Expanding the Scope: Insight from Gabriel Desjardins of Behind the Net

fehr-behind-netIt’s been great to see hockey analytics grow this year, but it’s still perplexing that more people aren’t looking past it and asking tougher questions about it’s relationship with other concepts and fields of research. The numbers and metrics are a part of a continuous discussion, which has intensified with more and more people joining in the discourse. For instance, possession stats have gained prominence, and that’s lead to more questions about the game. Projects tracking zone entry stats and puck retrieval stats will uncover new information, which will likely spawn off more questions. That’s the thing about analytics in any field…there is no finished product.

So if we look past the actual stats and the ensuing discussion, there’s still a lot to be understood about how exactly hockey analytics has impacted the different facets of the game (management, scouting, players, etc) as well as it’s relationship other fields such as information technology, business and society in general.

Behind the Net was one of the first websites that collected advanced stats, with its owner Gabriel Desjardins leading a lot of the online discussion in the early days. He sent out a series of tweets last week that gave some insight into hockey analytics, but also touched on some topics that have yet to be fully explored.

As we approach the trough of disillusionment for hockey analytics, here are a few helpful thoughts…

#1) Hockey insiders have been using “analytics” for decades. +/-, Sinden/Corsi shot/pass/touch counting, video aggregation. These stats had the imprimatur of cigar-chomping insiders, so nobody dug too deeply or cared too much

#2) One day, members of the general public found out what insiders had been doing and slowly worked through the value of this data. Somehow people popularizing the league’s internal metrics became outsiders as far as fans/media were concerned. It’s a classic obtuse battle of ideas. e.g. Obamacare was conservative for Romney but socialist for Obama. It took “analytics” predicting an unavoidable Leafs collapse to push people to the “Peak of Inflated Expectations”. It’s amazing – people promoted ideas the NHL used for decades w/o press caring but these ideas then needed to be proven publicly

#3) Now that analytics have been re-proven externally, teams have been getting PR boosts by announcing various hires but teams were already using analytics. So there’s no new benefit. Except I suppose people will expect the Leafs to benefit, hence the trough of disillusionment.

#4) Now here’s the missing piece: teams need to know how to interpret these stats and correctly use them to drive decisions. It’s statistical parallel to @Lowetide_‘s “saw him good” principle. Teams don’t understand regression will cut guy based on 3 games. Teams need to take long view to get analytics benefit and incentives don’t align. Today’s best GMs still only have 14-day outlook

#6) May see benefit for poorly-run teams [TOR, EDM] but the inflated expectations are that “stats guys” will take them on a 2015 playoff run. Unless @mc79hockey is making $1M a year, we need to seriously temper expectations

#7) There’s very little low-hanging fruit in analytics and most of it has been harvested in hockey. There’s no Matt Stairs or Roberto Petagine waiting to be freed. Helps that the KHL will put a pile of cash in your suitcase at the end of every game. Nobody needs to toil in the A for $75k/year

#8) The thing that initially annoyed me was Pierre Mcguire’s comments to @wyshynski about firing coaches for using analytics. But teams already sign and play guys because “Coach knew him in junior” or much worse.

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