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My opinion of analytics in hockey has evolved over the last few years. Like many, I was certainly put off by it initially; not so much because of the data itself but by the people who presented it. For quite some time, many people who were proponents of analytics carried a certain level of arrogance along with them while presenting their spreadsheets as “indisputable data“. Fan bases became fractured as the “fancystat supporters” fought for justification and respectability in hockey communities, whereas the traditional “eye test” crowd fought hard to discredit them. Analytics in hockey was being pushed by many as the new standard in hockey evaluations, and anyone who resisted the change was either pegged as ignorant, unintelligent or “a dinosaur”. Many of these data miners literally convinced themselves that watching actual games were “overrated”, and you didn’t need to know anything about the game other than being good at reading charts and graphs. Anything that couldn’t be measured (ie. heart, character, momentum or any other intangibles) was deemed irrelevant and unimportant, despite what any current or former player, coach or manager would otherwise tell you. Analytics invited a whole new type of fan into the hockey conversation.
Over time, the formulas used to calculate this data evolved by narrowing the scope on certain indicators and expanding on other tendencies, thus rendering the original stats used to track events (like basic Corsi for example) as outdated. The indisputable data became more sophisticated data, and the emphasis shifted more towards a focus on predictive analytics. There was growing momentum that these fancystats could more accurately predict outcomes based on the revised data analysis. When noted analytics guru Rob Vollman put out a book titled Hockey Abstract in 2017, he basically dismissed the notion that predictive analytics could do anything more than predict roughly 36% of total outcomes which was a blow to the analytical community. While some continue their quest to prove it’s superiority to this day, an increasing majority of folks interested in sports science now acknowledge the limitations of making decisions solely on statistical data. Now, more and more people involved in the analytic community insist these advanced stats are meant to be complimentary rather than mandatory when it comes to making hockey decisions. By taking that approach it has actually invited long-time critics of analytics to re-evaluate how they view them and in many cases embrace them in some shape or fashion.
So regardless of which end of the spectrum you were on when it came to fancystats vs. the eye test, it turns out both sides were right….to a degree. It’s all about balance and the more tools you can add in the equation to reach a definitive conclusion the better.
The reality is, analytics are just a tool in hockey, in business, in general. They are meant to be part of a puzzle. Focusing solely on analytics when basing hockey decisions essentially eliminates the need for critical thinking which is never a good idea. Whereas, completely ignoring all the advanced statistical data which is now easily accessible to make hockey decisions is not making proper use of the tools available to one’s disposal. Analytics can help evaluators re-enforce what they evaluate visually, or provide insight as to why they may need to take a closer look at their original conclusion. In hockey, they track several useful stats like zone entries & exits, shot rates etc… all that can be very useful information.
In scouting, there is some debate as to the effectiveness of the use of analytics when evaluating 17 & 18 year olds, who are still growing and developing their games while being in the learning phase of their careers. I’m typically more interested in a Prospect’s translatable skills to the NHL than anything but basic analytics do play a role as well. For more on what I look for check out my scouting tab.
Bottom line, analytics in hockey are a tool but should not be the only tool used to evaluate. To which degree each person uses it varies depending on who you talk to, but there is no doubt it holds value and will not be going away anytime soon. Just like life – it’s all about balance.