What We'd Tell The Leafs

The list could easily have 100 items, but since the Toronto Star doesn't give us 20 pages of space we started with 5:


The “summer of hockey analytics” continued on Tuesday, when the Leafs reportedly hired three shiny new additions to their analytics team. In light of the hirings the Star asked the Department of Hockey Analytics what we would tell Brendan Shanahan if he called us up looking for a little analytics advice.


  1. All the stats in the world won’t do you much good if you don’t understand how to use them.


I’ve been told by more than one NHL GM that the team that does the most analytics in the NHL is . . . the Buffalo Sabres. “Doing” analytics clearly isn’t the answer; you’ve got to do it right.


Analytics is much more than gathering data and obsessively focusing on a few new stats. Analytics is a method to better understand all of the complicated, interrelated aspects of the game of hockey.


What most teams fail to understand is that statistics are the input, not the output. Each stat is a piece of a complicated puzzle. Each has shortcomings, limitations, and correct and incorrect applications. Analytics is the process of piecing the puzzle together, usually requiring the creative application of sophisticated statistical tools. It’s easy to get lost in the numbers, or even to just misinterpret what the numbers are telling you.


To use just one example that we wrote about earlier this year, “super-sniper” Alex Ovechkin actually shoots an awful lot of blanks. When we looked at him mid-season his shooting percentage over the prior three years was a gaudy 13.4%. But Ovi misses the net a ton, so his “true” shooting percentage (goals divided by total shot attempts) was only 6.74% -- third worst among the 27 elite scorers we looked at. Interesting, sure, but what do you do with it? The stats start the process; but then you have to ask the right questions and have the tools to answer them. Why does Ovi miss the net so much? What are the effects of his misses? How often do they result in turnovers? Does his “shoot now ask questions later” approach help explain his linemates’ dismally low shooting percentages? Is there some tactical change that could mitigate the effects of his misses while still making use of his cannon of a shot?


Answering these questions and figuring out how to use (or stop) Ovechkin takes a lot more than a huge database full of numbers. Don’t be the Buffalo Sabres.


  1. Possession isn’t everything. The vast majority of people doing analytics focus predominantly on possession and shot metrics like Corsi and Fenwick, or derivations of them, like zone entry stats. Don’t be fooled: those are just the tip of the iceberg. The reality is that many in the analytics community focus on those stats because they’re easy to understand and use. They prefer a tidy world where a shot attempt is a shot attempt and they don’t need to worry about pesky issues like the quality of the shots that are taken. You need to make sure your analytics guys can handle these types of questions.


  1. Fire Carlyle. Possession isn’t everything, but it’s pretty darn important, and Randy Carlyle’s system and puck possession go together like nuts and gum. As soon as Carlyle showed up the Leafs went from bad to worse and then from worse to almost impossibly awful. Things were no different in his last years in Anaheim. The table shows the Corsi For percentage (the percentage of shot attempts taken by a team relative to shot attempts by their opponents) of the Ducks and Leafs, with Carlyle’s years in bold. As soon as Carlyle left the Ducks, their numbers jumped. Not at all coincidentally, as soon as he landed in Toronto, the Leafs’ numbers fell off a cliff.


Randy Carlyle’s Teams

Corsi For % (5v5)


Year Team  


Corsi For % Corsi For % League Rank
2009-10 Ana Carlyle 47.3 26
2010-11 Ana Carlyle 44.4 30
2012-13 Ana Boudreau 48 22
2013-14 Ana Boudreau 49.8 19
2010-11 Tor Wilson 47.8 25
2011-12 Tor Wilson 48.9 18
2012-13 Tor Carlyle 44.1 30
2013-14 Tor Carlyle 42.9 30


  1. Educate the organization. The Leafs organization is officially schizophrenic. New school analytics meets old school coach and GM. Probably not a recipe for success, but Shanahan can smooth the way by imposing a structure that will at least help the new crew explain to the rest of organization what analytics is and how it can help them do their jobs. Despite what Carlyle and Nonis may think, analytics isn’t voodoo, it’s just different information. More information is always better (as long as it’s useful and it’s right). The more Shanahan can get everyone on the same page, the more coherent a plan the Leafs will be able to execute, from team composition, to roster, to lineups, to on-ice tactics.


  1. Get ready for big data. Within the next two seasons the NHL will likely adopt SportVu or some other system that continually tracks the movements and actions of every player on the ice. That will provide raw data unlike anything ever seen in hockey in terms of both quantity and content. Overnight there will be accurate information about, well, everything: zone stats, scoring chances/shot quality, puck retrieval, player speed, passing stats, etc., etc.  The sky’s the limit.  Much of what’s come before will be obsolete. The Leafs will need to establish a system to organize, search, filter and analyze the tidal wave of data. As stats guru Nate Silver emphasizes, the ability to analyze the stats and use them in creative ways to gain a competitive advantage will become paramount once big data hits the NHL.


  1. October 9, 2014    

    Hi Ijay,

    I loved your Bozak piece in the Star today; and I like the above too. I think you establish that Bozak is the lesser offensive player of the two (vs Kadri); but is there a Corsi Against? Or stats on how other teams' CF% fares when they face Bozak vs Kadri? In other words, you make a compelling argument on the offensive side, but I didn't really get a sniff of how they stack up against eachother defensively - Bozak may (or may not) fare better in this area.


    • IJay Palansky's Gravatar IJay Palansky
      October 9, 2014    

      Thanks Paul. Good question. CF% actually accounts for both offense and defense -- it's like +/-, but for shot attempts. But it can be broken into its component parts of Corsi For (CF) and Corsi Against (CA). It actually turns out that Kadri's CA/60 is lower than Bozak's, by 68.2 to 70.4. But Kessel's and JVR's CA/60 last year were about 3 points lower with Bozak than Kadri, which indicates that as a line they're better off in terms of defense only if they use Bozak. Assuming those numbers accurately reflect what could be expected over the long term, it wouldn't be crazy for the Leafs to play Kadri on the first line unless and until they were ahead late in the game.

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