Tuesday February 10th, 2015

Off The Draw

For the last few years, the growing collection of advanced hockey statistics has been resisted by many in the NHL who saw those stats as the arcane obsession of numbers nerds looking for special insight where none existed.

So the upcoming revamp of the league’s online statistical database is a very big deal.

On Feb. 20, NHL.com will begin offering 35 modern metrics in its statistical package. Right next to goals, assists and plus-minus ratings, fans will be able to track Corsi and Fenwick numbers, which try to measure a player’s involvement in puck possession in terms of his team’s shot attempts. And the league will get even deeper into analytics by using data compiled by its own Real Time Scoring System, which will provide greater context to the events of each game.

It’s all part of a larger effort to present a broader statistical history of the league, one that will eventually include digitized box scores from every NHL game ever played.

That means a wealth of new information from the earliest days of the league is about to become as easily accessible as last night’s highlights. And that’s pretty cool.

Eye Test: How can Shea Weber's stats be this bad?

The new package will also allow fans to really dig into the numbers. For example, you’ll soon be able to filter assists by their designation as either primary or secondary, or determine whose passes have been converted into goals most often by which player. It’ll be a playground for the statistically inclined, and a fascinating time-kill for the merely curious.

It should also add fuel to the already heated debate over the value of hockey analytics, which are still in their infancy. While old-school fans feel that the game is too free-flowing for such detailed quantification, true believers insist that advanced metrics can complement our understanding of players and their performance in a way that standard stats never could. It’s likely that the truth lies somewhere between those two extremes, but there’s no denying that, by adding analytics to the mix, the NHL is granting them a legitimacy that the most passionate statistics bloggers have so far only dreamed of.

It’s interesting, though, that these numbers will finally be coming to the fore at the same time that improvements in technology are threatening to make some advanced statistics obsolete. The new tracking systems that were part of an experiment at last month’s NHL All-Star Game could eventually replace proxy metrics such as Corsi with data that measures actual possession time. For the moment, though, this technology will stay in the experimental phase. The NHLPA must sign off on its usage—no sure thing given the contentious relationship between the union and the league.

In the meantime, this is terrific news. While the demand for these numbers is still small, and while they may ultimately prove to be too unwieldy for the average fan, the NHL is making the effort to paint a broader picture of its game. And that’s a win for everyone.

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