Smart sports statistics

Why Canadian NHL teams should take a page from the Canucks’ books

Homer Simpson’s hypothesis that “people can come up with statistics to prove anything” may be more relevant in sports than any other discipline.

Billy Beane, general manager (GM) of the Oakland A’s, demonstrated how misused and, at times, ignored statistics were in Major League Baseball. He revolutionized the game by using new forms of statistics to evaluate players when he became the GM in 1998.

While teams with larger budgets could rely on their money to recruit players, the Oakland A’s had to build a team that could compete with the rest of the league by using Beane’s techniques. This strategy of gaining advantage through statistical evaluation has come to be known as moneyball.

However, not many sports have begun to use these new statistical methods. For example, in hockey, only a few pioneers in the NHL have implemented these ideas.

According to sports statistician and St. Lawrence University professor, Michael Shuckers, “there are at least a handful of teams in the NHL that have folks on staff using moneyball-type ideas, although it is certainly not widespread”.

“The Canucks are the team using these new statistics most extensively,” he continued.  If that is the case, then the Vancouver Canucks GM since 2008-2009, Mike Gillis, may be the closest thing hockey has to a Billy Beane figure.

Shuckers recently garnered significant media attention for his proposal of a new statistic to analyze the performances of goalies, called the Defensive Independent Goalie Rating (DIGR). The idea behind the DIGR is to replace the commonly used save percentage stat, which only calculates the percentage of shots saved by a goalie. The DIGR, rather, takes into account the difficulty of each shot that a goalie faces, providing a more comprehensive analysis. Save percentage is just one of many examples of a statistic that does not accurately reflect a player’s merit but, nevertheless, is often relied upon by managers.

Another suspect statistic is the plus-minus statistic, which calculates the cumulative number of goals scored and allowed in while a player is on the ice. It is often used to evaluate defensemen, since, for the most part, they accumulate less points than their offensive counterparts. The argument that Shuckers and others have against using the plus-minus system is that it does not account for the strength of a team’s goalie or fluke goals, which may unfairly inflate or hurt a player’s “plus-minus” score.

The most popular alternative to the plus-minus is called the Corsi. The Corsi looks not only at goals scored and conceded, but also at shots attempted. It takes into account shots on target, shots missed, and blocked shots. However, the Corsi is still not officially acknowledged or calculated by the NHL, despite pressure from many people within the game.

Both the DIGR and the Corsi are examples of alternative statistics that are not used by official NHL statisticians. This gives the league’s managers an opportunity to use these stats in exciting new ways, which potentially giving them a step up on other organizations who are clinging to the past.

Shuckers says that, for a team to successfully employ efficient statistical analysis beyond what is given to the general public via the NHL official statistics, “there needs to a be a buy-in from the GM’s office.” Gillis has certainly bought into the system, and seems to be employing either these or other effective forms of statistics to build a winning team.

One of the first changes Gillis made was in the scouting department. He adopted a new form of statistical analysis to help his staff find players who normally would not play in the NHL. The acquisition of defensemen Christopher Tanev is a perfect example of this. While NHL scouts usually ignore players in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), Vancouver found Tanev when he was playing for the Rochester Institute of Technology, an NCAA school.

Under Mike Gillis, the Canucks made the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1994. Based on Vancouver’s success with statistics, it may only be a matter of time before the rest of the NHL, and particularly the other six Canadian teams in the NHL, which have all been going through rough periods, catches on.

The Montreal Canadiens have not won a Stanley Cup Final since 1993, the Calgary Flames since 1989, and the Toronto Maple Leafs since 1967. The Edmonton Oilers are coming off a last place finish in the NHL, while the Ottawa Senators seem destined be among the league’s worst teams this season. Then, of course, there are the Winnipeg Jets, who are entering their first year back in the NHL and, therefore, have a nearly clean slate to work with, having changed much of the team they inherited from the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers.

The first team to truly follow in the footsteps of Gillis and Vancouver may turn around their fortunes with the use of the Corsi, the DIGR, or a new statistic that is out there waiting to replace what is, currently, a flawed model for analyzing the sport.