How certain do you need to be on an offside challenge?

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.

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Should teams play with 4 forwards when they’re down late?

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  • 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.

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Does aggressive play on the penalty kill pay off?

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Late last week, Arik Parnass pointed out a particular peculiarity about the Ottawa Senators’ penalty killing so far this year.

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.

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