NHLNumbers - An Overview

Jonathan Willis
May 10 2012 08:17AM



Wanye and Kent have already given you peeks behind the curtain, but here is a more thorough overview of the new NHLNumbers - The Nation's blog dedicated to studying the NHL and the game of hockey from an objective perspective.

Hockey’s rich statistical history is not transplanted from other sports. Moneyball may have popularized the idea of advanced statistical analysis, and it certainly has driven fans into the search for numbers that reveal truths about the game and its players, but the fact is hockey has always had innovators pushing for a more rigorous analysis of the game.

The Grassroots

Roger Neilson is often seen as the father of this generation’s advanced statistics. The innovating coach – who, among other things, brought video into popularity as a reviewing and teaching tool for coaches in the NHL – was at the forefront of many of the statistics only entering popularity with fans today.

Neilson wasn’t the only one, though. The Soviets tracked pass completions, zone entries, and used that data to determine the way their teams played. At the Summit Series, their Canadian opponents tracked shot attempts (now more commonly known as Corsi numbers), shot location and shot type. When those two teams met in 1972, they were already tracking nearly every significant advanced metric in use today.

It’s just taken 40 years for those innovations to start surfacing publicly.

Statistics are often regarded with contempt as a way of reducing everything that happens in the game of hockey to a variable on a spreadsheet, but that take misses the entire point.

The goal of modern statistical analysis is actually quite simple: to study hockey in a rational, evidence-based way. That means isolating the information that really matters and then using it to make intelligent judgments about the game.

The modern innovators, people like Vic Ferrari and Gabriel Desjardins, have helped hockey coverage immensely. Ideas rooted in statistics – like quality of competition and variance in shooting percentage – have emerged with increasing frequency in mainstream coverage. The reason they’re becoming more frequent is that they make sense, and they inform our understanding of the game. Looking at the hockey without understanding matchups requires looking at the game without really comprehending the strategy behind it.

The Future

Other ideas are bound to follow suit. Zone starts, which have a tremendous impact on individual players and entire teams, will force their way into the mainstream conversation for the same reason.

This, then, is what we want to do here at NHL Numbers: to improve our understanding of the game. To bring the rigour applied in other fields to uncover truths and understand cause and effect. We do that by grounding our conclusions in evidence. We do it by considering what coaches do and looking at why they do it. We do it by eliminating the noise and the distraction, by spiking our passion with incredulity of sentiment and myth and by focusing in on the things that really matter.

The Roster

We already have a number of excellent Nation Network writers who will be contributing to this new project. Existing talent covering Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg will write here, too. The heart of the site will be new talent, though.

We’ve added some heavy hitters, including George Ays from Blueshirt Banter, Tyler Dellow of MC79hockey, Gabe Desjardins of Behindthenet, Josh Lile from Defending Big D, JaredL and Chase Wfrom Driving Play, Scott Reynolds of CopperNBlue, Corey Sznajder from Shutdown Line, Eric T from Broad Street Hockey, Rob Vollman of Hockey Prospectus, and Ben Wendorf From Arctic Ice Hockey. We will also expand into other media such as podcasts and beyond in the near future. 

Finally, we plan to solicit contributions from anyone who wants to investigate hockey from an evidence-based perspective. If you have any interest in getting involved or having a study published here, don't hesistate to contact Kent (kent.wilson@gmail.com).

Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.