Advanced analytics are the Blackhawks’ secret formula for success
BY MARK LAZERUS Staff Reporter May 1, 2014 5:30PM
Chicago Blackhawks' Andrew Shaw (65) celebrates after scoring a goal during the second period in Game 4 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series against the St. Louis Blues in Chicago, Wednesday, April 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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Updated: May 2, 2014 7:40PM
Don’t ask for details. You won’t get them.
You won’t get terminology. You won’t get methodologies. You won’t get the names of the stats, nor the names of the people compiling them. And you certainly won’t get the numbers themselves.
But Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and his numbers-crunchers are watching. They’re tallying every shot — on goal, blocked, or simply missed. They’re tracking where each one was shot, where it was aimed, how it was shot, against whom it was shot. They’re tracking who brought the puck into the offensive zone, and in what manner — was it chipped in? Rimmed around? Carried in? Passed in? They’re noting who tends to start their shifts in the defensive zone, and how often they tend to finish in the offensive zone. They’re keeping an eye on the quality of competition each player is facing, and how they fare.
Goals, assists, plus-minus? Sure, they’re useful. After all, you win games by scoring more goals than the other guys.
But the top-sheet stats only tell a small part of the story. In the age of the salary cap, where every signing and every trade and every call-up can make or break your roster, Bowman — like most of the NHL in recent years — is looking for the whole book.
It just so happens, it looks a lot like a math book.
“Stats are what they are,” Bowman said. “There’s no disputing who scored the goal, or who was on the ice for the goal. That’s fact. What you do with that is sort of the real value. And I think there’s an art to it. The analytics themselves are very objective. But then you have to do something with them and draw conclusions.”
In recent seasons, terms such as Corsi, Fenwick and PDO have crept into the hockey lexicon, even occasionally appearing on national TV broadcasts. Named after the people who popularized the stats, Corsi measures shot attempts (on goal, blocked or missed) against the other team’s. Fenwick takes out blocked shots. Typically boiled down to just even-strength play when the score is close (because power plays and mop-up duty skew the numbers) they’re used as a way to measure puck-possession — the idea being the more shots you attempt, the more you have the puck in the offensive zone. And while in small sample sizes, a hot goalie or a bit of bad puck luck can negate positive possession, eventually, the math will catch up.
Take Marian Hossa in Game 2 at St. Louis, for example. His top-sheet stat line was no goals, no assists, and a minus-1 rating. An off night? Hardly. Hossa might have been the best player on the ice. He attempted a whopping 12 shots, eight of them on goal. He made four takeaways without a giveaway. He and his line were dominating the puck all night. In that game, it didn’t translate to a win. But a player with numbers like that will inevitably produce over the course of a season.
Having all that information allows a GM or coach to have a little more patience with players who aren’t showing up on the scoresheet. Bryan Bickell had just 11 goals and four assists in the regular season, but his possession numbers were relatively strong. The math said the results would catch up with his game. They have, as Bickell’s been a major presence over the last six weeks or so.
That’s the bigger picture Bowman and many other GMs around the league want to see when they’re contemplating trades, or signings, or contract negotiations.
The Hawks don’t call it Corsi or Fenwick. They have their own terminology and methodology. Bowman hinted that the fundamental goal of the Hawks’ analytics is the same as the more commonly accepted ones, but he wouldn’t go into any more specifics.
“What we do is different,” Bowman said. “I think it’s better, but I guess it’s a matter of opinion. It’s also a competitive advantage. That stuff’s readily available, but what we have is more proprietary. Which is why I’m really trying not to talk about it. I think what we do gives us an advantage over other teams. They might say I’m wrong, but we’re pretty confident that what we have works.”
Bowman — then a 29-year-old with a famous last name and a business background — actually got his foot in the door with the Hawks in 2001 by bringing some statistical analysis to a franchise that hardly had any. He started simply, with coaches rating players on a 1-5 scale each game, charting the ratings over the course of 10-game spans. But Bowman quickly learned that the ratings were flawed — subject to a coach’s affection for a player, or to his lowered expectations of some players and raised expectations of others. So Bowman started blending the old-school analysis with the new-school analytics.
It’s a tricky thing. Trickier than baseball, which has fully embraced the sabermetric movement. While baseball is a game of individual performance, hockey is — to use the number-crunchers’ term — a more dynamic sport, subject to the whims of linemates and luck and red-hot goalies.
To the advanced stats crowd, the Colorado Avalanche are the exception that proves the rule. All season long, they defied the math by having an abnormally high shooting percentage and an abnormally high save percentage. The stat known as PDO adds these two numbers together, and the average is about 100. So if a team has a very high or very low PDO, it should eventually regress to the mean of 100 over the course of the season. Sure enough, the first-place Avalanche (with a 102.2 PDO in the regular season that offset a subpar Corsi percentage) lost in the first round to the fourth-place Minnesota Wild after getting outshot by an average of 33-25 each game.
Like a gambler on a hot streak at the blackjack table, the Avalanche defied the math for months. But in the long run, the math almost always wins.
Since the 2009-10 Stanley Cup season, the Hawks have been using the same general model, fine-tuning it a bit every season. It’s how the Hawks assess free agents, and evaluate trades, and dole out salary. Bowman can’t bring up his secret stats in an actual contract negotiation — “The other guy could be like, ‘what are you talking about?’,” he said — but it helps him decide a player’s value, which is essentially his entire job description.
The analytic movement is felt most in the front office, but coaches are using it, too. NBC reported that Blues coach Ken Hitchcock gets advanced stats sent to his phone during games. Players around the league, including the Hawks, have video and data sent to their iPads before they even get on the bus after the game, so they can analyze their own play on the flight home.
And while Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, like Bowman, is reluctant to tip his hand, Hitchcock raved about how Quenneville has changed with the times.
“He knows exactly which players do well in what zone, where they should start, where they should finish,” Hitchcock said. “He knows how to build his own lineup. He’s a guy that has really adapted. It’s not just adapting to the players, it’s adapting to the information that’s provided to you through analytics.”
But the numbers tend to stop in the coach’s room.
“I’ve never seen it once, and I’ve been on four teams,” said Hawks winger Kris Versteeg. “So I think it’s more for a lot of the media and maybe scouting, when they want to bring guys in and such. As for the game itself, I don’t think it’s used at all.”
No, the game itself is still about scoring goals and preventing goals. It’s about quick hands and lethal wrist shots. It’s about maintaining a good defensive gap and blocking shots. And it’s still about reading teammates and building chemistry and all those other intangibles that don’t show up in the spreadsheets on Bowman’s laptop.
But the numbers tell a story, too. You just have to know how to read them.
“You can get bogged down in stats and analytics,” Bowman said. “That’s the concern, it’s still a dynamic game, there’s still an awful lot happening. It’s a quick, reactive game. It’s different than some other sports that are a little more static. So there might be a limit to how much you can use analytics. They don’t replace anything for us. But they do complement and supplement.”
Just don’t ask Bowman to show you what he’s got.
“You can’t disagree with the numbers, you can only disagree with the conclusion,” Bowman said. “People can say we’re drawing the wrong conclusions, and that’s fine. But I don’t think we are. I’m not looking to get it adopted league-wide. I like what we have, and I believe in it.”