Last week, I dug up some old stats and posed this question to our Twitter followers and to a few people I know working in pro hockey.
Some interesting lessons were learned.
Marc Bergevin once said that it is difficult for fans to fully understand the decision-making process of NHL general managers and coaches because they don’t have access to all the information.
Most people I’ve talked to with at least a working knowledge of analytics were able to give very sensible suggestions on which three defense pairings to form given the available players, despite having no idea of who these players are and with only their 5vs5 With or Without You possession stats at their disposal.
— Sean Tierney (@SeanTierneyTSS) January 10, 2016
However, that is not to say that the armchair coach’s answers are complete. Having only Corsi data at your disposal forces you to focus on the essential, but might only get to halfway to creating a coherent whole.
Things as technical as special-teams performance, as practical as player health and as abstract as “comfort level” between linemates will impact the final decisions. Reconciling and prioritizing those different considerations to make better decisions than competitors (and fans) is an ongoing challenge for anyone working in analytics.
The Right Meatball
I’ve said it before, trying to put together the best lineup possible using data is a lot like cooking in a restaurant – you want to make the best-tasting, most consistent dish possible while maximizing your raw ingredients, so that you can make money at the end of the day.
If a meatball need beef, eggs, bread crumbs to come together properly, then Players X and Y are definitely the meat in this recipe. Not only does their on-ice performance (at even strength, PP and PK) pass the eye test, but the underlying numbers suggest that they can anchor a defense pairing and help just about any teammate perform better. These are your Erik Karlssons, P.K. Subbans or Duncan Keiths, and you’d be extremely lucky to have more than one on your roster.
The challenge, then, is to build around your star(s).
In a meatball, egg is the binding agent. And so you need to identify players who can hold down the fort and (hopefully) make some good things happen when your big guns aren’t on the ice.
These players may not have the obvious physical talents as the top guns, but valuable because they don’t need to be carried by a better player. Somewhere beyond Player A‘s plodding footwork and mediocre point shot is an underwhelming experience lies a superior mind for the game.
Then comes time for the bread crumbs, which provides some texture and stretches the mix far enough to feed the whole family. Players D and F are depth players for different reasons; put them together and every shift is an adventure. But have them ride shot gun with a play driver, and all of a sudden their flaws disappear.
— Domenic Galamini (@MimicoHero) January 9, 2016
After being let go by St. Louis, Barret Jackman signed with Nashville and is having a resurgent year playing with Seth Jones, before the latter was dealt to Columbus. Can he keep it going with another linemate?
Behind Closed Doors
Coaches don’t have time to stare at a WoWY chart and do mental arithmetics for hours on end – that’s my luxury. So I try to boil things down to the bare essentials.
When I do this kind of work for a coach, I don’t really present data, but rather express an informed option. “Play A more, play B less; don’t play C with D,” that sort of thing. Then I prod, and I listen. It’s a bit like a Socratic Questioning session. Disagreements arise because we don’t value the same things equally, so we air out our points of view and try to nudge each other toward a slightly different vantage.
And then the coach pulls out a pencil and writes some numbers down on a lineup card.
Ultimately, it’s still not about us. The game is played on the ice, and anything can happen.
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.