By Stu Hackel
By its nature, hockey is not a game that is easily reducible to numbers. An entire industry has sprung up around baseball statistics, but stats can occasionally take some of the fun out of any game by reducing it to a dry abstraction. Stats not only have their downside on the entertainment front, they can mislead about a player's real value.
For example, defensive defensemen and checking forwards often don't get the credit they deserve because they don't post gaudy point totals, and some people still find plus-minus to be more of a team stat than a reflection of an individual player's abilities. And sometimes numbers lie.
For example, Sam Gagner's big eight-point night for the Oilers should probably have been a seven-point game, as Ken Campbell wrote on The Hockey News website. Fortunately for Gagner (and anyone who enjoyed his gleeful performance last Thursday), the NHL has a decades-long policy of not changing game stats after 24 hours have passed -- although lots do get changed during that time frame. For four days, no one brought to the NHL's attention the fact that two Blackhawks had touched the puck after Gagner on Ryan Whitney's goal, and so an undeserved assist stays in the books.
Nevertheless, the passionate, flesh and blood game of hockey does benefit from the numbers that are kept, and we can learn a lot from them. There are a few dedicated fans who compile all sorts of exotic stats on their own apart from the ones the league keeps (and that's certainly worth a post some day). In the stats mainstream, though, NHL.com's offerings seem to get better every season. I noticed recently that the site allows fans to look back at what the league standings were at any point during the season. And just today, I discovered that you can break out every player's individual stats to see how well he does on home ice (where Steven Stamkos leads the league) and on the road (where Henrik Sedin is the best). It's possible that those numbers have been there all along and I never noticed.
The league's real-time scoring system can also give fans added insight into how teams and players succeed or fail. It's interesting to root around in those charts and uncover what's there, especially the full play-by-play of a game with tons of raw material. Here's the running sheet from the Coyotes' win over the Red Wings on Monday night. You'll find one for every game on the home pages of team websites, among the reports in the box with the last result. And you can see a more geographic representation of each game's action in the Ice Tracker.
Still, while many stats are compiled, and as dry as they can make the game, there are some numbers I'd like to see the league track:
1. Man games-lost to injury. I wrote about that stat last week, and it's one that teams make available to the media, but no one is certain how consistent the numbers are team to team. Some apparently fold every game their players miss into that category, and that's not right. To do it correctly, we'd break everything down into these categories: Games missed due to a) injury; b) illness; c) suspension; d) personal reasons; e) healthy scratch.
2. Hit posts. The stats now include shots on goal, blocked shots and shots that miss the net. But what about the ones that hit the post? They are noted in the real time play-by-play, but aren't compiled anywhere. Wouldn't it be informative to learn which players hit the post most often, or which team leads the league in that unfortunate category?
3. Improved shooting accuracy. We only have a stat for shots on goal. Play-by-play sheets note which players had shots blocked and who missed the net, but the totals are not compiled anywhere. Every shot blocker must have a blockee, right? And if, say, Dion Phaneuf is always firing pucks into his opponents' shin pads, that's a measure of his shooting accuracy as well. So how about breaking down shots by those on net, ones that miss the net, and those that never reach it?
4. Special teams trends. NHL.com tracks season-long power play and penalty killing stats. But as on the standings page where you can find a team's record for its past 10 games, how about its PP and PK stats for its last five and/or 10 games to show if there's any movement away from the season-long average?
5. Face-off specifics. This is one of the NHL's best areas of stats-keeping, but it can get even better. It would be helpful to learn where the face-offs are won and lost, because one taken in the neutral zone is not as crucial as one in the defensive zone. Adding won-lost records for defensive and offensive zone draws for teams and individuals would be a great addition -- and so would face-off situations during special teams play. And just to make face-off figures even more complete, let's compile won-lost match-up records that show how well centers do when they're matched against other centers. If Anze Kopitar takes 12 draws in a game against Jonathan Toews, you can find that in the game faceoff report, but I'd like to know how many each won in the times they faced off during the season or their even their careers.
6. Time of possession. When you watch an NFL game, you'll often get a graphic that shows which team has had the ball the most. (I've seen this during English Premiere League soccer games, too.) Yes, puck-possession time is hard to track when play gets scrambled, and in one-on-one battles. Sometimes no one has the puck. That's fine. Just exclude those instances from the stat. You'll still get a good handle on which teams are more skilled than others, and a team with a relatively low T.O.P. stat but lots of wins will be revealed as one that knows how to play well without the puck.
7. Attack zone time. It would be helpful to learn how much time teams spend in their opposition's end. We used to hear a lot about attack zone time during power plays on various telecasts, but that seems to have vanished. It shouldn't be restricted to just man advantage situations, however, and it would be a good indication of which club is able to more successfully impose its style on its foe.
8. Six-on-five situations. NHL stats do an excellent job of breaking down the game and ice time when play is 5-0n-5, 5-on-4, 4-on-4, 4-on-3 and so forth. But there are no stats for when a goalie has been pulled for an extra attacker on a delayed penalty and a 6-on-5, 6-on-4 or the ultra-rare 6-on-3 results. Pulling the goalie is not officially a power play, but it is something apart from the normal run of the game and worth exploring numerically.
9. Who draws penalties. Real time play-by-play notes when a player is penalized. Knowing against whom he committed an infraction would be a very useful stat to compile leaguewide. You'd see which players are so dangerous that extralegal means are needed to stop them, or so annoying that they break down their opposition's discipline.
So there you go: After starting this post complaining about how stats can take the fun and passion out of the game, I proposed a bunch of new ones. But I think these would actually add to our understanding of the sport. There are also some that need to be changed, like many that are connected with the postgame skills competition and the loser's point, but that's a story for another day.
One of our regular readers, a fellow named Bill, emailed today and said he'd like to see the league track which teams injure the most opposition players and which buildings have the most injuries happen in them. Hmmm, those are worth pondering. You might have some ideas for new numbers, too. So have at it in the comments section.