Robin Brownlee
July 24 2014 02:24PM

Roger Neilson

Having more information to draw on when you're building or coaching a NHL team is never a bad thing, be it in the form of grainy VHS videotape or advanced stats and analytics.

Almost 40 years ago, Roger Neilson was hailed throughout the hockey world as an innovator and a pioneer for using videotape as a coaching tool. Breaking down tape of games he'd just seen with his own eyes earned him the handle Captain Video. Cutting edge stuff, it was.

Decades later, with videotape long having long given way to the digital era and teams employing full-time "video" coaches for years now, Neilson's "innovation" is as much a part of NHL hockey life as sharpening skates and taping sticks. Doing so isn't news. Not using it is.

In that regard, employing advanced stats and analytics as a tool to provide a more complete picture beyond old-school boxcar numbers is today's version of videotape. "Fancy stats" have been in use to varying degrees around the NHL for some time, but not to the point where the hiring of Kyle Dubas as an assistant GM by the Toronto Maple Leafs this week wasn't news.

Five years from now, a hiring like this will be a sidebar.



I'm not a progressive guy. At 55, I'm a product of my generation. Hell, when I graduated journalism school we were using typewriters and carbon paper in the classroom, although there were bread-boxed sized laptops being used at the Pacific Coliseum and B.C. Place when I started covering the Vancouver Canucks and B.C. Lions in the early 1980s.

Advanced stats? I'd covered baseball, where statistics had long been in broader use than in hockey, with The Edmonton Journal from 1992-96, but when I was asked about advanced stats as part of an interview with the blog Oilgasm in March of 2008, I pretty much blew them off.

Q: On the Oilogosphere, many references are made to advanced hockey statistics such as EV/60 (Even-strength points per 60 minutes), PPP/60 (Powerplay points per 60 minutes), EV+/EV- (+/- after filtering out empty net goals for/against situations). Do GM's take these numbers into account, or do they take more of a conventional "Eye-based" scouting approach when negotiating contracts and signing free agents?

A: "I'm not the least bit interested in these numbers. I know what I see and I know what I think. I'll go with that over pages of statistics any day. As for GMs, that's a broad question. I suspect there's a wide range in answers for that."

Hardly a warm embrace of advanced stats and analytics, although in the context of covering a team day-to-day as a beat writer with daily deadlines as opposed to building a team or compiling data to look more deeply than "who's hot and who's not," I hadn't delved into them.

Now, seven years removed from the daily grind of the beat, I find myself considering the merits of advanced stats far more than I did when they actually might have helped me get a clearer picture of what I was seeing and writing about. In that, I'm clearly not alone.


The use of advanced stats has come a long way even since I was asked about them in 2008. It's an evolving field of study with refinements being made on an almost daily basis. There's a long way to go to sort the meaningful from the meaningless, but teams committed to doing so already and those in the process will have a leg up on stragglers who don't.

There are a lot of people, many of them right here in Edmonton, doing the kind of work that pushed Dubas into the spotlight with the Maple Leafs this week. The Edmonton Oilers are among the growing number of teams taking advantage of that brain power. There are more hires to come.

Separating the useful from the useless will play itself out in good time, likely sooner than later. What has merit will stand, what does not will fall. There is more information to be had, and that's a good thing. Neilson understood that 40 years ago. Some of us are just getting it now.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.

A sports writer since 1983, including stints at The Edmonton Journal and The Sun 1989-2007, I happily co-host the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260 twice a week and write when so inclined. Have the best damn lawn on the internet. Most important, I am Sam's dad. Follow me on Twitter at Robin_Brownlee. Or don't.
#51 Serious Gord
July 25 2014, 07:51AM
Trash it!
Pat wrote:

Until I see results in the Oiler organization that can be attributed to advanced stats then I remain unconvinced. When you have incompetent and/or inexperienced coaches and management you introduce variables that can affect player outcomes.

Case in point, certain bean counters said Hemsky was dead weight and was effectively done. He gets traded to a better team with a topline center and suddenly gets productive for another organization.

Advanced stats in the wrong hands are the next thing to reading tea leaves and soothsaying. This is not something I'm willing to take on faith. Show me....

I and many others wanted hemsky gone - not because he wasn't a good player but because his skill set was in surplus on the oil and this he was being out o. Lines and given ice time that was inappropriate/mismatched to those skills. Once traded to a team that had a need to him his play and stats blossomed (for now, I do question how long he can sustain it).

But you do touch on an aspect where stats in hockey are not as nor can they be as definitive as they are in baseball - the impact of the play of other players on ones play is far greater in hockey and thus that has to be taken into consideration when making conclusions.

#52 K_Mart
July 25 2014, 08:16AM
Trash it!
Ed in Edmonton wrote:

A philosopher once said "there are lies, damn lies and statistics". If a person wants to, one can make statistics back up almost any argument one might want to put forth. We see that on this site on a daily basis.

Statistics are a tool when used properly can be helpful, but are only tool. Like any tool you need a skilled person to get the desired result.

Confirmation bias is a huge problem in the stats world. There's something greasy about a writer who has a theory and then proceeds to manipulate the stats to fit the theory.

Dellow's new article on the Leafs and the Kings was well done though. But it is definitely not the norm.

There's just too much info out there to know who has it right.

For example, on one hand you have people saying that corsi and scoring chance differential would be comparable over a long period of time, on the other you have Staples saying J.Schultz' scoring chance+/- was the best of all the D on the team, yet his corsirel was brutal. Not sure how unbiased and objective his counts are for contributions to scoring chances, but that goes for any person tracking any stat.

It's nice to see that the hockey world is finally starting to use more in depth numbers though.

#53 Quicksilver ballet
July 25 2014, 10:59AM
Trash it!

I think we can all agree, these personal numbers assigned to each player (advanced stats) are still really team based rather than player only based. Hemsky could literally play on 30 different teams and be portrayed in 30 different slants.

Who knew Spezza playing with Hemmer would trump 83 playing with Gagner. Nothing to see here folks......move along.

I still feel this is a make work project, created by the Canadian Government to keep unemployed hockey fans working/off welfare. They should turn these mathletes loose on the airline industry..... help reduce that multi decade old flying through the skies while seated in a chair experience.

*Cool fact. The lines painted on the roads heading into Toronto (hwy 400) are Oiler orange. They are obviously still not aware of the problems that have plagued Oil Country since the early 90's. I commend them on their sticktoitiveness.

#54 ubermiguel
July 25 2014, 01:52PM
Trash it!
@Oilanderp wrote:
Stats are just one way to interpret reality and create meaning.

This is patently false. Properly collected statistics are not opinions. They are not relativistic interpretations. They are recorded factual observations of actual real events.

That you may use these facts to reach an incorrect conclusion is your fault, not the fault of the statistics.

Consider, for example a car accident insurance investigator. The investigator notices after hundreds of incidents that in 98.7% of the cases there are police cars at the scene. She then concludes that police cars cause accidents and procedes to recommend a policy of banning police cars.

The number of police cars is not in dispute, not up for debate, and most importantly not relevant to the goal at hand.

You are using statistics incorrectly. Statistics and models are a simplified description of reality, designed to yield hypotheses about reality that can be tested. In your example we see this glaring statistic and you came up with a theory: police cars cause car crashes. We investigate that theory somehow (e.g.: observing a sample of police cars, interviewing car crash participants, reviewing available video) and discover that theory to be wrong and we have to come up with a new theory: police cars arrive after crashes.

Change “police cars at accident scenes” to “Clarkson’s declining Corsi” and you might start to see the value in the diagnostic and predictive ability (as opposed to merely descriptive) of statistics in hockey.

I’m saying that seen-it-by-eye and advanced stats both are appropriately used to understand hockey. Who understands the reality of flying to the moon better: the mathematicians that calculated the force and trajectories or Neil Armstrong? The answer is neither, they both interpret the same reality using different tools and experiences.

#55 dawgbone
July 25 2014, 09:16PM
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Spydyr wrote:

You can break the game down as much as you like.Say he scores on more two on ones on a Tuesday when the moon is full than any other time.

There is no stat that shows a guy took a puck to the face and came back to score the winning goal.

At the the end of the day the only stat that matters is did you score more goals than the other team at the end of the game.

On a per game basis that's true, but over the course of the season it's important to figure out whether you are winning based on your play or by getting breaks.

Take the leafs last year for example. They won a bunch of games early and everything was great in terms of the standings. There were a bunch of people calling it a house of cards, but the Leafs were convinced they found the magic formula that had eluded teams like Minnesota, Colorado and Dallas in the past.

Instead of recognizing their short comings, they continued on and they fell apart (much like the 3 previously mentioned teams).

So yes, at the end of the game scoring more goals than the other team is what matters, but you have to be able to do that over the course of a full season.

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