Statistics Are Dumb

Jonathan Willis
November 16 2011 08:18PM

Yes, I wrote that title. Not only did I write it, but I mean it.

“Dumb” basically means lacking intelligence. Most NHL statistics, frankly, require no intelligence. Let’s look at the complicated math involved in the basic statistics on NHL.com’s summary page.

  • Goals: Watching and counting
  • Assists: Watching and counting
  • Points: Adding goals and assists (or, alternately, watching and counting)
  • Plus/Minus: Watching and counting
  • Penalty minutes: Watching and counting
  • Power play goals: Watching and counting
  • Shorthanded goals: Watching and counting
  • Game-winning goals: Basic addition, watching and counting
  • Overtime goals: Watching and counting
  • Shots: Watching and counting
  • Shooting percentage: Basic division, watching and counting
  • Time on ice: Watching and counting
  • Shifts per game: Watching and counting
  • Face-off percentage: Basic division, watching and counting

Basically, if you’re capable of turning on your TV and counting things, you can create almost any NHL statistic from scratch. If you’re capable of doing that and then later using the division key on a calculator or computer, you can create any NHL statistic from scratch. I’ve listed a bunch above, but they’re all basically the same – goalie stats involve counting shots, goals and minutes played, real-time statistics all consist entirely of counting, and so on.

What about all those fancy advanced statistics that get thrown around? Scoring chance percentage, Fenwick, Corsi, EVPTS/60 – those are more complicated, right?

No.

Scoring chances involve somebody watching the game and counting. Scoring chance percentage simply involves taking the number of good scoring chances, and dividing them by the total number of scoring chances. In other words, if you know how to count and can press a division key on a calculator, you can have a firm grasp of this “advanced” statistic.

What about Fenwick? Well, you take those shots and missed shots that somebody counted up, and then you add them together – just like plus/minus. Corsi is the same thing, except that it includes blocked shots as well.

Points per 60 minutes of even-strength ice-time (or EVPTS/60) is almost as simple – one takes all the points a player scored at even-strength, and divides them by ice-time at even-strength to create a scoring rate. It is, once again, counting and pressing the divide key on a calculator. Pretty much as simple as can be.

But let’s go back to scoring chances. In an article yesterday, I did something audacious – I added up scoring chances for and against for Oilers’ defensemen. In the comments section, Robin Brownlee jokingly advised one commenter (i.e. not me) to do the following:

Your only option is to watch the games and draw your own conclusions.

Personally, I think that’s a great idea for everyone. It’s a little obvious, perhaps, but still a great idea.

It is, after all, what I do. I look for specific things – which players play the best opponents, what part of the ice players start their shifts in, how often players helps their team create a scoring chance, and how often players make mistakes that lead to chances against. As a rule, I try and get a gut feel for the game based on those things (others too, of course – which players take bad penalties, who wins faceoffs, etc.). Rather than watch the game multiple times and count those things up, I rely on others to do it – the NHL keeps track of a lot of these things (as mentioned above, by watching the game and counting) and people like Dennis King and Gabriel Desjardins catch the rest. I find that a firm number (i.e. Eric Belanger won 7 of 10 faceoffs) is better than my gut feeling (Eric Belanger wins a lot if faceoffs), so usually I’ll use the firm number instead of simply repeating my gut feeling. It’s the same thing with scoring chances – I know that Cam Barker’s getting heavily out-chanced by his opposition, but rather than say something like “man, that Cam Barker looks really bad” I’ll look up Dennis’ work and say “Cam Barker has been on the ice for 35 chances for and 49 against, which is one of the worst totals on the Oilers!” Afterward, rather than add “and he looks bad even though he’s got an easier job than other defensemen” I might use a number – like how many times he’s started shifts in the offensive zone, or how often he’s played the other team’s top line.

Of course, when I say “Barker has been on the ice for 35 chances for and 49 against” rather than “man, Cam Barker looks really bad,” someone comes along to tell me I should “watch the games.” I laugh, because it’s funny.

74b7cedc5d8bfbe88cf071309e98d2c3
Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Robin Brownlee
November 16 2011, 08:22PM
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For context:

"It's a real shame about Barker... getting that draft pedigree for so cheap could have turned out awesome. I was willing to withhold serious judgment until the break... but now that he is out... I'm looking forward to not thinking about him for a month. we'll see if he finds some enthusiasm coming off the injury. What is really bizarre though and must give the stats folk headaches is the +/- situation... Barker, Peckham and Petry (the three D Willis correctly isolates as the weakest on the team - although Petry obviously is high on this particular list) somehow are tied for first on the team at +3!! That makes no sense to me... Didn't we just have an article about how shot quality doesn't matter or something? If shots/scoring chances are the crucial marker underlying success... how come the players with the worst shots/chances for/against have the highest +/-??? doesn't that imply shot quality has an effect? is there some other missing link that can explain this inversion?? I'm so confused... Brownlee, crank up the Betamax... we've got some numbers to crunch!"

Complete quote in response was:

@Romulus' Apotheosis

"I'm out of fingers and toes and the Bronte 5000 is down for maintenance. You're on your own. Your only option is to watch the games and draw your own conclusions."

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#2 Oilers G- Nations Poet Laureate
November 16 2011, 08:24PM
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Jonathan. I rely on you for my advanced stats, because while I can watch, count, AND use a slide rule, I'm usually bombed by the middle of the second period.

Thanks for explaining the "advanced stats" (Fenwick, Corsi et al)

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#4 Lowetide
November 16 2011, 08:33PM
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Actually, one of the reasons I enjoy Jonathan's work is that he does the stats work and expresses it in a manner that dummies like me can understand.

And I think Jonathan also gives fair view to what we see on the ice, too. A combination of the two has greatest value imo. Bill James once admitted Lou Brock was an astounding leadoff hitter while also being a poor candidate for the slot in the order. I think that's the kind of balance Jonathan brings to these discussions.

Keep up the great work, Jonathan.

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#5 Robin Brownlee
November 16 2011, 08:43PM
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@Jonathan Willis

What I find interesting is leaving out the first part of the quote, which was offered in response to somebody asking me to "crank up the Betamax." That seems like a curious choice, if one is interested in context.

I don't consider watching the games and keeping tabs of some advanced stats for a broader picture as an either/or situation.

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#8 DSF
November 16 2011, 09:02PM
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C'mon Willis....just update the pool.

Those are statistics :)

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#10 Jerk Store
November 16 2011, 09:25PM
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@Jonathan Willis

Careful L.T.

While I am sure Willis is being somewhat sincere, if he asks you to start his car for him, run for the hills. After first pi$$ing off Spec and then Brownlee I would be more than a little cautious. Those guys don't get mad ...

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#11 Dipstick
November 16 2011, 09:26PM
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I like to watch.

Chance the gardener

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#12 Romulus' Apotheosis
November 16 2011, 09:29PM
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11 posts in and nearly all by the big kids at the table. Where's Gregor and Wanye? Don't they want to get in on this...

not to get too meta-discursive here or anything... but... I take it for granted that with the exception of a few extremists most people around here enjoy the diversity of analysis from the contributors and appreciate all ON voices.

one of the best qualities of this site is its ability to blend the high and the low; the serious and the silly - often in the same article!

for what its worth, it seems to me that Brownlee's taking the piss out of us luddite commenters for not being able to grasp math as much if not more than he is you adv. stats guys. I certainly take no offence. I find the running narrative hilarious and so does my Walkman

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#13 Romulus' Apotheosis
November 16 2011, 09:34PM
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Dipstick wrote:

I like to watch.

Chance the gardener

how long do we stay in here?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUsiUCzPyoA

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#14 Dipstick
November 16 2011, 09:41PM
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@Romulus' Apotheosis

A classic. It dates me. Back to the topic. I really just enjoy watching the games. Analysis is for when the team is not performing particularly well. Unfortunately, I have spent too much time analyzing and not enough cheering for the past few years.

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#15 DSF
November 16 2011, 09:44PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

@ DSF:

Yeah, it kind of slipped through the cracks this past weekend. But we'll all get to see your name way up high on the list this Sunday :)

How does a list that delineates those who know what they're talking about "slip through the cracks"?

Just asking.

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#16 BArmstrong
November 16 2011, 09:59PM
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DSF wrote:

How does a list that delineates those who know what they're talking about "slip through the cracks"?

Just asking.

Haha.. delineates:)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dr_3S4GcZNo

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#17 Reach Advantage
November 16 2011, 10:11PM
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Well said Willis.

Good defence of what you do.

Makes sense to me.

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#18 ItsTheBGB
November 16 2011, 10:22PM
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WILLIS, YOU SHOULD REALLY WATCH AN OILER GAME BEFORE OPENING YOUR MOUTH!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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#19 Quicksilver ballet
November 16 2011, 10:25PM
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~I feel it's time the Oilers should trade Shawn Horcoff.~

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#20 VK63
November 16 2011, 10:39PM
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Quicksilver ballet wrote:

~I feel it's time the Oilers should trade Shawn Horcoff.~

Ive read your opinions on Dubnyk but I gotta ask.

Do you think the Oilers are getting any decent offers for Khabbi at the moment?

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#21 RKD
November 16 2011, 10:41PM
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True, the stats in sports do involve a lot of counting. I'm taking a stats course right now at UofC. Probability is what is more interesting and way more prevalent.

What is the probability a team can come back from and 0-3 deficit? (in a game or series).

What is the probability the Flames can get back to .500? :)

What is the probability the Flames will make the playoffs? :)

How is QualComp calculated? Is it counting as well?

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#22 Quicksilver ballet
November 16 2011, 10:54PM
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VK63 wrote:

Ive read your opinions on Dubnyk but I gotta ask.

Do you think the Oilers are getting any decent offers for Khabbi at the moment?

Nobody seems to be struggling for goaltending right now. If Khabibulin remains in that .930 range at the deadline there would be some interest i'm sure. If he keeps this up for most of the year the Oilers will need him most....being close or in the playoffs and all.

Work Khabby like a rented mule this season or ride him till he breaks down. He plays till he loses or whenever there are back to back games. Give him what he wants, he's only played 70 gms the last 2 seasons combined. To heck with waiting for Dubnyk to get his ship together. Everytime i see him starting in goal i say to myself, well, there goes another two points.

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#24 The Farmer
November 16 2011, 11:11PM
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One of the things I like best about oilersnation is the combination of stats and inside info you don't really get anywhere else. Keep up the good work boys I come here multiple times a day !

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#25 Wax Man Riley
November 17 2011, 12:55AM
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@The Farmer

Keep up the good work boys I come here multiple times a day !

Don't let me down here, ON.

DRUM ROLL PLEASE.................................

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#26 kgo
November 17 2011, 01:49AM
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@Jonathan Willis

HERE HERE!!!

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#27 kgo
November 17 2011, 01:49AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Thank you.

But I would never have started looking at hockey statistics (or blogs, for that matter) if I hadn't come across your work. I suspect a lot of fans can say the same thing.

HERE HERE!

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#28 Oilcan
November 17 2011, 02:37AM
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The Farmer wrote:

One of the things I like best about oilersnation is the combination of stats and inside info you don't really get anywhere else. Keep up the good work boys I come here multiple times a day !

Multiple times a day?? [looks around at the audience] Well hopefully not at work...am I right????? [Waits for laughtrack], I was wondering why you seem to have a few sticky letters [fist pump for the punchline]

HEYOOOO!

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#29 Oilcan
November 17 2011, 02:41AM
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But talking about the article, I don't have a problem with advanced stats if they are used but it is when they are used to argue against or for a player when if you watch you can clearly see a different game then the stats suggest (Not saying you do this Willis because I don't think you do). But for example advanced stats guy say Ryan Jones sucks and isn't a hockey player well 18 goals shows me he is, in my opinion a goal is a goal and they win hockey games.

And one reason I am against advanced stats is that they don't measure hockey IQ, or heart/emotion. And people can laugh all they want but hockey is played with emotion and it plays a huge role but there is no formula to go along with it.

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#30 Rob Gilgan
November 17 2011, 06:43AM
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It isn't so much that they're dumb. Statistics, when compared to players flying down the ice, firing crisp passes, going upstairs with a backhand…are just frickin' boring. Watch, and count if you must.

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#31 Clyde Frog
November 17 2011, 06:49AM
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@Jonathan Willis

Hey Willis,

Do you stats Guru's do any regression analysis for past seasons (Say take the first 30 games of the 2010 season or all 82 for the 2009) on the advanced and basic stats to see if any of it can accuretly model performance with any certainty say an alpha over 80%?

Or are you saying this is more of a way to qualify how you felt you saw someone perform?

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#32 Oilcruzer
November 17 2011, 06:56AM
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Plus minus would be real relevant if the player who was penalized received a minus five if they scored while he is in the box, and plus one (the rest goes to those on ice ) for a shorty.

Also...

The person drawing the penalty gets a plus five if their team scores.

Of Course... Plus five is too high, but there is a correct number. A moron taking bad penalties costs the team, and his actions are not accounted for under the current system.

Plus minus should be off the board when the goalie is pulled. It makes no sense to hammer Shaun Horcoff the last two years for his plus minus, when he was the only guy called on for offense in the last minute, when down a goal. (That was more the case two years ago.)

And, if it doesn't apply during PP, why then when there's a man advantage and no goalie?

iPad edit

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#33 The Farmer
November 17 2011, 07:38AM
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Whoops I'd like to say I meant to do that ;)

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#34 nofool6110
November 17 2011, 08:13AM
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~Insert Sam Gagner should be traded quote here~

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#38 Captain Obvious
November 17 2011, 09:12AM
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Willis is the most patient person alive.

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#39 Beavis
November 17 2011, 09:42AM
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Stats are just something Oilers bloggers made up to trick everyone into thinking Tom Gilbert isn't just a big softy whose manhood is obviously questionable. LOOK AT HIM NOT HIT ANYONE. HE IS A GIRL. JONES FOREVER!

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#40 @Oilanderp
November 17 2011, 10:42AM
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Ok I think I see your point Mr. Willis. I have just a few minor questions about the process however.

Do you generally use a staff or a wand when conjuring this mystical data, or do you prefer an open hand?

What effect does the colour of one's wizard robes have on the collection and analysis of these statistics? I myself tend toward a simple nondescript hooded black robe, but I have heard examples of those who even went so far as powder blue with large emblazoned gold stars.

Do you generally use Tolkien elvish runes to divulge the Hockey Gods secrets, or do you prefer the more mainstream ancient Sumerian scripts (before translating into modern math)?

When creating a protection circle before summoning any minor underworld quasi-deities (so as to acquire more advanced data), have you noticed any effect on said data as pertains to the choice of regular chalk and sea-salts versus sugared virgin blood and bat guano?

Any help in these matters is greatly appreciated.

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#41 Michael
November 17 2011, 11:01AM
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As the saying goes, 'There are three types of lies; lies, damned lies and statistic's'

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#42 Puritania
November 17 2011, 11:13AM
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The Farmer wrote:

One of the things I like best about oilersnation is the combination of stats and inside info you don't really get anywhere else. Keep up the good work boys I come here multiple times a day !

I'm so late to the party! but I'm still gonna go for it, don't judge me!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqNo5zQMgLc&feature=related

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#43 Dirk Dangler
November 17 2011, 11:29AM
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Captain Obvious wrote:

Willis is the most patient person alive.

I completely agree with this. It takes so much patience to repetitively defend your position for the sole benefit of others, especially admists all of the sarcastic comments that can be found here.

Willis thanks for taking the time to explain and simplify the concepts behind these stats. Also, I didn't realize there were shorthand methods for some, like QualComp.

I would agree about not being able to watch the game any other way once you start paying attention to line matching or other coaching strategies. It's like the Matrix, once you see it, there's no turning back. For those that haven't taken the blue pill, ignorance is bliss.

Fenwick is our Matrix, Willis our Morpheus and Nuge our Neo. Something like that.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCUhFZnxoBU

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#45 stevezie
November 17 2011, 11:58AM
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@Jonathan Willis

Exactly right, Clyde.

I won't bother looking up the youtube for that quote since apparently we have someone for that now.

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#46 Romulus' Apotheosis
November 17 2011, 12:09PM
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umm... Willis... I'm going to just go ahead and ask... Is there something objectionable about my question from the other day?

It seemed to me to be a perfectly reasonable novice question concerning the relation between two sets of statistical data that on their face appear at odds.

It was an attempt to suss out

1) the operational assumptions subtending the statistical data and their relations; and

2) the missing variable (from a novice perspective) that would account for what I acknowledged must be a superficial anomaly.

You gave me a coherent answer, that I repeated back to you, giving you the opportunity to correct my assumptions further. My recapitulation:

I get it... the reliability of the two stats operate on different scales of time and you expect the +/- to come down over time to meet the poor chances for/against.

Now, however my comment is not only a driving factor in this article but you appear to offer either a bastardized quote or paraphrase of my initial quote:

For instance - I might say "Cam Barker (or Theo Peckham, or Jeff Petry) leads the Oilers with a plus-3 rating; he's obviously their best defenseman!" and if you knew nothing about hockey, or hadn't seen the Oilers play, you might accept me at my word because of my use of a simple statistic. Of course, I'd be lying - by eye, or by comprehensive statistics, Barker's clearly been one of or the worst Oilers defenseman.

so, what's the deal?? What does it all mean? I never said anything like that, and I certainly hope you didn't get that impression. If it's just a coincidence that this entire thread is circling around my question so be it. But, if you are trying to imply something... I'd like to hear the substance of the implication and the argument behind it.

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#48 Oil Is My Blood
November 17 2011, 12:24PM
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Here's a smart stat.

100% of the 20 players on the Nov 17 game day Ottawa Senators roster will hear the chant of Go Oilers Go!! from the fans at Rexall Place.

unfortunately, I don't know how to Corsi or QualComp this :(

Go Oilers Go!

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#49 @Oilanderp
November 17 2011, 12:26PM
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Actual video footage of the application of advanced stats in progress! Rare! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDP9Zjevm5U

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#50 Derzie
November 17 2011, 12:43PM
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As anyone who studied stats in HS or University, stats are anything you want them to be. You can use them to prove any theory, whether merited or not. But that 'feature' of statistics is only exploited by those with ill intentions or empty heads. The stuff on this site is not in that category.

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