NHL teams advancing past advanced stats with state-of-the-art video

Ryan Kennedy
Kunitz and Crosby (Gregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty Images)

Although the advanced stats revolution has been swift, it’s by no means complete. Corsi and Fenwick have easily displaced plus-minus as a go-to metric in evaluating a player’s worth to a team, but in essence, those measures are simply more accurate versions of plus-minus, since they draw from a bigger sample size of shots instead of goals.

What the so-called fancy stats crowd really wants to know is whether or not a player is driving puck possession when he’s on the ice or simply tagging along while a linemate does all the work. And as amusing as it may be to picture a blogger painstakingly pausing their DVR every time a pass is made in a game to write down who has the puck and for how long, a much more rational solution is coming to the fore.

Video is the savior, but not just any video. We’re talking about cameras that record an image every one-tenth of a second, compiling reams of data that can then be sorted by programs to give a more accurate representation of what’s going on during a game.

“You can throw Corsi out the window,” said Marc Appleby of PowerScout Hockey. “Because we know how long a player had the puck.”

So for every Chris Kunitz or Pascal Dupuis hater who thinks Sidney Crosby does all the work on his line, the answer will arrive soon. PowerScout, which has teamed up with tracking tech company ProZone Sports, was originally hatched from analytics research in 2009. It had contracts with two NHL teams last season but recorded more than 50 games in 25 NHL and major junior rinks overall.

Using three Ultra-HD cameras, Appleby’s firm can set up in any rink, right down to midget games, and doesn’t require any permanent installation (though that’s also an option). The cameras track every action in the game and the raw data is filtered through a cloud-based portal called Icetrax. The range of applications is stunning: a client team can look at zone entry speeds, how long a player holds the puck, the distance between two defense partners and even heat maps (see example, for Crosby, below) that show where a player spends most of his time on the ice.

“We’re actually measuring the little things,” Appleby said. “We’re analyzing on a micro-level.”

Crosby Heat Map

Appleby is a second-generation stats fiend. His father, Terry Appleby, invented a board game called National Pro Hockey back in 1985, which took real NHL player stats and allowed players to assemble lineups, with results based on probability. That same concept has led to one of PowerScout’s most ambitious goals: figuring out if a player made the best choice when he had the puck.

Using probability, the company can mine countless situations from the past and see what the ultimate outcomes were. For example, if Taylor Hall carries the puck into the offensive zone, is he better to stop inside the blueline and wait for help or charge to the net? PowerScout can look at the probability of the Oilers scoring on that play and relay that info to the team, which can then tell Hall if his instincts are helping or hindering.

Video analytics first came into sports in the 1990s, when optical tracking was used in soccer. The practice has expanded to many sports, including basketball, where PowerScout’s main competition reigns. SportVU, a technology run by the company STATS, uses six cameras for NBA games and is installed in all 30 team arenas via the catwalk. SportVU is interested in hockey, and the battle for hearts and minds is being waged in meetings throughout North America. Still, even among the game’s most progressive minds, there’s doubt.

“The camera structure and logistics of it would have to be changed for hockey because of the different dimensions of the surface, how difficult it is to track the puck and the issues hockey has versus soccer and basketball,” said Kyle Dubas, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ new assistant GM and a darling of the advanced stats community. “In hockey, substitutions can happen on the fly, while in the other sports it has to be at a stoppage. So it’s being able to identify which players are going on and off the ice. I think there are some companies doing that stuff now, but we’re still a long way away from where we need to go.”

If you’re worried all this info will take the fun out of hockey, keep in mind that even Appleby doesn’t project a cookie-cutter NHL should video win the day.

“Teams define scoring chances differently,” he said. “We want to give them data that compares apples to apples.”

If the NHL teams do become believers, however, there will no doubt be a rush to order. Every edge helps when building a Cup contender.

This feature originally appeared in the September 15, 2014 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

David Clarkson doesn’t fear the THN cover curse – and he’s fighting back

Matt Larkin
David Clarkson has started 2014-15 strongly after a nightmarish 2013-14.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Do hockey players believe in curses? The easy answer is “Of course not.” An athlete who lets superstitions dictate his game isn’t made for The Show. But if there were ever a player to start believing, could you blame David Clarkson?

In the summer of 2013, fresh off landing a seven-year, $36.8-million contract, Clarkson appeared on THN’s cover, postured as Toronto’s next great fan favorite. He grew up a diehard Leafs fan, so he happily posed for the shoot, after which we photoshopped blue blood trickling down his cheek.

He was positioned for a season he’d never forget. And while that did come to pass, it wasn’t what he imagined. There was the 10-game suspension to start the year after he left the bench to join a fight during a pre-season game. There was the gruesome elbow gash that cost him eight contests. And there were the slumps. A man expected to chip in 20 to 30 goals gave Toronto five in 60 games.

This September, excited to have a blank slate, Clarkson broke his cheekbone in a fight with Buffalo’s Cody McCormick just days before the season started. Ugh. Even the most scientific person would start to wonder about a hex at that point.

“It definitely went through my head,” Clarkson said. “It was tough. After hitting that reset button and feeling good this year and doing everything I did over the summer, to break the bone, that wasn’t fun.”

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Roberto Luongo interviews Zach Fucale, and it’s awesome

Adam Proteau
Interviewing Zach Fucale was one of Roberto Luongo's many responsibilities as THN's guest editor in chief.

Roberto Luongo and Zach Fucale were born 16 years apart, but they do have several things in common: they’re both Quebec-born goalies and Quebec League stars born to Italian families, and they’ve each represented their country in high-stakes international competitions.

Fucale, 19, has yet to play an NHL game after his hometown Canadiens drafted him 36th overall in 2013, but he attended Canadiens camp this year and had just returned to his Halifax Mooseheads team to start the season. That’s where special guest editor-in-chief Luongo caught up with him for an exclusive, insightful talk, under the supervision of yours truly, that was more conversation than straight-ahead question-and-answer.

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Top 50 players in the NHL: 1-10

The Hockey News
Sidney Crosby (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

In THN’s 2014-15 Yearbook, we asked our panel of executives, broadcasters and observers to rank the best hockey players in the world right now, heading into this season. If you were starting a franchise from scratch today, which players would you take?

We ended up with a ranking of the top 50 NHLers and we’ve been releasing that list in chunks of 10. Today, we finish with the top 10 players in the NHL and where they ranked on last year’s Top 50 (LY). Here is the rest of the list:

11-20
21-30
31-40
41-50

1. SIDNEY CROSBY | PITTSBURGH | C | LY: 1
It’s pretty difficult to go against the guy who won the MVP award in voting by the players and media last season and won the scoring championship by 17 points. Crosby only had two goals in 19 Olympic and playoff games, but an injured wrist undoubtedly contributed to that. Read more

2014-15 NHL predictions: Standings, awards and Stanley Cup picks

The Hockey News
chicagoblackhawks

Weeks ago, the THN team gathered to debate and argue over the 2014-15 NHL standings as we went through the league team by team. We shared our final predictions in the annual Yearbook and ran individual breakdowns of each team over the past month. In our Season Preview magazine, we took it a step further and picked our winners for the major individual awards.

Here, on one easy page, are THN’s official predictions for the 2014-15 NHL season. Read more

Referee focus more on goalie interference than goals in 2014-15

Ryan Kennedy
Ben Bishop. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Although a new season brings challenges for everyone in the NHL, perhaps no clan will be tasked with a bigger mental hill to climb than the referees.

“Historically, our focus has been on the crease,” said director of officiating Stephen Walkom. “This season our guys will look at the activity happening around the blue paint and the secondary focus will be on the puck.”

Simply put, determining if the puck crossed the goal line is no longer that important for refs. There are cameras – very good cameras – that are better equipped to take care of that task. Instead, the officials want to make sure the goalies are allowed to do their jobs in the crease, and that’s just fine for the men behind the masks. Read more

Top 50 players in the NHL: 11-20

The Hockey News
Shea Weber (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

In THN’s 2014-15 Yearbook, we asked our panel of executives, broadcasters and observers to rank the best hockey players in the world right now, heading into this season. If you were starting a franchise from scratch today, which players would you take?

We ended up with a ranking of the top 50 NHLers and we’re releasing that list in chunks of 10. Today, we present players ranked 11-20 in the NHL and where they ranked on last year’s Top 50 (LY). On Tuesday, we’ll share our top 10 NHL players.

11. SHEA WEBER | NASHVILLE | D | LY: 27
One of two things missing from Weber’s resume is a Norris Trophy. The wait for that won’t be much longer, though a Cup could take a while. Nobody in the Western Conference has a harder shot. Read more

Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Drouin consensus fantasy hockey picks of expert panel

The Hockey News
Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby (Getty Images)

Fantasy hockey aficionados always have tons of questions about the NHL. So do people who work in the industry. That includes former players who, in their post-career days, became media analysts. THN canvassed a half-dozen of them in the off-season to answer 20 questions on a variety of fantasy-related topics.

1. What do you prefer: a straight points fantasy league or a head-to-head fantasy league with different stat categories?

Jeff O’Neill, analyst, TSN: Different stat categories. So many ways a player can show his importance.

Jamie McLennan, analyst, TSN: Straight points league.

Matthew Barnaby, TV/Radio analyst: Points. I like playing players as a whole, not a different team each week.

Mike Johnson, analyst, Sportsnet: Straight points. Easier to manage and follow.

P.J. Stock, analyst, Sportsnet: Straight forward points. The fewer math calculations I have to do…

Kevin Weekes, analyst, NHL Network: Head-to-head. It gives the players a more realistic feel.

2. What’s the earliest fantasy round you’d draft a goalie in?

O’Neill: Fourth round. I want to load up on studs.

McLennan: First round. Goalies always draft other goalies.

Barnaby: I never take a goalie early. Always look at about my seventh pick.

Johnson: Eighth round. You can find value in the depth around the league.

Stock: Late rounds. They are all so good.

Weekes: No limits. If he’s an impact player, why wouldn’t you pick him early?

3. Who wins the 2014-15 Art Ross Trophy?

O’Neill: Sid. He’s the one player in the league that beat everyone by 20 or more points.

McLennan: Crosby. I see him looking for redemption for his playoff failure.

Barnaby: Crosby. Won by almost 20 points last year and has more to prove.

Johnson: Sidney Crosby.

Stock: Crosby. Did it on injury-plagued team & should have no problem repeating.

Weekes: Steven Stamkos. Read more