The NHL is in the middle of a goalie pulling frenzy. While the year is still young, coaches of teams who are losing by a goal have been pulling their goalie roughly around the 1:40 mark of the 3rd period the last two years, about 40 seconds earlier than they were in previous years. This development, of course, is a long time coming – analysts have been arguing for years that teams should be more aggressive in removing their netminders.
It’s the Olympics again, which means it’s time for everyone’s favorite activity: watching Canada underperform at ice-hockey! And while Hilary Knight breaking the hearts of Canadians is fun for everybody, the only thing that’s more fun is watching Hilary Knight break the hearts of Canadians while you have a statistical model that predicts each team’s likelihood of winning a medal! That’s right, Hockey Graphs is taking on the challenge of predicting the Women’s Olympic Hockey Tournament results.
Last night Dave Hakstol and the Flyers were the first team to get burned by the NHL’s new offside challenge rule. With a one-goal lead over Nashville and just 2:41 left in the 3rd period, Philadelphia was dinged for not one but two minor penalties at the same time. And on the ensuing 5-on-3 power play, Scott Hartnell banged in a loose puck to tie the game up.
Philly, however, decided there was something not quite right about Hartnell’s goal. They thought that Filip Forsberg may have snuck into the offensive zone just slightly ahead of the puck on the zone entry that preceded the tying marker. The Flyers decided to challenge, hoping that video review would negate the Preds’ goal and put them back on top with just under two minutes to play.
When news first came out of the league’s proposal to change the rules, there was a lot of skepticism that it would act as much of a deterrent to frivolous challenges. While no coach wants to see their team go on the penalty kill after conceding a goal, the odds were still stacked pretty heavily in favour of challenging even in low probability scenarios. In a normal even-strength situation, your probability of success doesn’t need to be all that high in order to make a challenge worthwhile, in fact you’re safe challenging a lot of the time with less than a 25% certainty of success.
Offside challenges are, to say the least, a controversial topic. While many have advocated for the benefit of getting the call right even at the cost of a delay in the game, it’s almost indisputable that the introduction of the offside challenge has slowed down the flow of the game. Over the past two years, coaches have challenged any play that was remotely close with the hopes of getting lucky on the video review, to the dismay of basically anyone other than replay technicians.
Those spurious challenges are one reason why the NHL modified the rules around coach’s challenges yesterday. Starting next season, instead of a failed challenge simply resulting in the loss of a team’s timeout, clubs will now face a 2 minute penalty for losing an offside challenge. Upon hearing of this change many fans were apoplectic, complaining that this rule change could bury teams who were already reeling from giving up a goal against, and would severely limit the willingness of coaches to challenge even legitimate missed offside calls.
Fan reaction notwithstanding, however, the question coaches should be asking is whether they should be changing their approach in response to the new rules. The threat of killing off a penalty for a failed challenge may seem like a big deal, but it’s important to note that teams only score on roughly 20% of their power play opportunities. Fans will surely remember when a failed challenge leads to a power play goal against, but there will certainly be occasions when the potential gain from overturning your opponent’s goal outweighs the risk.
- There is some evidence to suggest that teams should play with 4 forwards when trailing late in a game.
- The timing of when to switch to 4 forwards is dependent on how large an impact the switch has on goal scoring rates, however even with a low impact on goal scoring, using 4 forwards still makes sense.
One of the weird things about sports that I find fascinating is how often coaches and players seem to go out of their way to avoid having a negative impact on the game, even at the expense of potential positive impacts. People often seem to prefer to “not lose” rather than to win, which can result in sub-optimal decision making, even in the presence of evidence to show that the correct decision is not being made.
There are many examples of this across sports, but the biggest two in hockey are pulling the goalie and playing with 3 forwards on the power play. Analysts have been arguing for many years now about why teams should pull their goalies earlier, but it’s only been in recent seasons that teams have become more aggressive in getting their netminders out earlier.
Note: This was originally intended to be a tweet-thread which grew far too long and unmanageable, so you’re getting a poorly-written post instead. Apologies in advance.
Recently, David Johnson, owner of the awesome puckalytics.com has been on a bit of a warpath (pun intended) against the use of WAR/GAR. Most of David’s arguments can be found here and here, but there are some other comments in this thread.
I consider myself a bit of a WAR skeptic. I think Dawson’s work is great, but I think there are limitations/issues with it. A good summary of some of my concerns can be found in another ill-advised and long tweet thread.
With that being said though, I still think it’s extremely useful as a first pass to start discussion. WAR can be broken down into 5 useful components to see where a players impact derives from.
Using 4 forwards on the power play is generally a good strategy. Four forward units take more shots, score more often on those shots, and post a better goal differential than 3 forward groups do.
It’s also a strategy that has become more popular over the last few years. 4 forward units have accounted for roughly 56% of the 5-on-4 ice-time this season, up 4% from last year and more than 15% from 5 years ago.
- We can measure a team’s power play structure using shot location data, creating a Power Play Structure Index that quantifies their ability to establish and shoot from a structured formation.
- A Team’s Power Play Structure Index is a stronger predictor of future goal scoring than past goals, but weaker than shot attempt generation.
- When examined together with shot attempt generation, power play structure is a significant predictor of future goals, although slightly less important than shot attempt generation.
- A team’s structure index can provide valuable additional insight into why certain power plays succeed or fail.
Edit 2017-02-15: An earlier version of this piece had a small error in the regression coefficient for PP Structure Index. While the article previously indicated the coefficient was -0.19, it should in fact be -0.30. The text both above and below has now been corrected.
The importance of structure in a team’s power play is something that’s really easy to see. We’ve all watched a power play executing at the top of its game: the puck flies from player to player, leaving defenders pivoting in place to try to keep up. Each shot looks exactly like it was diagramed by the coach, with attackers working to set up a specific shot from a specific player in a specific location.
A solid structure doesn’t just look good; it actually produces better results. Arik Parnass has written extensively on the importance of structure to power play success, showing that teams who get set up in a dangerous formation score more goals than those who don’t.
The usefulness of on-ice save percentage (and derivative metrics such as Sv% Rel and Sv% RelTM) has been the source of many, many heated debates in the analytics blogosphere. While many analysts point to the lack of year-over-year repeatability that these metrics tend to show (past performance doesn’t predict future performance very well) as evidence of their limitations, others (primarily David Johnson of HockeyAnalysis.com) have argued that there are structural factors that haven’t been accounted for in past analyses that artificially deflate the year-to-year correlations that we see.
David’s point is a fair one – a lot can change about how a player is used between two samples, it’s not unreasonable to think that those changes could impact the results a player records. But we don’t just have to speculate about the impact those factors have – we can test the impact, by building a model that includes measures of how these factors have changed and seeing how it changes our predictions.
Late last week, Arik Parnass pointed out a particular peculiarity about the Ottawa Senators’ penalty killing so far this year.
For those that missed segment today on 690, #Sens PK is super interesting. Last in preventing goals, first in scoring them. PK GF% is 9th.
— Arik Parnass (@ArikParnass) March 18, 2016
While the Sens may be an extreme example, their numbers tell the story of a constant struggle that teams are faced with when killing a penalty: do you focus solely on your own end and do whatever it takes to prevent a goal, or do you allow your forwards to take the play to your opponents, trying for a shorthanded goal and forcing them to defend in a situation where they may not be expecting it.
This risk-reward question is one that’s central to the value of hockey analytics. It’s very easy to make decisions based on personal experience which is so often dominated by memories of things that are out of the ordinary – a coach will likely remember watching his winger get caught deep trying for a shorthanded goal, while forgetting the 2-on-1 opportunity he generated earlier in the game. It’s just as easy, however, for a fan to complain that his favourite team won’t put out their best forwards to aim for a go-ahead shorthanded goal without any data to back up their argument. The challenge for analysts then is to dig through the available data to figure out what past experience has taught us about the overall net impact of playing for a goal on the penalty kill, so that we can make an informed judgement as to what the potential costs and benefits are.