The Thing About Advanced Stats

It’s not as though I was a reluctant convert to advanced statistics.

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Heck, I’ve tried to come up with one or two of my own.

But I can’t help but notice how antithetical advanced statistics are to traditional hockey player ideologies.

When thinking about hockey, I actually completely separate the logic I use to analyze the game from that which would govern my actions on the ice or as a part of a team. Perhaps it’s unusual – even simplistic – to perceive things as such a neat-and-tidy binary, but I can’t see any way of synthesizing these two paradigms. There is no String Theory solution to reconcile all this.

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For example, as a player, I learned a particular set of values. The team comes first, with no exceptions. You have the proverbial back of all your teammates in any situation. You will win as a team and lose as a team, and any kind attempt to single out a teammate (especially goaltenders) would result in a shouting-down and maybe a benching.

Advanced hockey statistics, on the other hand, generally try to finely splice and quantify a player’s value as independently from other teammates’ or opponents’ numbers as possible. Even the calculation of Quality of Teammates and Quality of Competition suggests, somewhat ironically, that players should be judged next to their teammates – a rather odd (read: awkward) thing to make explicit if you’re actually on someone’s team. This flies in the face of the ‘team first’ mentality that is driven into players from the first time they put on skates.

Another great example is the statistical term ‘luck’. It’s difficult for traditional hockey-types to get their head around, and it’s no wonder. The word ‘luck’ implies a measure of undeserving, which, to hockey players that have probably spent their Gladwellian 10,000 hours practicing, is tough to accept under specific circumstances. Sure, most NHLers would readily admit to being lucky to be in the league, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell Nikolai Kulemin he’d been "lucky" to put up 30 goals in 2010-11. You can see why this would lead to awkwardness; he’s worked incredibly hard all his life for all this luck.

Other qualities that we often ignore as being ‘intangible’ are also a tremendous part of being a team. My favorite times in hockey were all when I felt accepted and a part of a group. Telling me that my good friend and linemate is a coattail-riding bum because of his Corsi stats would probably end with traditional fisticuff dance.

Finally, while listening to player interviews can be tiresome – the platitudes about effort, ‘sticking to the plan’, or doing what it takes to win (even while sitting on the bench) – seem like easy answers to dismiss the interviewer. But if you’ve watched either of HBO’s 24/7 series, you’d understand that NHL players don’t just say those things. Whether or not they believe them, they live them, and abide by them as a strict moral code. At least, the good ones do. "Heart", "leadership", and even the grammatically inferior "compete level" are all-important elements of playing the game, but not of analyzing it.

Being a passionate fan as well as player often makes for conflicting emotions while watching a game.

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I love to see cheap-shotting crumbums their comeuppance in a fight, but the more analytical side of me recognizes the uselessness (and physical toll) of a duel.

I love hoping against hope that late-round draft picks will blossom into top-tier NHLers, yet recognize the statistically slim chance of it ever happening.

I love hoping my team will win a Cup someday even though they’re the Toronto Maple Leafs. I’ll defend them to the death, with and without advanced statistics. 

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  • Danny Gray

    I think hockey players are more aware of luck than we give them credit for. It’s not uncommong to hear something like “We worked hard out there tonight and we’re happy with our game plan but we just didn’t get the bounces.” Or a coach might say “I’m not really worried about Player X’s drought; as long as he keeps getting the puck into the scoring areas the goals will come.” Those are both quotes recognising the sometimes significant role that luck can play in hockey, especially over a small number of games.

    I remember an interview with Joffrey Lupul early in the Leafs season when he and Kessel were each on pace for about 120 points or so, and Lupul said something like, “We know that we’re getting some bounces right now and the pucks aren’t going to go in like this all season, so we’re just going to enjoy it while it lasts.” He knew that they were getting lucky, even if “luck” wasn’t the term he wanted to use.

  • Danny Gray

    Rather than thinking of luck as implying ‘undeserving’ I prefer to think of it as ‘variance from the deserved’.

    While you’re right to say that nobody would want to tell Kulemin he was lucky to score 30, I think you’d be equally remiss if you told him he ‘deserved’to score 7 this year.

    I think players understand that luck plays when it comes to hockey — these are just the ebbs and flows of the game.

    All that said, there’s something important in here about the way we analyse the game relative to the actual objectives of players on the ice. This piece provides a good starting point for a conversation that we, as individuals who seek to analyse hockey, should probably flesh out.

  • @CurtS

    I understand very thoroughly the difference between statistical ‘luck’ and the vernacular use of the term.

    What I should perhaps have made clearer is that it may be difficult to reconcile your own hockey-playing experience with weighted statistical noise. The narratives going through your mind as you play aren’t necessarily represented in the numbers.

  • @draglikepull

    You may be right in that I may be painting the players with too broad a stroke. Certainly, those that you’ve listed are commong tropes in interviews. That said, the term ‘luck’ is a common stumbling block to those who are new to advanced stats and can create something of a barrier if not carefully explained.