There are competing schools of thought on what stat guys should do when guys with high profiles write extraordinarily stupid things about hockey analytics. One school says that we should just ignore them. For many of these guys, it’s obviously just trolling for clicks. The other school is that their pieces should be taken apart. I usually can’t be bothered to do any more than just crack a joke on Twitter about something obviously ridiculous.
In the case of Steve Simmons’ latest column, I will give it a full review.
On the night I first began to question advanced statistics in hockey, the stats man who sits a few seats down from me in the press box began regurgitating the game in numbers.
Mikhail Grabovski, he said, was the best Leaf that night. According to the numbers, Jay McClement was the worst.
About an hour earlier, when a colleague asked for advice on who to pick as his three stars for the next day’s newspaper, we both bypassed Grabovski, neither of us liking his rather singular game that night, and talked about the value of McClement, who had been particularly strong both defensively and killing penalties.
When I asked the stats man about the discrepancy between what we’d seen and what the numbers showed, he answered: “Sample size.”
I don’t understand why the stats man with whom Simmons was speaking would respond “sample size” to this inquiry. Assuming that they were talking about Corsi%, McClement’s Corsi% wouldn’t reflected his work killing penalties. Mammoth samples for McClement say that he’s terrible at 5v5 in comparison to Grabovski, no matter what Simmons thinks of his defensive play.
IIn Game 1 of last year’s playoff series between the Leafs and the Boston Bruins, Toronto was badly outplayed. Only one Leafs player seemed capable of competing at that level — James van Riemsdyk. So, curious after the game, I asked my stats friend who had the best numbers for Toronto.
It so happened van Riemsdyk had them, but his numbers were just a percentage point better than Phil Kessel, who I thought had a dreadful game. Again, I asked: “How can the numbers be reliable, when two players can have such varying games and end with similar statistics?”
“Sample size,” I was told.
I’m starting to suspect that Steve Simmons’ stat man answers “sample size” because he is fictitious. Here’s the Corsi chart for the Leafs from that game.
So either Simmons’ stats guy is a moron or Simmons is making things up.
So I began to wonder: If what I’m seeing tells me one thing and the statistics tell me another, and the answer for the discrepancy is seemingly sample size, then at what point do you start to question how much individual analytics matter in hockey? And how many samples belie what the game really is?
We’ll do Simmons the courtesy of assuming that this question is still valid and that his examples of this aren’t due to misunderstanding or worse. Is it at all possible that some of the things that Steve thinks are valuable – Jay McClement’s strong defensive work – aren’t as valuable as the ability of a diffident Russian to keep the puck in the other end of the ice? If the analytics guys are right about the things that lead to goals – and nobody’s presented much of an argument that we aren’t – then maybe Steve’s the guy who needs to reconsider what he’s seeing.
I don’t understand his second question.
Hockey is not so easily determined. And, in a way, the stance to match it with other sports has polarized the game, divided old and new, divided zealot and traditionalist. It’s not like there isn’t something to be learned from the new statistics, especially in a team way: It’s just they are in no way game-defining in the manner the analytics community believes them to be.
Steve would do well to realize that “zealot” is not an antonym for “traditionalist.” He would also do well to be explicit about the way in which he believes that the analytics community treats the new statistics as “game-defining.” Do I think that Mikhail Grabovski is a million times better than Jay McClement? Sure. Is that what we’re talking about here? I don’t know.
Random Brendan Shanahan quote that has nothing to do with the subject.
If you can’t play without the puck in the NHL, for the most part, you can’t play or won’t play. So how, numerically, do you measure a player when 95% or more of his 45-second spurts is spent without the puck?
One sensible way to go about doing this is to look at the share of the shots that his team gets with him on the ice versus when he’s not. You could take into account where he starts on the ice, if his coach uses him in the defensive or offensive zone a lot. You could look at how players who play similar minutes do elsewhere. You could look at how he does with different players. All of this would permit you to draw some sensible inferences about how he plays without the puck. This is what analytics guys do.
There are more random or scrambly goals than just Bolland’s title winner. In a different way, though, it was not unlike the key goal Ryan McDonagh scored in Montreal on Monday night. McDonagh took a slap shot in the direction of Canadiens netminder Dustin Tokarski. It didn’t seem like a scoring chance. But the puck hit Alexei Emelin in the pants, deflected off him, hit the goal post and then deflected into the net.
These are game- and series-changing plays: They can’t be defined by any statistic. There is a mistake and a bounce and a battle and a deflection and another bounce and a goal. And in the words of Jim Hughson: “That’s hockey.”
It’s as if knowing whether a team or player is going to have more chances for those breaks than another team or player would be useful information that helps you understand what’s going on.
The Maple Leafs were among the worst Corsi and Fenwick teams (the best known of the advanced statistics) in the NHL this season. When they collapsed, the stats mavens were almost gleeful. They knew it was coming. They called it. The Leafs were their convenient poster-boy for the changing way to interpret hockey. And an easy target.
Not that easy. Some guy was doing a victory lap in October, taunting the analytics guys with:
Good thing the Leafs don't play in the CHL. The CORSI hockey league. They're doing just fine in NHL, though.
— steve simmons (@simmonssteve) October 30, 2013
The mavens weren’t quite so accurate in their analysis of the Colorado Avalanche who, like the Leafs, gave up too many shots against and didn’t have the puck enough. But all Colorado did was win and finish ahead of Chicago and St. Louis. Not all shots on goal matter. Not all possession is meaningful puck possession. Not all faceoffs won will result in possession. Not all faceoffs lost end up with bad results.
The “mavens” will tell you that every year, one or two teams will have things go right and slip in to the playoffs despite not really deserving it. It’s part of hockey, watching some underpowered team do enough to get across the finish line. If you want a sport where the best team always triumphs, watch bobsled.
The difference between Steve and the analytics guys is that we acknowledge that there will be luck. Skill will usually win out but every year, there will be a couple of teams with whom it doesn’t. Steve sees it and assumes it means that something caused it.
When we said the Leafs weren’t going to make the playoffs, what we were really saying is that they were depending on lightning to strike in the same place two years in a row and that that wasn’t much of a plan. If Colorado doesn’t make massive improvements next year, they’re going to be relying on the same thing. Someone’s going to be lucky next year and get a big year from an unexpected goalie or have pucks go in. I don’t know who it will be but being the team that got lucky this year doesn’t tell me anything.
The Los Angeles Kings, even before Marian Gaborik, were among the best possession teams in the NHL and yet among the most challenged to score goals. At one point in the season, they scored 16 goals in a 10-game period and followed that up by scoring three goals over six games: That’s 19 goals in almost 20% of the season.
At that time, the team that had the puck the most scored the least.
Yes, and how are the LA Kings doing now? They’re in the conference finals you say?
Look, there’s a discussion to be had here – I think it’s reasonable to suspect that LA’s tactics hurt their S%, for reasons that we have yet to figure out and that the Kings are, as a result, not as good as their Corsi% would suggest. They’re still really, really good. Pointing to 19 goals scored in 16 games for a team that’s in the Western Conference Finals at some point would seem to support that.
Even now, after his difficult playoff run, there are statistical breakdowns that will tell you Sidney Crosby had a strong playoffs with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He did not. He scored once. He had the puck, but created little offence for himself or those he played with. His Corsi numbers led the NHL: But the best offensive player in the game has scored one goal in his past 17 playoff games.
The statistics indicate Crosby had a fine playoffs. Crosby, himself, would disagree with the numbers. The stats people will tell you the game must adjust to the statistics but, really, the stats need to adjust to the game.
Earlier in his piece, Simmons said: “In hockey, a defensive error — some quantifiable, some not — a breakdown, leads to more scoring than offensive creation does.” 11 of Crosby’s last 17 playoff games (I’m amazed Steve didn’t include the last game of the Ottawa series) have been against NYR and Boston, home of the two best goalies in the NHL. The other series was against the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. This seems inconsistent with that.
I wouldn’t say that Crosby was great but I’d say that he did enough that his teams could have won. With more support or against a lesser defensive team, maybe they would have. I do know that 26 players have posted a 60%+ Corsi% over at least 500 minutes in a season since 2007-08 – Sid was at 61.6% in the playoffs. 65% of the time, that generates a GF% of 60% or better. 88% it puts you at a GF% above 55%. 3.8% of the time, it puts you at a GF% below 50%.
Sid played 198 5v5 minutes in the playoffs, with a GF% of 47.1%. Me, I’d bet on Sid figuring out how to find his space in the long run. Because that seems to be how hockey works. The playoffs are a small sample tournament; enjoy the games but don’t think that you can take that much from them.
The game hasn’t changed all that much, other than speed and length of shift. The voices of analytics haven’t invented a new game, only a new way to look at it.
There is a place for what they do — just not a defining one. The game, through these eyes, is too free-flow, too incidental and accidental, too promiscuous to be naturally or easily analyzed with math.
Good thing the Leafs don’t play in the CHL. The CORSI Hockey League.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org