The NHL's new player tracking system (image via NHL)
The NHL's website will unveil a slew of new advanced statistics on Friday – and that should signal the end of the debate over fancy stats in hockey. If advanced stats still threaten you, too bad. People have every right to engage in a different view of the sport.
Normally when news breaks on a Friday afternoon, it's a negative sign for all involved parties. But when the NHL's website makes news tomorrow by announcing significant alterations – namely, the addition of a slew of advanced statistics – it will be for a positive reason. It represents the vindication of and a step forward for a group of fans and observers who see value in metrics foreign to the mainstream. It will offer more information – a.k.a. fuel for debate and analysis that drives interest in the sport – to a consumer base with an insatiable appetite for it.
It won't be a perfect announcement, of course – the advanced stats commonly known as Corsi and Fenwick will respectively be renamed “shot attempts” and “unblocked shot attempts,” irking some in the fancy stats community – but in the bigger picture, the nomenclature used by the NHL is of little consequence. In the big picture, this is the official dawning of a new day in league history, and that's to be celebrated.
People, hockey leagues and their on-ice product all evolve organically. Statistics are no different.
Don't misunderstand the previous paragraphs or intentionally distort them to pretend the advanced stats movement is a vampire waiting to drain the sport of its blood and reduce it to adventures in spreadsheeting. Nobody is arguing NHL GMs should stop seeking out intangibles in the personnel they hire, nor is anyone clamoring to ban the use of narratives or the human angle in the way we report on the game.
Rather, this is about people who've put in a lot of time and effort (much of it on a volunteer basis) in an attempt to satisfy their own curiosities about hockey, and who've perceived and proven patterns that give us some rough guidelines on what to expect in particular situations in the future.
This happens all the time in other walks of life. The weatherman used to be someone who stuck his head out a window and scanned the horizon for dark clouds – or even worse, who used astrology to do their job; those same people now use radar and complex computer simulations and their profession has benefitted exponentially from the increase in certainty.
Does that mean weather experts are always right? Of course not. But why don't the same hockey types who scream "I trust my eyes, not a bunch of nerds and numbers" also tell weathermen just to trust their eyes? Because they'd be regarded as lunatics, that's why. Technology has changed our lives in countless ways and will continue to do so whether we like it or not – and to presume hockey exists in a bubble protecting them from that reality is to out yourself as an ostrich.
If you can look at the NHL's statistical redesign and still swear you'll never buy into advanced stats in hockey, go nuts. You're probably going to come around eventually, especially as the league modernizes in other areas such as the player in-game tracker. But if you stay true to your word and remain a hockey luddite, don't demean other people simply because they've got a different appreciation of the game. The debate is over. You didn't win.
If that threatens you, perhaps you're too easily threatened.