Practical Concerns: “The Blind Side”, Intangibles and My Off-Season Plan At McGill

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(Photo credit: Derek Drummond)

At VANHAC, I was asked by a few people about how we use analytics in our program. Every season is different, and to gain a full appreciation of my intentions this summer, it’s worth digging into the central thesis of a football book.

What Really Drives Results?

“[Quarterback Joe Montana, wide receiver Jerry Rice and running back Roger Craig] are stars. They accumulated the important statistics: yards, touchdowns, receptions, completions. [Left tackle Steve] Wallace is not considered a producer. He has no statistics.” – The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (Michael Lewis, 2006)

While Michael Lewis’ Moneyball did much to improve the popular understanding of analytics in sports, I happen to think that The Blind Side can help bridge the gap between traditionalist and numbers-driven analysts just as much as Moneyball did.

If you peel away the diverse storylines in The Blind Side, this is the central question behind Lewis’ book: What does a good left tackle do for his quarter-back (and by extension, their team)? And how much is that worth?

Very valuable, as it turned out. Unless an NFL team wanted your multi-million dollar quarterback seriously maimed by an opposing pass-rusher, it had better hire a left tackle with the size, speed and sense to keep up. The problem is, if this player does his job well, nothing happens that can directly be attributed to him – he has no statistics.

But conceptually, his impact on the game is not all that hard to identify. A good left tackle provides a safe, productive (and dare I say, fun) work environment for his teammates. By paying attention to the process of football, you can probably come up with a few good ways to account for that.

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(credit: Derek Drummond)

Building A Bridge

When you arrive to this conclusion about football players, it becomes a lot easier to see why the idea of “being a good teammate” and “having intangibles” matters to people working in hockey. I’ve alluded to this elsewhere, but there are really two aspects to creating that good working environment for other people – one can’t be expressed in numbers conveniently, but I reckon the other already can be. Both matter a great deal to the end result, and to how people feel in the process to getting there.

I didn’t have time to really dig into this during my talk at VANHAC, but this is probably the most important realization I’ve had in two years working for the McGill Martlets hockey program.

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The Shift: Breaking Down The L.A. Kings’ Secrets To Success

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By virtue of their 5vs5 shot differential, the Los Angeles Kings are the best team in hockey. As of Saturday night, the Kings are rolling along at 56.1% Corsi – #1 in the NHL by a long shot. In fact, the 3% gap between the Kings and the No. 2 Anaheim Ducks is the same as the one between the Ducks and the No. 15 Philadelphia Flyers.

So why are the King so good?

The simple answer is that they have good players executing a sound game plan developed by a good coaching staff. But how exactly does this manifest itself?

On March 26th, the Kings were beating up on the Edmonton Oilers in the middle of the second period when, in the span of 45 seconds, they put together – in my mind – a perfect, representative shift of everything that makes them a superior hockey team.

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Practical Concerns: Meatballs & The Art Of Deployment

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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.

Information Underload

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.

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Practical Concerns: Analytics Resolutions For 2016

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Just a few hours into 2016, I had already received an email from a colleague in NCAA Division I hockey program, asking for my feedback on a specific area of analytics.  It goes to show that those who enjoy thinking the game never stop doing it, even on days when they should be giving themselves a little time off.

Since everyone is making New Years’ Resolutions, allow me to share the two things I will be working on this year:

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Practical Concerns: The Gift Of Goals

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Lighting the lamp is the hardest thing to do in all of hockey, and scoring is down yet again in the NHL.

But instead of talking about ways to make goalies worse, by reducing the size of their equipment or by limiting what they can do on the ice, let’s look at a few habits shooters can acquire to shift the odds in their favor.

While the statistics and research behind the information presented here come from the NHL and CIS levels, I’m confident that any player – from Peewee to Beer League – can put them to good use in 2016.

I’ve already written about scoring in the shootout, so here are four scientifically sound tips for scoring more in open play.

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Practical Concerns: Can Accuracy Be Coached?

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A few weeks ago, I was playing in a weekly beer league hockey game with some McGill University staff members. At one point, I came down the left wing with the puck, looked off a defender and whipped a wrist shot high, far side.

However, instead of the puck going bar-down as I had (ambitiously) hoped, it caromed off the glass and went all the way around the rink for an odd-man rush against. When I got back to the bench, someone said something to the effect of: “Stop missing high and wide. You’re just helping the other team break out of their zone.”

It was a light-hearted chirp – we weren’t playing for the Stanley Cup, after all. But it got me thinking about coaches who yell up and down the hall when their teams don’t “put the puck on net.” Is it really something that some teams do better than others?

A few days ago, our friend Micah Blake McCurdy did some work in an effort to answer that question. He took a look at the proportion of goals/shots on net/missed shots/blocked shots for each NHL in the past two seasons. Here is what he found: Continue reading

Practical Concerns: Ovechkin, Boyes And The Perfect Shootout Move

Why is Alex Ovechkin so bad in the shootout?

Why is Brad Boyes so good in the shootout?

Is there such as thing as the perfect shootout move? (the answer could be yes, so read on)

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A while ago, Steve Ness took the time to watch every single NHL shootout attempt between 2012 and 2015, and came to some interesting findings.

By Ness’ count, 32% of shootout attempts are converted, which is interesting if we look at the following two screencaps:

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Alex Ovechkin is one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of hockey. The Russian skates faster, shoots harder and has better stickhandling abilities than Boyes, so what gives?

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Practical Concerns: Garret Sparks, Emotions & My New Favorite Hockey Movie

Garret Sparks of the Toronto Maple Leafs made history in his NHL debut after being drafted in the 7th round and working his way up from the ECHL. By all accounts, he did it on merit by maintaining a .924sv% since turning pro, including playing for .940 in the past two years in the minors.

He’s earned his big break, but in a way he is lucky to be playing for an organization which values performance and statistical trends as much as the Leafs. I’m not sure his story would have unfolded quite this way had he been born a couple of years earlier, or had he belonged to team which only tries out a young goalie if he’s over 6’5″. But we’ll get back to that.

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Practical Concerns: A better way to evaluate defensemen

Credit: Michael Miller - Creative Commons

Credit: Michael Miller – Creative Commons

I was watching hockey a few nights when I heard NBC’s Pierre McGuire describe a rookie defenseman in glowing terms. It was the same kind of praise he used to shower upon Dion Phaneuf about 10 years ago, and this young player had very similar attributes to an early-20s Phaneuf: a huge frame, a huge slapshot, and a willingness to use both in equal measures.

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Practical Concerns: My analytics pot roast

Credit: Stuart West

Credit: Stuart West

Despite spending a lot of time at the rink watching hockey, most of my talents lie outside of the game. One of my favorite things in the world to do is to cook. And my favorite thing to make is pot roast – a big portion of the cheapest cut of meat from the butcher shop, cooked on low heat for seven hours in bottom-shelf red wine with some onions, carrots and a secret spice mix.

Making good food is a nifty ability to have on its own, but having more or less grown up in the kitchen, I can also appreciate how the process behind cooking has practical applications in sports. Ingredients, technique and (just as importantly) timing is everything when you’re cooking, and those three things matter just as much when you are trying to improve a hockey team.

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