NHL takes next step in analytics evolution

NHL takes next step in analytics evolution

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When the NHL introduced “enhanced stats” to its website Friday, it used some of the same stats that people have been using on their own for years. Only the league didn’t use the names Corsi and Fenwick. After considerable internal debate, in an effort to be accessible and user-friendly, it decided to use shot attempts and unblocked shot attempts.

To Matt Fenwick, it was like when the NHL went from the Wales and Campbell conferences to the Eastern and Western conferences. The league gained clarity but lost character. It lost a sense of history, part of its charm.

“It’s an awkward argument for me to make, and I’m certainly not going to make it that loudly because it seems kind of self-interested,” Fenwick said. “I won’t have my name plastered on something for eternity. But on the other hand, having a bad acronym or something instead of it just saying Corsi or Fenwick doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I don’t think the perceived benefits exist.”

The NHL wants to corner the market on hockey analytics. (AP)
The NHL wants to corner the market on hockey analytics. (AP)

That said, the NHL does mention Corsi and Fenwick in an explanatory section, and this is validation. Teams recognized analytics could help them win to the point where they started hiring bloggers, and fans became interested in analytics to the point where the league wanted to corner the market. Why let other websites scrape their data? Why let those clicks go elsewhere?

The NHL partnered with SAP and set out to create a website that would appeal to casual and avid fans alike – attractive, interactive, exhaustive. If all you care about are stats like goals, assists and points, fine. But if you want to dig deeper, you can. Corsi and Fenwick and more are now on the league’s own site, no matter what they are called.

“I think it’s neat,” Fenwick said. “For sure it shows that it meant something and that we weren’t all just wasting each other’s time on the Internet in 2007 and 2009 and all that, right? It was something real.”

But what’s really interesting – and what the name change illustrates – is how ideas evolve. They can start out as your own, but others can take them and turn them into something else. Look at how this started. Imagine where this might go.

Corsi came from Jim Corsi, now 60 years old and the goaltending coach of the St. Louis Blues. When he was with the Buffalo Sabres, he came up with a new way to measure his goaltenders’ work load. He added missed shots and blocked shots to shots on goal, and he called them shot attempts.

According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie and his book “Hockey Confidential,” Darcy Regier, then the general manager of the Sabres, was on the radio one day talking about shot attempts. Blogger Tim Barnes, known as Vic Ferrari on his website “Irreverent Oiler Fans,” heard the interview and decided to use the metric.

Barnes was going to call it Regier – or Ruff, after Lindy Ruff, then the coach of the Sabres. But he didn’t like the sound of either. So he went to the Sabres’ website and found Corsi, who had a name with a nice ring to it, not to mention a distinctive moustache. He didn’t know Regier had gotten shot attempts from Corsi, but inadvertently he ended up crediting the right man.

The idea was not to measure goaltenders’ workload, but to measure skaters’ impact on puck possession. Others became interested and did their own work. The site timeonice.com took data from NHL game sheets and posted Corsi numbers.

According to Fenwick and his blog “The Battle of Alberta,” Fenwick asked whether blocked shots should be included in the equation. There was a debate in the comment threads on “Irreverent Oiler Fans.” Then one day, timeonice.com simply added a column called Fenwick.

Numbers game: NHL players can be evaluated using a whole new set of data. (AP)
Numbers game: NHL players can be evaluated using a whole new set of data. (AP)

Then people took the idea in more new directions, using Corsi and Fenwick to measure teams’ puck possession, factoring in how players were used and how they stacked up relative to other players.

“It was not obvious that winning the shots battle was better than not, except for a few exceptions,” Fenwick said. “It wasn’t obvious that if a player was relatively better than his teammates or the opposition at driving play and tilting the shot count that his results were likely to improve over time or he was a better hockey player than the goals, assists, points showed. That wasn’t obvious. Now I think it’s more kind of accepted.”

It might become even more accepted now that the NHL has officially embraced it. It should reach a larger audience. But there’s a difference between information and knowledge. People continue to argue over what all the information means – from front offices to the Internet – and that’s not going to change.

“You have to be able to actually think about it and think things through,” Fenwick said. “I wouldn’t even know who to name if I wanted to, but there’s certainly some people who are pretty good at the math but haven’t thought things through very well. You can tell by the way they phrase their arguments sometimes that they don’t really understand some of the underlying truths to what’s going on.”

The NHL is adding more information to its site in four phases. In Phase 1, which started Friday, it introduced enhanced stats. In Phase 2, in April, it will provide advanced filtering. In Phase 3, next season, it will include information like shot location – and might include player-tracking data from chips in uniforms and pucks. In Phase 4, eventually, it will include historic data back to 1917 and synchronize video clips.

Some of it will be just trivia. What does it really matter beyond fun, for example, who is the highest-scoring right winger over the past three years who was born in Canada and went to Boston College? But some of it might lead to greater insight into the game – in ways we don’t even know yet. The trick, as always, will be to sift through all the information, think about it intelligently and identify what really does matter.

Fenwick said he’s actually weak in math and computer programming. He hasn’t been active in analytics for a while. Now a 41-year-old electrical engineer in Edmonton, he has written only one blog in more than two years, and he wrote that he’s “not an analytics guy” and “really never was.”

“It was all 2005 to 2009 when I kind of made my mark or was involved in discussion in any serious way,” Fenwick said. “I’ve been surpassed many times over by a lot of smart people who have thought about a lot of the newer concepts a lot more than I have and understand things better than I do now.”

Corsi had an idea. Regier revealed it. Barnes adopted it. Fenwick tweaked it. Others have run with it. Now that the NHL has embraced it, the process won’t stop. It will only accelerate. The names Corsi and Fenwick will go down in history, even if they aren’t going up on NHL.com.

“My name,” Fenwick said, “isn’t literally going to disappear.”