Are NHL teams warming up to advanced stats like Corsi and Fenwick?

Ken Campbell
Dave Nonis, Don Maloney

There was a time not so long ago when NHL executives thought a player’s worth could only be evaluated by two eyeballs at the rink in the form of a scout whose belly was full of coffee and cold pizza. When the Buffalo Sabres scaled back their scouting staff and decided to do more video scouting, they were scoffed at by old-time hockey guys.

Now, though, video is as important a tool to NHL teams as a composite stick or a skate-sharpening machine. Every team employs video on a daily basis to the point where some coaches have iPads on hand to show a player what he did wrong during his most recent shift. If a team wants to sign a prospective free agent, there are companies out there that provide them with footage of every shift he took the previous season.

And that’s about where we are right now in the evolution of advanced statistics in hockey. Those who run NHL teams, generally speaking, see value in them, but there’s still some skepticism. Most GMs are smart enough to know any tool that gives them more information is a good thing, but they’re all still feeling their way around this new phenomenon.

Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils is an interesting case. He just celebrated 27 years of running the Devils, but he’s also one of the game’s best thinkers and has an open mind about most things he thinks will improve the game. He’s an old-school GM with a new-school mentality. He said the Devils’ new ownership group, which also owns the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA, has embraced analytics with its basketball experience and he’s completely on board with it. The Devils, he said, are working their way toward having an analytics department, but he wonders whether analytics will ever be as prominent in hockey as they are in baseball. He still doesn’t trust all the numbers he sees.

“Sometimes you can also get paralyzed with statistics in reading players,” Lamoriello said. “I saw something recently I thought was really interesting, but I probably would have lost my job if I had done a couple of things they said.”

Ken Holland is a lot like Lamoriello. He has run the Detroit Red Wings hockey department for a long time and with enormous success. He’s also an unconventional thinker and one of the more progressive voices in the game. He wants to embrace analytics, but like a lot of other hockey people, isn’t sure the numbers tell a complete story.

“We’ve been talking about it, but I wouldn’t say it’s a big factor in any of our decision making,” Holland said. “Let’s say you’re Pavel Datsyuk’s linemate. You move to another team and not playing with Pavel Datsyuk is going to have an effect on your lack of success. With baseball, it’s more black and white because the pitcher is on the mound and he’s going against the batter. But in hockey, you’ve got four teammates and five opponents who are going to have some impact on what’s going to happen.”

One of the problems with analytics is that the people doing them are taking their information from the event summaries provided by the NHL. Those summaries are done by human beings, all sorts of them, who might have a different interpretation of what just happened. Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said it occurs often. He said the league will sometimes send out video of a disputed goal and ask 10 GMs if it should have counted. Five will come back saying it should count, the other five saying it should be disallowed. A giveaway or takeaway in one arena might not be one in another. Robert Svehla used to lead the league in hits when he played for the Florida Panthers, largely because he could count on being credited with double digits in hits every time he played a home game.

But there are things such as Corsi that take that kind of subjectivity out of the equation. When you’re combining shots, missed shots and blocked shots, you’ve got every kind of possible shot covered. A defensive zone start cannot be disputed, nor can things such as a goalie’s save percentage.

Which brings us to another interesting wrinkle when it comes to analytics. The league and the NHL Players’ Association have criteria for what is admissible in arbitration from a statistics standpoint. According to the collective bargaining agreement, the league must make available all statistics kept by the league and by individual teams, and the NHLPA must provide all the stats it keeps. It doesn’t expressly mention analytics and since there were no contracts that actually went to arbitration, it’s all new territory. The NHLPA undoubtedly will argue that since analytics are culled from information the NHL already makes available, they should be fair game. It should be noted that for two years the league didn’t make public its hits, ice time and giveaway/takeaway stats because it was concerned they would be used in arbitration. The NHLPA filed a grievance and won.

But there’s no doubt analytics are becoming a bigger part of the negotiation process for players, as evidenced by one agent’s dealings last year. He was negotiating with the team and it was pointed out to him the player had one of the worst plus-minus figures among forwards on that team. The agent pointed out that, for whatever reason, the goaltender had a worse save percentage when that player was on the ice than he did any other player on the team, which contributed to the bad plus-minus. The player signed a one-year deal this season and his plus-minus improved, largely because the goalie’s SP when he was on the ice was better than it was for most of the other forwards on the team.

“I wonder if they’re going to remember that and use it in their favor this time,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the June 23 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.