I’d like to thank Luke Benz, my mentor via the Hockey Graphs Mentorship Program, for all of his help in developing this project.
Hockey, by nature, is a fast-paced sport that can be difficult to represent by discrete situations. While most other professional sports can be viewed as combinations of distinct in-game events – at-bats in baseball, plays and series in football, and even possessions in basketball – hockey is extremely fluid, with a constantly changing game state. This difference in game flow means that there are far fewer opportunities for a hockey coach to make any decisions based on distinct game states. While, for example, a football coach has several opportunities per game to decide whether or not to attempt a fourth-down conversion, a hockey coach has very few chances to make any comparable choice that can affect the outcome of the game. However, there are a few tools available to a hockey coach that can be researched so as to optimize their effectiveness in helping a team to win a game.
The most-researched of these decisions (thus far) for an NHL coach is when to pull the goalie in an endgame situation. There have been several papers published regarding the optimal time to pull the goalie, such as these two by Beaudoin and Swartz in 2010 and by Brown and Asness in 2018. (For even more great work on goalie pull times, you can check out Meghan Hall’s talk from the 2019 Seattle Hockey Analytics Conference and her Tableau dashboard, as well as the Goalie Pull Twitter Bot created by Rob Vollman and MoneyPuck.com.) All of this prior research has found that NHL teams should pull their goalies much sooner than conventional wisdom suggests, as teams are much more likely to score to tie the game if they pull their goalie earlier rather than later.
However, beyond pulling the goalie, there are still a few more tools at a coach’s disposal. Teams are allowed to challenge goals for certain rule infractions, use a 30-second timeout during a stoppage in play, or switch goalies if the starter is having a bad game, in addition to personnel decisions regarding line combinations or matching up players against the other team. This article focuses on timeout usage, but I plan to explore the other tools in future work.