The Use of Statistics in Ice Hockey

You know how sometimes you read something in a magazine or newspaper somewhere and it piques your interest? Of course, you never seem to be able to find it later when you are looking for it. I was sitting in the doctor’s office a few years ago reading a Sports Illustrated article about advanced statistics in MLS soccer. One of the stats was Touches Converted to Shots on Goal Percentage. In other words, the number of touches a player makes that resulted in a shot on goal divided by the number of touches in total. It turned out that David Beckham, who was playing for the LA Galaxy at the time, had a percentage twice as high as the next best in the league. I found this a fascinating statistic. And as an opposing coach, I might be pretty keen to keep the ball away from Beckham!

As a kid, I grew up playing every sport under the sun. From soccer to cricket, squash to downhill skiing – we seemed to always be playing something somewhere. But, my true passions were playing hockey and baseball. They complimented each other in that they rarely overlapped during the year. Only when I was in my 20’s, when university hockey started on Labour Day and senior baseball playoffs played through September, was there much conflict.

I am also a math guy and I loved the way baseball embraced the use of statistics so much. I would spend an inordinate amount of time pouring over baseball numbers. They fascinated me – even in that pre-computer era when we actually had to do the math ourselves to find Pete Rose’s batting average or Ron Guidry’s ERA. Today, we can crunch so many more numbers with the use of computers and generate statistics like P/PA (pitches per plate appearance), BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and WPA (win probability added) (and I have no idea what that means or how it’s generated).

Hockey has only recently availed itself to what we refer to as advanced or enhanced statistics. Traditionally we have tracked goals, assists and points, penalty minutes, shots and faceoffs. Now, the NHL is generating statistics such as Time On Ice per Game Played, Unblocked Shot Attempts Percentage While Ahead and Missed Shots that Hit the Post. As a coach, I am not sure what value there is in knowing that Alex Ovechkin led the league last season in Missed Shots that Hit the Post (14) but there are certainly some very important pieces of information that can come in handy as a coach.

 

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