SAN JOSE – The growing trend of using hockey analytics to gain an edge on the competition reached a pinnacle this offseason, when several NHL teams added some high-profile bloggers and statisticians to their respective front offices.
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson has said several times that his team has been using analytics for years, without getting into too much detail. No one wants to give away trade secrets, of course.
Head coach Todd McLellan, though, has been much more open about his view of the movement. During a postgame press conference last Saturday, he gave one reporter a good-natured ribbing for citing Matt Nieto’s Corsi rating. Nieto scored just his second goal of the season in that win against Anaheim, an empty-netter, despite being the Sharks’ highest-rated Corsi player – or, the player that is on the ice for more shot attempts compared to shot attempts against.
On Monday, McLellan expanded on his overall view of analytics, beginning with a popular stat these days – carrying the puck into the offensive zone rather than dumping it in.
The head coach used an example of a player passing to a teammate from just outside the blue line on a two-on-one rush, as opposed to skating a few more inches into the zone.
“Four inches, same intent. Terrible way of evaluating the game,” he said. “Analytics is right in so many ways, but wrong in so many ways, because there’s no definition to it. You have to understand the game and you have to participate in it, because some of the non-possession entries are set up that way to gain possession.”
He then got into zone starts, another popular so-called advanced stat.
“Your zone starts are going to vary based on score. They’re going to vary based on fatigue. They are going to be varied based on left or right-handed faceoff guys. They’re going to be varied on the line match and who the opponent is. So, your zone starts aren’t just about an offensive player in the offensive zone and a defensive player in the defensive zone.”
He then mentioned that a team’s best players are likely to be on the ice in the defensive zone late in a close game.
“The zone starts don’t take into consideration all of the other factors.”
“Fatigue – every power play starts in the offensive zone. Every penalty kill starts in the defensive zone. Some players play all the time on the power play, some players never play on the penalty kill. So, their zone starts are going to be skewed immensely. If you play on one unit and you don’t play on the other, it’s going to be skewed immensely.
“We play our big guys on the penalty kill, especially faceoffs. [Joe Thornton] takes a faceoff and he leaves. So, when you go to zone starts for Jumbo, you’ll see that it’s often balanced.”
McLellan also expressed that there’s no way to measure how hard a player is working on the ice.
“You might say out of 10, the Sharks were a seven the other night. I might say three. Who’s wrong? You can’t define it. That’s the problem with analytics right now is that the definition is hard to put into perspective.”
The biggest tool that the Sharks coaching staff uses is analyzing scoring chances and how often a player is involved in them, both for and against. They watch every minute of every game, over and over, looking for trends that might be occurring and can be corrected or repeated.
“We look at chances and involvement of chances. Who’s involved? Sometimes we don’t have a choice, but who are we on the ice against? We look at the type of chance that an individual is giving up.”
For McLellan, the best tool for analyzing his team is his view from the bench.
“[Long time NHL executive] Brian Burke said it best. It’s still an eyeball game. You have to watch the game.”