Hockey Analysis – The Unmeasurables

By JD Lagrange – Statistics will tell you if a player is a goals’ scorer, a play maker, an enforcer, a power play specialist, a faceoffs guru, an offensive or defensive player, amongst other things. With the newly found popularity of advanced stats in hockey, the methods of analyzing hockey games and its players are getting more and more complex, cumbersome and hyperbolic, and that’s not necessarily good for the game.

Hockey is a team game. You can have the best defensive player on the ice but if the other four players are lacking defensively, or if you have a horrible goalie in net, that player will have poor statistics. It doesn’t make him a defensively bad player but if someone relies on stats and supports their arguments with stats, they’ll argue hard as rock that he is.

There are many other major factors in the game of hockey that cannot be measured with statistics with some easier to understand or appreciate than others. In some cases, it helps to have the living experience behind you in order to appreciate the effectiveness of some of those factors. One can claim all they want knowing what it feels like to battle cancer but those who actually have or are battling that fight have a much better sense and idea of what it’s like.

Let’s explore some of the things that cannot be measured with statistics in hockey, and how it affects the game:

Intimidation

I have, in many occasions, locked into debates with people not believing in the effectiveness of an enforcer or having a team filled with players who can hit and drop the gloves at any time. Because one cannot prove something that’s not happening and because it cannot be measured by statistics, many people downplay this important aspect of the game. It does however have a huge impact on the way a team plays. This is a perfect example as a factor where having played in such situations gives a better understanding of its impact. Not all players but some of them get intimidated by physical play in the corners, some don’t like going in front of the net, getting hit, and they will get rid of the puck quicker than they normally would against teams that don’t hit has much. Some cheap shot artists are a lot more visible against smaller teams without enforcers or guys who will drop the gloves. How do you measure that? Not by stats, but by watching their demeanour on the ice.

For example, the reason why the Canadiens eliminated the Maple Leafs in the playoffs in 2021 is because of their intimating style of play. A relentless forecheck ending in hard bodychecks, and five defensemen who would hit everyone who would try to get into the Canadiens’ zone. The Leafs’ top players didn’t like physical contact and in a 7-games series, they were “tenderized” and not as effective.

Grit and character

How does one measure grit? I guess looking at the number of hits, fights or blocked shots, someone may attempt to qualify a player as being gritty. But it goes so much further than that! A player’s willingness to sacrifice his body in order to make a play, that’s being gritty. A player, in spite of a size disadvantage, goes into traffic and battles, or gives that player a solid body check, that’s gritty. Battling and digging the puck in the corner, bouncing back from a solid hit, determination, those are all part of the grit of a player, of his character. Some people were laughing at Canadiens’ former GM Marc Bergevin when he said that character was one of the primary qualities he looked for in a player. Yet, every team, every GM is now talking about players’ character. Why? Likely because it can’t be measured by stats. Yet, when talent is equal, grit and character is what differentiates winners and losers.

Pain tolerance

Shea Weber

Another underrated point that cannot be measured statistically is the ability of a player to play injured, and be effective. Some players have a very low pain tolerance and will not play (or play as hard) unless they feel at 100%. Others will have to be forced not to play by the coach or the organization. Shea Weber, Carey Price and Paul Byron played with so much pain in the 2021 playoffs that their career is likely over. The first two were the team’s best players, even injured. It may affect their statistics a bit while playing injured, and statistical analysts will see that stretch as them being in a slump. Teammates and coaches will see it as a someone having a high pain tolerance wanting to help his team regardless… and that why players all gathered around Weber after the team’s elimination in the Stanley Cup finals. They knew what he was going through.

Defensive responsibility

While there are plenty of defensive statistics, especially the attempt by advanced stats, none can paint the full picture to determine if a player is defensively responsible or not. In most case, educated fans don’t need statistics to determine that. There are plenty of examples of players who put up outstanding offensive stats but defensively, they are a liability for their team. Others will look at players making a diving effort and say that a player is good defensively, when in reality, he had to dive because he wasn’t in proper position to start with. How does one measure that with stats? It’s impossible.

When I coached Rep hockey, I knew which of my defensemen I liked to see when the opponent came on a two-on-one or a three-on-one, as I knew that they would make the right decision. I also knew which ones I cringed seeing in those situations. Yet, we seldom use stats in minor hockey in general. We saw Cole Caufield make some great back checks… after turning the puck over. Some wingers are much better than others at getting the puck out of their zone. Defensemen know it too and so do the coaches. It’s not measured with stats, but the success rate can certainly affect other stats for everyone on the ice, one way or the other.

Offensive responsibility

It’s easy to count goals, assists, points, shots on goal, shooting percentage, power play points, first or second assist, and so on. How do you put into statistic someone’s offensive flair? A player’s ability to find the open ice, to position himself into a good passing lane to make it easier for the puck carrier? “What a pass by Suzuki”, people will see. But they didn’t see how Caufield got open, finding a passing lane so Suzuki could feed him the puck without being intercepted.

How do you measure a players’ ability to position himself in order to draw a defenseman with him to give options to his teammates on the ice? How does one quantify the effectiveness of a player placing himself perfectly in front of the net to make the goaltender’s life difficult, preventing him from coming out to cut the angles or to see the puck? Those are key plays during a game and they often go unnoticed by most fans, especially those who have their nose into stats summaries. Yet, coaches, players and GMs notice the players doing the little things right.

Hockey IQ

It’s not like school here. You can’t just take a test and here’s your result. How does a player react to the play, how is his anticipation, both offensively and defensively? Does he pass the puck at the right time? Does he shoot when he should be? How is his vision on the ice, his ability to recognize plays when they develop, at both ends of the ice? How does he read the plays? Does he get the coaches’ systems and can he adjust depending on game situations? While Wayne Gretzky was not the best skater, while he didn’t possess the best shot, he could anticipate the play two or three passes before it happened. That’s an example of possibly the best hockey IQ to ever put on the skates. But how does that reflect (directly) into his stats, his records? Because it cannot be measured doesn’t make it less important when judging a player’s abilities or his effectiveness in a game. A player with a high hockey IQ can think the game at a level higher than most. It cannot be measured, except with a trained eye test.

Skating ability

Russ Courtnall

While we can see if a player is a fast skater or not, there are no stats qualifying skating attributes. I was talking to speedster Russ Courtnall a few years ago at the BC Hockey Hall of Fame and we chatted about a tip that the Roadrunner, Yvan Cournoyer, had given him back when he was playing with the Canadiens. Cournoyer told Courtnall to stop skating in zig-zags, that with his speed, if he went in straight line, no one could keep up with him while skating backwards. In a playoffs’ series against Boston soon after that discussion, Russ took Cournoyer’s advice and blew past none other than Raymond Bourque and scored a beautiful goal.

Skating ability is not only foot speed. How strong is a player on his skates? How hard is he to be knocked off the puck? How quick is his transition game, going from offense to defense or vice-versa? How is his body positioning, for shooting or pass reception? Can the said player be as effective skating with and without the puck? How are a defenseman’s pivots from the right side and the left side? There are no stats for those but does anyone think for a second that they are none factors during a hockey game and don’t affect statistics one way or another?

Chemistry

Ah chemistry. A school topic, a science none the less, one that emphasizes measurements, formulas and solutions. Yet in hockey, it’s an intangible. Go figure. Why is it that you can have three extremely talented players on a line and they don’t generate anything? Change one of them with a lesser skilled player and that line is on fire. It’s like they know, without knowing, where each other will be at any given time. Yet, it will have a direct effect on their stats either negatively or positively. You have two defensemen who will play extremely well together while others will be all over the place. It doesn’t make them bad or better, it’s that they do or don’t have chemistry with that other player. But scoring chances will be prevented or created, goals will be saved or generated because of it, and it will be reflected on their statistics… eventually.

Team player

How does one measure through stats his willingness or unwillingness to buy into a team concept? You have a player who is accepting to take a certain role on his team, who will do what the coaches are asking of him. A good example of that is Dale Weise who has said himself being happy in Montreal because he was given a role. With John Tortorella (twice), he wasn’t. It affected his utilization, his stats, in a negative way back then and while he was the same player, he was more effective with the Canadiens. While his statistics were different, he was always a good teammate, a good team player but how would that be measured? If it could, the “stats” would be the same in New York, Vancouver and in Montreal. Yet, only in Montreal have his offensive statistics been good… If a guy doesn’t stir any controversy in the dressing room no matter his role, if a player steps on his personal ego for the better of the team, if a player drops the gloves to defend a teammate, it makes for a better team and that again cannot be measured by stats. Just like the effect Arber Xhekaj has on his teammates when he’s in the line-up.

Leadership

Perhaps one of the most underrated qualities by statistical fanatics is the leadership of a player. Yet, it’s one of the most coveted qualities by GMs and coaches in a player. How many times have we seen people mocking Shea Weber’s leadership qualities? Granted, those who did had an ulterior motive to do so, mostly based on “the trade”. The leaders are the guys you don’t need to motivate as a coach. They’re the guys who lead by example, the guys who will step up in the dressing room to rally the troops. They’re they guys who, when things aren’t going well during a tough stretch, will stand up in the dressing room and help motivate, cheer and put a positive spin on the situation. They’re often players who have been there and done that, players whom the young players can respect and build their career at their image. You also have silent leaders who will preach by example by always giving their best effort, whether it’s in practice, training in the off-season, or in games. Bob Gainey was one. Weber was another. But when those guys stood up and talked, EVERYONE would listen. There are no statistics that can measure the leadership of a player but it’s a key component of a winning team.

Low maintenance

This is something that fans often forget because they have never coached at any level. But we are starting to hear more and more about those players who are considered low maintenance, in a positive way. Someone who is low maintenance to a coach is a player whom you can count on game in, game out, on every shift. It’s a guy who seldom gets injured, never complains. He simply goes out there and does his job. The coach knows what to expect and in general, the player delivers and meets expectations. Why is it important? As a coach, you don’t need to spend time motivating him, finding the right buttons to push to get him going. You know, when making your line-up, that he’ll be there. This gives coaches more time to address other issues or duties on their plate.

Adaptability

A player highly adaptable cannot be measured in stats, but it’s a huge asset on a team. A forward that can play all three positions, whatever the coaches need. Or a defenseman that can be just as efficient on the left or on the right. Growing up in the 70s, I saw Bob Gainey being utilized on defense by Scotty Bowman during a game, due to penalties or injuries. You simply cannot measure the usefulness of such players.

Conclusion

It’s not surprising that some bloggers and social media users would want to create such hype with analytics, in an attempt to make themselves relevant to the hockey world or to find their niche. But it is mind boggling to me that so much talk and emphasis is being generated with advanced stats these days, when so many unquantifiable key factors make little to no headlines amongst hockey fans. Less time needs to be dedicated to the “Corsi and Fenwick” of this world, and more to the nitty gritty of the game, the eye test… but not just any eye test. The trained eye test.

Advanced stats are such a small portion of hockey yet, some people use them to qualify players. It’s a small tool, which can and perhaps should be used a little bit, but not one that’s vital or essential. They are the one teaspoon of vanilla extract in a cake. We need to stop putting so much time and effort towards quantifying and need to put more focus and emphasis on qualifying when watching the game of hockey. We need to bring the balance back to the middle and take statistics, advanced or traditional, for what they are: a compliment to the game, one that does not tell the whole story.

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Analytics Department: Covering All Angles

By JD Lagrange – The Montreal Canadiens have announced the appointment of Christopher Boucher as Director of Hockey Analytics. Boucher previously worked at Sportlogiq and spent the last two years as a scout for the San Jose Sharks.

“We are very happy to add Christopher Boucher to our team,” said Hughes. “Christopher is an industry-proven hockey analytics specialist. We recognize the importance of analytics in today’s NHL and believe that Christopher is the right person to lead this department.”

Incomplete data

Personally, I’m old school and admittedly, not a huge fan of analytics, or any one particular stat for that matter. Not to be confused with someone against it as it’s not the case. I believe that every stat has its value but it will NEVER beat a good analytical mind with an experienced eye. If you have played the game competitively, you know that there are simply too many non-measurable components factoring in the game of hockey that simply cannot be put into numbers. In addition, NHL stats officials across the league are not all equal and don’t record stats the same way. How many times have we seen a team turning the puck over multiple times and at the end of the period, you look at the stats and they have counted only a couple of giveaways?

One example of what cannot be measured statistically is the effect of intimidation. That’s not just the obvious hits and/or fights. It consists of things that do not happen during a game because one team is intimidated. Why do you think that the New York Rangers went out and got Ryan Reaves? It’s because guys like Tom Wilson were acting like clowns at a circus when the Rangers faced the Washington Capitals. Look how obvious it was that Brady Tkachuk was avoiding Shea Weber. That’s not measured. Or the effect physicality and intimidation had on the Toronto Maple Leafs in their series against the Habs last year…

Stats also don’t account for momentum swing, although they’re trying to tell you it’s measured efficiently but it’s not. How players play with an injury, how they are affected by it. That’s not measured but the eye (or knowledge) test will tell you all about it. Chemistry between players cannot be measured. Oh offensive production with certain players is, but how players find themselves on the ice, how well their style complement each other cannot.

Just like using just stats to judge a goalie on a goal is wrong. Yes, he allowed it but was he screened? Did the puck deflect off a stick, a leg? The stats will show a goal allowed, affecting the GAA and Sv% stats. Same with plus/minus stats. If a goalie allows a weak goal or a defenseman gives the puck away in front of his net, everyone on the ice gets a minus. Yet, it’s only one player’s fault. And there are plenty more situations where stats don’t give the true picture.

Conclusion

There is room for analytics in hockey but unlike non-contact sports, it is far from crucial in the game of hockey. If I had to guess, I would say that it should not account for more than 20-25% of the decision-making. The rest should be on the eye test. Like tablets on the bench cannot replace the coaches. With that said, it’s a tool and one that won’t hurt if looked at. For that reason, we welcome Mr. Boucher and here’s to a positive contribution to the team we love.

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