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Moneypuck: the rise of analytics

Over the past decade or so, analytics have become an important part of baseball. Although they are still not accepted by all, they are becoming increasingly mainstream. The 2011 movie Moneyball certainly helped boost their popularity amongst baseball fans.

Now, that stats shift is coming to hockey. Over the past couple years, analytics, also referred to as advanced statistics, have become part of the game. Much like baseball, this shift to new numbers has not been an easy or quick transition — but the hockey world is slowly getting there.

This past summer saw a number of National Hockey League (NHL) teams accept analytics by hiring experts to track the stats. Other levels of hockey are accepting them as well, particularly the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Saint John Sea Dogs, who announced a couple weeks ago the creation of six member “Player Development and Analytics program.”

Before becoming general manager of the Sea Dogs in February, Darrell Young was an amateur scout with the Vancouver Canucks. Although analytics are just now becoming widely used, these kinds of stats aren’t new to many hockey circles.

“It’s not something new,” said Young. “Scouts and managers have been using analytics for years to analyze players for trades and for drafting. They’ve always been in use but now they are expanding in usage.”

Young added that things such as salary caps have leveled the playing field in terms of trading and attracting players. Now, teams must find ways to differentiate themselves in the way they evaluate players.

Analytics are being used to evaluate both players and teams in different ways than traditionally viewed. For example, rather than looking at just shots on goals and goals scored to determine a player’s offensive abilities, things such as shot attempts and puck possession are being analyzed.

Corsi and Fenwick are the two most commonly known advanced stats. Corsi adds shots on goal for, missed shots on goal for and blocked shots against while a player is on the ice and then subtracts shots on goal against, missed shots on goal against, and blocked shots for. If a player has a positive Corsi rating, it typically means his team has the puck more than the opposition while he is on the ice. Fenwick uses the same formula but excludes blocked shots.

The Sea Dogs are keeping tallies on a number of different stats this season. Besides variations of Corsi, the team is tracking what they call “true plus/minus” to see who actually created and caused goals. They are also determining goalies’ save percentages when an individual player is on the ice, zone starts to see what faceoff zone players are relied upon, and a number of other things.

While Young and the Sea Dogs hope to use the numbers to assist them in player evaluations, they are also hoping to use them to educate players on what they need to work on.

“The education system has changed,” said Young. “Players today want communication and different ways to communicate with them. Stats play a big part of that.”

The UNB Varsity Reds men’s hockey team will also be tracking some analytics this season. Head coach Gardiner MacDougall said he believes his team is the first in Canadian Interuniversity Sport to have someone on staff tracking them.

Hockey analytics have had humble beginnings. Corsi is named after its creator, NHL goalie coach Jim Corsi, while Fenwick and another popular stat, PDO — which is used to determine “puck luck” or who is getting favourable or unfavourable bounces at a certain time — are named after hockey bloggers.

While many of these stats have been created by bloggers, they are being used more and more by the mainstream media. Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman used them on some broadcasts last season, TSN has created an analytics team and Sportsnet has added writers to cover the numbers as well.

The next step for hockey analytics? Improvements in the way they are tracked. These stats have come a long way — but they still have a ways to go.

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