Fanalytics:  How analytics has changed the game for hockey fans.

There has been a lot of discussion on analytics and how advanced stats have changed the way teams are built, managed, and coached. We’ve seen the supporters argue the detractors, but not much has been made of the fan who is just a fan. The guy or gal who loves their team, and just wants to see them succeed.

I have to admit; considering my relatively young age; my affinity for sports stats; my desire to always learn more about the sports I love; it took me a while to come around on advanced stats.

The consumption and understanding of the numbers wasn’t the issue. I’ll never be mistaken for Will Hunting, but I do enjoy delving into numbers when it comes to my favorite sports teams. Simply put, looking up stats has always been a hobby of mine. Like a lot of people from my generation, I was the prime age for the hockey card revolution that swept the early 90s. While I collected a variety of cards, I also read them all. I would sit there for hours, reading the little blurb on the back of each card and checking out the stats; comparing players to each other. Eventually I ended buying books (yes before the internet we had these things called books) so that I could compare stats and see how my favorite players stacked up historically. 

 Yet, despite my affinity for numbers, I didn’t pay much attention to advanced stats when they first started creeping up in the mainstream a few years ago. 

I admit, my biggest issue with advanced stats is, I didn’t understand them in relation to a team sport like hockey. Like most sport fans, my first introduction to “analytics” and the use of “new” stats was through the book Moneyball (and the movie based on the book, which is based on the Oakland A’s). Baseball was the first sport to really push the advantage that advanced stats provided.  However, right or wrong; I always felt as though baseball was a game within a game; a one on one sport within the confines of a team sport. When it came to team sport like hockey, I couldn’t see, or maybe didn’t want to see, how it could help me understand a game that was reliant on so many different factors, working concurrently, for team success. 

Hockey fans take their cues from the hockey players they cheer for. They are fierce, passionate, and will defend their teams to the the point irrationally. Like the players they adore, they are tough and stubborn. The introduction of analytics into a sport that reveres toughness above all; that celebrates violence and includes fighting and bone crushing hits, was like receiving one of those jarring open ice hits from Scott Stevens.

 It seemed like blasphemy to say that size was not as valuable as speed, after all haven’t we heard in Montreal how our team is too small, too soft? It seemed strange that we should value a player who can control the puck along the board, and not the one who can put people through the boards. As a fan of the physical side of hockey I scoffed at the notion that Corsi, Fenwick, and whatever other oddly named stat could tell me more than what my eyes, mind, and heart could see. Hockey is an emotional game, and like any other sport,  there are intangibles at play that cannot be measured by numbers. 

 My first reality check came during the Habs playoff run of 2009-2010, aka: that time in our lives were we promised some deity that we’d name our first born Halak. While I was swept up in that playoff run like so many other Montrealers, it was clear we were winning due to incredible performance in nets. Were we opportunistic? Yes. Was our special teams play excellent? Well our penalty kill was, but the bottom line is Halak was able to steal two series for us. So before I even knew what PDO was (feel free to click this link to get an understanding of it yourself) I could see that we were going to be screwed if Halak regressed even a little bit. I don’t have the numbers but I suspect the PDO was through the roof through the first two series…I maybe way off, but the Habs run of 2009-2010 may be the best case study ever for the value of PDO. Sadly Halak did regress (he had a .939 and .927 SV% in the first two series, and that dropped .884 against Philly) in the conference final and the Habs were ousted by the Flyers in 5 games. 

 Two seasons after that exciting run, the Habs had their worst season year in recent memory. Ironically the Habs even strength play was better than that 2009-2010 season, but we couldn’t win games. Strange how that works? How can you explain that? That’s when advanced stats started making sense to me… 

 I felt it was prudent to go through some revisionist history because at the time, there was no major discussion about analytics at homes, in the bars, and even among die-hard fans. Recently the NHL debuted a whole section of their website which the called enhanced stats, that is quite the progress. However, as someone who considers himself a fan who can wear many hats, I could understand some of the resistance to how important these stats are.  When having a discussion among friends about the Habs, I’m the only one who brings up advanced stats. Some of my friends are intrigued, but most are dismissive. Do I blame them? Not really. Not everyone cares about the numbers, some fans just want to know the results, some fans just want to cheer their team on and see them win, regardless of how they do it. It’s not my place how to tell anyone what type of fan they should be. I would prefer to be more informed, but that’s my personal choice. Ultimately that may be the biggest issue I have with how advanced stats are pushed, your team maybe outperforming their analytics, but can you enjoy it if you live and die by their Corsi numbers? It takes the fun out of it a little…doesn’t it? 

 On the flip side, I recently I came across this stat: “five of the last seven Stanley Cup Champions have been top 5 Fenwick % teams during the regular season. What’s more, of the 14 teams that reached the Final since 2007-08, 10 teams finished in the top 10 in Fenwick %.”  I shared this info recently with friends, and was dismissed quickly, not because it didn’t make sense, but because they didn’t want to understand it. The context of the conversation was my concern that the Habs weren’t as good as their record, and my nugget of information ruined the enjoyment that they derived as fans that their team was in first. I suppose, if I had said that “10 of the last 14 Stanley Cup finalists had been top 10 in driving shots towards the net if you discount blocked shots.” I may have been met with a more receptive audience. This is where my issue with both the stats crowd and the non-stats crowd comes into play. Both sides are stubborn; both sides refuse to accept the shortcomings of their point of view. 

Up until now, advanced stats have NOT been explained very well to the everyday fan. It is only in the last year that it has been adopted by mainstream media. TSN and Sportsnet began using he terms; agents began using it to negotiate contracts for their players. The group of people who first pushed this new phase of hockey analysis were defensive of their stance, and in their defense, it was because they were met with narrow minded and old school views. Furthermore there is often a complete lack of acknowledgment of the human element that comes into play. The intangibles. Last I checked, hockey was played by human beings and not robots. While the numbers have proven a puck moving defenseman is more valuable than a plodding, big, hard hitting defenseman. What if that hard hitting defenseman is a leader in the locker room? What if that player helps elevate the games of the other player on his team through his ability to motivate and lead; to be a stabilizing force in the dressing room? How do you quantify that? The obvious answer is to say “There guys are adults and they’re professionals, the better players need to play.” But that’s just as narrow minded as the hard headed fan who tells the stats guy to go take a hike without considering the value in their information. Hockey teams are a family, and the best teams aren’t the ones who are most skilled, but teams with skill who play together, for each other.  Maybe that’s a romantic view on sports, but I suspect anyone who played pro sports at an elite level, would back up that statement. Ultimately I think teams need to find that balance between skill and emotion; between the numbers and camaraderie.

While it’s one thing for casual fans to be dismissive of advanced stats. It boggles my mind that the media which is paid to cover team would also be as dismissive. While many media sites have accepted the analytics community and teams themselves have shelled out money to hire whole hockey analytic websites to be their advanced analysis departments, certain media members are still refusing to accept that advanced stats have provided an added layer of seeing the game. I suspect that many of them have less issue with the numbers and more with the people pushing the numbers. However I’ve seen various members of the media look silly when completely dismissing the value of the analytics community. I suppose that makes sense, since many of them were raised on the old school, rock’em sock’em model which is all but obsolete. When you turn your back on such firm stats such as “five of the last seven Stanley Cup Champions have been top 5 Fenwick % teams during the regular season” you’re not just turning your back at the advanced stats crowd, your losing credibility with new fans, and casual fans who are curious about what’s going on. 

 The Habs this year have been a lightening rod for this head to head confrontation, due to the simple fact that they don’t seem to be playing well enough considering their place in the standings. However their goaltender is having a Hart contending type season, and while you don’t need advanced stats to see that he’s been saving their bacon all year. There is argument to say that he is part of the team and thus you can’t take away anything from the Habs standing.

At the end of the day, why am I writing all this? I’m worried about the Habs, and I’m also sick and tired of the “fight” between the old timers and the number crunchers. While this site will never become a stats driven site, I will always strive to include some layer of enhanced stats to help explain my point of view. At the end of the day, there are much better blogs/sites out there that break down numbers and make them digestible. For the Habs fans, who are content, and happy with the standings, I encourage you to read this article on Habs EOTP, by Andrew Berkshire. It’s a depressing look at the state of the Habs, and the best argument for why Carey Price should win the Vezina, the Pearson, the Grammy, the Espy, the Oscar, the Slammy, and the Hart award this year. Habs need to find more offense. Price will regress from his current hockey God level, to a mere super human like level, and without the added offense, the Habs will be hard pressed to go anywhere this year. This isn’t about being negative, or slamming the coaches (although I sure wish they would try something different…something new) – it just needs to happen. So whether it’s shuffling the lineup or fixing the powerplay – we need more goals. 

 As a fan, whether it’s through numbers or the almighty power of the “forum ghosts”, I hold out the hope that the coaches will figure it out, that our stars will be our stars, and that the Habs can make a run. 

 Go Habs Go.


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