Hockey’s Great Debate: Analytics vs Eyeballs

Ice Hockey Analytics Eyeballs Kelvin Cech Ice Hockey Coach tIps and Drills

It’s interesting how slow the hockey industry is when it comes to adopting new tactics to improve your team. I’m not old enough to remember Roger Nielsen re-inventing hockey by literally cutting video tape for hours on end in order to show his players what he was seeing. I’m also not old enough to to remember when Fred Shero hired the NHL’s first assistant coach in 1972.

Were those moves greeted with as much derision as hockey’s move toward a reliance on analytics, or advanced stats?

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An Edge

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from talking to coaches at our conferences, or via interviews on the Glass & Out podcast, or most importantly by coaching our own teams, it’s that if you’re not trying to get an edge then you’re going to be left behind.

Now, that argument is often greeted with a counter argument that says you should play to your team’s strengths. Own your identity. Sure, that carries water.

To that I say: track what’s important to your group.

“A couple years ago we wanted to cut down on the amount of penalties we were taking.”

That was Todd Woodcroft, assistant coach of the Winnipeg Jets, on the podcast a couple weeks ago.

Between the 2015/16 season to the 2016/17 season, Winnipeg went from 443.49 minutes 4v5 to 411.46 minutes 4v5. The season before they almost hit 500 minutes.

So it’s clearly something that’s important to Winnipeg. This season they’re on track to finish with 448 minutes on the 4v5 PK, so it might be something they want to re-address for next year. Although this year they could win the Stanley Cup. So who knows, maybe they’ll decide they’re comfortable with that range of penalty minutes.

Source: Corsica.Hockey

You Never Played the Game

This one really gets me too. You know who else didn’t play the game? Ken Hitchcock. You know who did? Wayne Gretzky.

Admittedly this is mostly an argument that occurs in the lunchroom cafeteria shared by the mainstream media and the vocal minority fanbase.

Mainstream media has been watching the game for a century, and now that a group of bloggers with too much time on their hands are thirsty for more knowledge about the game it’s thrown the entire way we track events on the ice for a loop. It’s lead to the hirings of advanced analytics supporters, probably the most noteworthy of which being John Chayka, the young General Manager of the Arizona Coyotes. It’s why the Leafs hired Kyle Dubas in 2014.

You know who did play the game? Who’s playing it right now? Winnipeg Jets Captain Blake Wheeler.

“How do you really judge a player’s value based on his overall shots for or against or whether his shots are getting blocked or whatever? I think there’s a little bit of a ways to go in those areas. You can watch and you can say this guy, he’s head and shoulders above the rest of the guys on the ice or this guy’s not. I think it’s more of a visual game.”

That was from another article in 2014 in the Toronto Star when the analytics movement was really starting to take hold. Blake Wheeler is a star in this league, and even he has doubts?

But that’s why he’s a player and you’re a coach. It’s up to you to use the information to make your players and your team better. Analytics should either back up what your eyes tell you and confirm your instincts. Or, on the other hand, they should force you to question your own beliefs and biases about players and what you think they’re accomplishing on the ice.

You keep track of faceoff percentages, right? So why wouldn’t you keep track of who’s generating the highest shot volumes when they’re on the ice, or who’s the most efficient at exiting the zone with control of the puck?

It’s easy to track, it’s just a matter of how you present it to your team. I can tell you, a spreadsheet carefully placed in your dressing room of every individual’s Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts for vs unblocked shot attempts against) can go a long way.

It’s a brave new world out there, coaches.


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TCS|Members Ice Hockey Coach Tips and Drills Todd Woodcroft

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Kelvin is the Editor in Chief of The Coaches' Site and an assistant coach with the UBC Thunderbirds Men's Varsity hockey team.