):
Shanahan is thinking big picture. That’s good. Management should be working on a macro level. A team’s hockey operations department has to identify how the game is progressing — more controlled entries, less fighting, greater defensive mobility — and appropriately construct a roster so they don’t fall behind. They must monitor advancements in training and recovery to prevent injuries. They should be identifying and recruiting the top people in every department, from scouting to development to analytics.
We are in an information age. This is no different in hockey. Data is everywhere. Video exists of every power play, every zone entry, every faceoff tendency. Background interviews of a player’s teammates, coaches, and families regularly take place. Advanced statistics — percentage of defensive-zone starts, number of scoring chances produced off clean breakouts, how a certain wing’s puck possession drops when he’s without his regular center — are more efficient metrics for teams to study when considering Player X over Player Y (and at what price).
None of the things I bolded in that last excerpt are anything that would be foreign to think about back when Mike Bossy and the crew were wrapping up the NHL's last dynasty, even if some of the terminology might have been different.
But today we have a better understanding of which attributes are more important and -- critically -- we have decent ways of measuring them without pretending that we watched the majority of Johnny Oduya's shifts last year and noted who his partners were and what situations he was placed in.
It's okay to seek new information. It's okay to explore new tools that better describe (and measure!) long-held truths. It's okay to cite them, and it's okay to not want to dive in too deep. Just know teams are using them more and more, and they factor into decisions along with the traditional ones. With or without new metrics, this game's still fun. The party may be changing some, but it'll be alright.