Talking with Advanced Hockey Stats
There is perhaps no greater schism in the world of sports than the one that exists between the old guard and the new age analytical folk. While Sabremetrics have become commonplace in baseball circles, advanced metrics applied to hockey analysis haven't infiltrated the mainstream to quite the same degree... at least not yet.
Advanced hockey stats experienced a little bit of crossover success last week when a list of the NHL's top 25 players under the age of 25 was published amid a flurry of criticism. Several notable players were omitted from the list, including John Tavares and Matt Duchene, based on the findings of its author, Neil Greenberg.
We opted to investigate the matter further, but ran into a series of dead ends when most hockey statisticians turned down our requests for interviews. Luckily, one anonymous by choice advanced hockey stat agreed to speak with us. The following is an interview conducted in a Bay Area with our anonymous advanced stat.
Scott Lewis: You upset a lot of hockey fans last week when ESPN published a list of the top 25 players under the age of 25 (sub. required) and John Tavares was excluded. In a subsequent piece defending the list, the author, Neil Greenberg, cited Tavares’ zone start and something about level of competition as his justification... what’s going on here?
Advanced Stat: Neil’s a friend of ours, and he used some of our data to express his opinion that John Tavares is “good, not great”. Maybe he weighted some metrics a little too heavily, I don’t know, you’ll have to ask him.
SL: What are some of the things you’ve used advanced hockey metrics quantify?
AS: Well, puck possession is a big one...
SL: Do you count how many seconds a player holds onto the puck for?
AS: Uh, no. Puck possession = % of passes = Fenwick = Corsi = Scoring Chances.
SL: Whoa, slow down here for a second. % of passes and scoring chances make sense, but what are Fenwick and Corsi?
AS: Corsi is basically the plus/minus amount of shots fired at a net while at even-strength, blocked shots, shots made, shots missed, deflected shots, and so on. It’s rather simple to understand. We take all 10 players on the ice into account; a positive Corsi number means more pucks are going in the right direction.
SL: And Fenway?
SL: Yeah, whatever, what’s that?
AS: It’s pretty much the same as Corsi, minus blocked shots. Fenwick offers another way of measuring a given player’s effectiveness.
SL: Why not just give them simple, easy to understand names like in baseball? You know, FIP means Fielding Independent Pitching. Maybe Corsi could be ‘puck direction ratio’ or something like that?
AS: These stats are named after people.
SL: That’s surprisingly old guard NHL of you...
AS: Jim Corsi is a former goalie coach for the Buffalo Sabres, he developed Corsi. Fenwick is named after a Calgary Flames blogger.
SL: Yeah, but Bill James could have called Game Score the ‘James Factor’, but no one would understand what it attempted to measure. Do you guys even want to be embraced by the mainstream?
AS: We tend to let the mainstream media just tell their narrative based stories and let internet analysts and bloggers use us to tell the truth and disprove clichés.
SL: Why do you guys have such a problem with narrative? Aren’t statistics just another avenue in a series of narrative arcs that tell the whole story? One would think you guys could co-exist.
AS: We’re about taking down old hockey bromides. Whether player X roomed with player Z when they played junior together is irrelevant, no matter how beautiful you can make it sound with long winded prose, it’s about what happens on the ice. There’s no need to tell a story when the numbers can tell you everything you need to know.
SL: Oh c’mon, it’d be great if you guys got along. Let’s try something here, I’ll go first. Vincent Lecavalier, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first overall pick in 1998, with his chiselled build and broad shoulders, is still an elite NHL player but Steven Stamkos gets all the Corsis. Ok, your turn.
AS: That’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t even make sense. Besides, Lecavalier IS overrated.
SL: C’mon, you do one now.
SL: What else is the advanced stats community counting these days?
AS: We have a number of people counting scoring chances on a nightly basis.
SL: Counting scoring chances? Wouldn't someone have to watch a game several times and constantly be rewinding plays to see if there was an actual scoring chance?
AS: Yes, of course.
SL: But I've always heard you people don't watch the games...
AS: Don't believe everything you hear.
SL: This data of yours, where can people find it?
AS: It’s available to anyone who wants to use it; you can find a lot of it on behindthenet.ca.
(Anonymous advanced stat shows me the website on a laptop)
SL: I can see you guys are serious about not giving much credence to aesthetics.
AS: The data is right there... Did you want us to attach some fancy Photoshopped pictures to the site to hold your attention?
SL: No, that’s quite alright. I have no problem staring into the heart of the matrix in the format you have here. What’s this one, PDO, does it stand for ‘Pucks Deep Obviously’? I’ve heard a lot about this one.
AS: It’s over your head, but involves a team’s even strength shooting percentage and even strength save percentage. And it was invented by Vic Ferrari and it’s named after an Oilogosphere commenter.
SL: Ok, now you’re just making stuff up.
AS: I think I’ve wasted enough of my time today.