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Analytics 'changes the way that you see the game'

Ways to present advanced hockey statistics to fans discussed at MIT conference

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

BOSTON -- Amid all of the voices, all of the opinions about analytics and how to utilize them, where they're going, what else can be done, the question raised about where hockey is on the analytics frontier remains perhaps a simpler one: How can a sport that has come late to the revolution convey that revolution to the masses?

That was where they started Saturday in the overarching panel called "The Long Thaw: Hockey's Embrace of Analytics," held at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, and comprised of former NHL consultant Tyler Dellow, Columbus Blue Jackets director of hockey administration Josh Flynn, Puckalytics owner and operator David Johnson, and National Women's Hockey League player Hilary Knight.

"I think that a big thing is getting the NHL, both the NHL and the media, to incorporate data in their broadcasts and tell stories using data, as opposed to using the coach's opinion or the analyst's opinion," Johnson said. "Find a way to back up those storylines with actual data."

The group addressed other topics, from how to improve evaluations of defensemen to the importance of extracting special teams data vs. 5-on-5 data to the quantification of chemistry among teammates.

But the accessibility of information and the ways to get it to the public was a crucial one.

An oft-cited example was that of the Blue Jackets power play, something that helped push Columbus to a 16-game winning streak earlier in the season.

"What I found fascinating was the story was, 'Oh, Columbus is winning, Columbus is winning,' and one of the big things to me was Columbus had this first-unit power play, and it had Sam Gagner, Zach Werenski, [Alexander] Wennberg, Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson," Dellow said. "It was unbelievable. They were scoring like the best power-play unit of the last decade. But because the League doesn't gather and promote on a per-unit basis how power-play units are doing, that story wasn't really out there."

Video: 16 great plays from the Blue Jackets' historic streak

The idea that needed to be transmitted, Dellow said, wasn't that the Blue Jackets had an outstanding power play. It was why that power play was so outstanding. That was where the advanced statistics were useful.

"Sifting through the current data to extract stuff like that makes it easier to tell compelling stories to fans," Dellow added.

But despite this seemingly radical change in hockey, the idea that analytics might upend things or alter ways of thinking in ways that not every hockey lifer will be comfortable with, from the top of the sport on down, isn't so comprehensive. Or at least, not in the mind of Flynn, who said, "I don't think you're trying to make radical changes, really. A lot of the concepts that are being discussed in the world of hockey analytics, a lot of them are rooted in common sense."

"I see both sides of it," Knight said of the player's view. "I think at first, just from the feelings standpoint of it all, you're like, 'This guy's crazy, but he's our coach so we're going to follow what he says.' And then once you get the adrenaline going, you're lock in the game, and you see how the game unfolds, it's really beautiful in the way that it opens it up in a different perspective.

"Coming from the traditional standpoint and then adding this advanced competitive edge, it definitely changes the way that you see the game."

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