Practical Concerns: Analytics as technology

As I alluded to in my previous post, the choice of words is very important when selling ideas to a coaching staff. Semantics lets us see the same idea from different angles, and can be a very powerful way to alter our understanding of a subject matter.

Recently, I’ve began to refer to hockey analytics tools (possession metrics, Player Usage Charts, HERO Charts, dCorsi, etc.) as technology, which has allowed me to relate better with those less well-versed on the matter and have all sorts of interesting discussions with people who otherwise wouldn’t give advanced stats the time of day.

As much progress as the quantitative analysis of hockey has made in recent years, its depth and breadth still lags behind what’s being done in many other sports; baseball and soccer, for instance. But the most revealing example is Formula One, where team have been heavily investing in telemetry (detailed data recording of things such as lap sector times, aerodynamic drag, fuel consumption, tire pressure, suspension travel and driver inputs) since the early 90s.

When you think of analytics (or advanced stats, or telemetry) as technology, rather than an attitude, a school of thought or a cult, it opens things up, so to speak. New technology breaks all the time. You don’t go “all-in” on a new operating system, cell phone or hybrid car until you know it can work for you. But nothing stops you from taking a test drive, either.

The tools that we use to quantify hockey all have different inherent biases and blind spots. As long as you are conscious of that fact, then you can start exploring these tools at your own pace, no matter how old school you are. As far as I know, there aren’t many Amish or Luddites in NHL front offices, so nothing is out of reach. It’s really not such a big deal for the Blackberry crowd.

Along the same lines, I remember when one-piece composite hockey sticks were first popularized back in the early 2000s. They had been niche products for a while. In the mid-80s, Mike Bossy’s red Titan Turbo was maybe the Nielsen Numbers of one-piece sticks (which is to say that it was not that good compared to its modern equivalents). In the 1990s, Busch made some inroads with their Laser series of graphite sticks. Easton applied their R&D power and marketing budget to create the Synergy, and by 2004 wood sticks were on their way out both in the NHL and in minor hockey.

Brett Hull was a player who I admired a great deal growing up because of how smart he was. Hull ended up a Hall-of-Famer because of his ability to maximize his strengths (ripping one-timers from the left side of the ice and moving the puck in the offensive zone) and minimize his weaknesses (pretty much everything else). And you can readily see how thoughtful and adaptable he was by looking at his sticks over the years.

In college, he switched to an aluminum shaft/wood blade combo for purely practical reasons (he was breaking too many wood sticks), and remained at the forefront of technology thereafter. In the next two decades, he went from a traditional heel curve to a toe curve, switched to an Easton graphite shaft (80 flex, which was considered incredibly whippy in the 90s) to get a quicker release, and embraced the stiffer, more consistent full-graphite blade that most of his contemporaries avoided because of its perceived lack of feel.

By the end of his career, Hull was playing with a 62 flex tapered graphite shaft, flipped upside down with a blade that looked like a spoon. It was a tool perfectly engineered for him to accept a hard Pavel Datsyuk cross-slot feed and one-time it under the crossbar from 20 feet out. He was way ahead of his time. If you look at some of the best snipers in the NHL today, a lot of them use a similar setup (short stick, low flex, toe curve with a rockered blade) that Hull pioneered. The pull wrist shot, one of the most important tools in a sniper’s bag of tricks, depends on it.

But not everyone took to new technology as well as Hull did. I distinctly remember a spade of stick breakages during the 2003-04 playoffs. It seemed like every other shift, St-Louis, Iginla, Alfredsson or Richards would have their sticks snap in half on a one-timer or after a harmless-looking slash. The most out-spoken NHL execs (Brian Burke being one of them, if I recall correctly) were demanding that the space-aged sticks be banned because they were new and “made a travesty of the game.”

The controversy eventually died down, and as it turned out, the rash of premature shaft failures were caused by unproven technology. In a quest to go from 450g to 440g without losing in “kick” and responsiveness, the manufacturers were skimping on the Kevlar “sleeve” which surrounded the graphite innards of the shaft, thereby making the sticks lighter but more brittle.

Later on, the technology did catch up with the players’ demands and the brands’ ambitions. Now, you can walk into a shop and easily find a stick which tips the scale at 410g or less and plays much sturdier than anything I had back in high school. For the longest time, the conventional wisdom is that wood sticks were cheaper, more durable and had better feel than composite sticks, but now you’d have to be crazy to play with an old-school wood stick, because there really isn’t anything they do better. Crosby, Spezza and Selanne, the last major wood stick holdouts, all switched in recent years with good results. For what it’s worth, I thought Brendan Shanahan stuck with an aluminum stick for way too long, but he seems to have gotten more open to change since leaving the game as a player.

So, broadly speaking, it’s all good news. Not only does technology get better, but the users will also adjust their behavior to make the best use of what is available to them. Coming back to analytics for a moment, any NHL team can make some pretty good decisions just by looking at public databases such as War On Ice or General Fanager, but the successful ones inevitably act on that information in a more effective manner. The numbers will tell you a few things, but they won’t necessarily tell you what you should “buy” (whether it’s possession, per60 scoring or any other attribute) or what you should care about – that’s for you to figure out over time. The more open you are to new technology and the more thoughtful you are about their applications, the better the new tools will work for you.

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Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.

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