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Super 16: Growth of analytics a boon for hockey fans

by Corey Masisak / NHL.com

The months following the 2013-14 NHL season were dubbed "The Summer of Analytics" as teams scrambled to add experts in the field to bolster hockey operations departments with new ideas in an attempt to close the gap on competitors which had already embraced the movement.

The 2014-15 season has been a fascinating one on multiple fronts as NHL teams attempted to weave new concepts and new thinkers together with more traditional ideas and "old school" employees. 

That same process is happening for many fans of the sport. Access to advanced statistics is expanding exponentially, and interest, whether it is a passing fancy or a desire for deeper understanding, is driving forward analytics in the public sector.  

"Analytics clearly became more mainstream, from the adoption of them on NHL.com to teams hiring their own analytics experts," Craig Custance of ESPN.com said. "A coach mentioning Corsi or a local broadcast referencing shot attempts used to be a big deal, now nobody hardly notices. That's good. It's part of the daily evaluation of teams and it's more commonly accepted across all groups involved in hockey.

New analytics have led to a better understanding of how hockey is played.

New analytics have led to a better understanding
of how hockey is played.
(Click to enlarge)

"The evolution, to me, is still figuring out how much weight to give the analytics when applying them to roster construction. Just like over-investing in traits like grit, toughness and leadership --  a mistake teams often make -- we might be getting closer to a point where teams overvalue and overpay for players because of analytics. Even those teams lauded by the analytics community, like Chicago and Los Angeles, place value on things that can't be measured and attempt to strike that balance."

Some of the most important members of the analytics movement, like Eric Tulsky, Tyler Dellow and Tim Barnes, are no longer able to write because of their team affiliations, but the number of writers who can understand and deploy these metrics in their work continues to grow. One of the most important factors is the incredible surge in information available. 

Websites like Behind the Net, founded by Gabe Desjardins, were the foundation, and the incredible look and ease of use from Extra Skater by Darryl Metcalf helped push analytics into the mainstream. 

In 2014-15, websites like WAR on Ice and Puckalytics have considerably more data. There have been great new ideas and new ways to visualize the data, like Micah Blake McCurdy's work on Twitter, Kevin Kan at Data Rink or the HERO charts used by Domenic Galamini.  

The NHL has joined the party, and even more data will be available in future upgrades as part of the League's partnership with SAP.  

"People are increasingly understanding the value of adjusting for factors like home/away advantage, zone starts, and score-situation when analyzing players and teams," Sam Ventura, co-founder of WAR on Ice, said. "This is an important step, since it paves the way for a greater understanding of the advancements happening now and in the future, which will incorporate more complex statistical models." 

"I think the NHL's buy-in definitely helped push things along," Andrew Thomas, co-creator of WAR on Ice said. "More people are speaking of [advanced stats] openly in the media and the central authority helped to motivate that. I'm looking forward to hearing more about certain concepts as the dialogue increases between standard media types and analysts."

The future for analytics in hockey is vast and uncharted territory. Sometimes it is hard to remember the use of advanced metrics is still in its relative infancy compared to a sport like baseball. 

Analytically inclined people will obtain more jobs in the NHL, and like baseball, eventually more of them will be move beyond consultant or assistant roles and become general managers with their own teams of analysts. While there is certainly more and better advanced work being done already by teams which remain protective of their proprietary work, there will be advances in the public sector as well.

There are large swaths of player and team evaluation which can and will be better quantified. 

"For me the best thing to happen in NHL analytics this season is a general movement toward developing a better understanding of shot quality," David Johnson of Puckalytics and Hockey Analysis said. "Projects like Ryan Stimson's pass-tracking work, Steve Valiquette's "Royal Road" concept for incorporating shot quality into goalie evaluation, and War On Ice's scoring chance stats that combine shot location with my rush shot work have all pushed shot-quality boundaries."

"To me, the most exciting development in hockey analytics was the technology used in the [2015 NHL All-Star Game]," Rob Vollman, author of Hockey Abstract and contributor for ESPN.com, said. "A lot of what we know about certain players is implied from the current data, but the data that is coming can be used to evaluate players more directly, and to establish what exactly they're doing that's driving the end result.

"Another key future advance is when some of these non-traditional stats are recorded in development leagues. That additional data could further improve our understanding of up-and-coming players, and maybe even lead to a reliable career projection system."

The player and puck-tracking data Vollman mentioned can revolutionize the sport. Other sports like basketball and soccer have moved forward at warp speed since the introduction of player-tracking data, and it would be the same for hockey. 

Bedrock concepts like puck possession, player usage and zone entries would be buttressed by the new data and more easily dissected by anyone from analysts to fans. New ways to measure a player's ability would be created. 

Passing stats, goaltender rebound control, a quantam leap forward in determining shot quality and ways to educate fans on defensive systems and forechecking patterns are just some of the advances which could be on the horizon. 

How the game is analyzed will change, but so to will how it is played.. Hockey will have its own version of the infield shift, or the increased importance of the three-pointer from the corner. 

The "Summer of Analytics" will be remembered as an important step forward in the era of analytics in the NHL. While this season has been wildly unpredictable on the ice, the increased use of advanced statistics in the sport was easy to see coming, and the influence of the movement is only going to continue to grow.  

DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information. All rankings, records and statistics are through the games played Thursday night.

1. Anaheim Ducks

MVP: The Ducks have not been as deep on offense this season, and Corey Perry has dealt with injury and illness but Ryan Getzlaf has again been one of the top five centers in the NHL and should be among the top candidates for the Hart Trophy.

Surprise: General manager Bob Murray has shown a penchant for veteran, "physical" defensemen who aren't so great with the puck and have bogged down the team's puck possession. Well, he's subtracted Bryan Allen and Eric Brewer (after adding him) while adding James Wisniewski and Simon Despres to a group which already included Cam Fowler (and subtracting Ben Lovejoy might help Fowler moving forward), Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm.

The result has helped Anaheim become one of the top possession teams in the League since the Trade Deadline. If Bruce Boudreau commits to the younger, better-with-the-puck group (and doesn't fall back on Clayton Stoner or even Mark Fistric), Anaheim has one of the most skilled, exciting defense corps in the NHL and it could be the difference in helping him and this group of Ducks break through with a long playoff run.

Disappointment: Goaltenders take longer to develop, but John Gibson was expected to break the mold and earn the starting job this season at 21 years old. He's dealt with injury and uneven performance, and another young goalie who is also pretty talented. Gibson and Frederik Andersen are both sporting a .914 save percentage, and how Boudreau deals with them could have a big impact on the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

2. St. Louis Blues

MVP: Vladimir Tarasenko completed the journey from tantalizing young talent to NHL star this season, beginning the season with a flurry of highlight-reel goals and becoming a consistent producer. Assuming he's able to perform at a peak level is a big reason why the Blues might be different this season than the one eliminated in each of the previous two seasons.

Surprise: Kevin Shattenkirk has had nice offensive numbers and been thought of as a capable second-pairing anchor the past few seasons, but he took a tangible step forward in 2014-15. Not only did the offense spike, he's been arguably the Blues' best defenseman and would have been in the mix for the Norris Trophy had he not missed 25 games.

Disappointment: The Blues have had an identity as a rugged, defense-first team with Ken Hitchcock in charge, but sometimes trying to adhere to an identity holds a team back. Max Lapierre and Steve Ott are considered "hard to play against" players, and fit what is perceived to be the Blues' identity. The reality is both players spend a lot of time not playing with the puck and putting the team in jeopardy of allowing a goal. Lapierre was subtracted in a savvy trade for Marcel Goc, but Ott remains.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

MVP: "That Line" has been great for the Lightning, but Steven Stamkos is still the talisman in Tampa Bay. His ability to excel with a variety of linemates has allowed Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov to stick together and not face top defensive pairs/centers on every shift. He's also got a chance to finish with the second-most goals in the NHL.

Surprise: Johnson and Palat were breakout performers last season, and Kucherov joined them in 2014-15. Kucherov is among the top 10 in the League in even-strength goals and his 61 points are one back of Johnny Gaudreau for most by a player who hasn't reached his 22nd birthday this season.

Disappointment: Ben Bishop was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, but his save percentage has dipped from .924 to .916 in a season when save percentages are on the rise. Given his lack of playoff experience, Bishop will be considered a question mark for the Lightning.

4. New York Rangers

MVP: Though his pace has slowed, Rick Nash finished with a career-high in goals and could still lead the NHL in even-strength goals. He has 21 more goals than anyone else on the Rangers, which is the second-largest gap between first and second on a team in the League.

Surprise: Cam Talbot was thrust into the starting role because of a neck injury for Henrik Lundqvist, and after a shaky start was brilliant until Lundqvist returned. He's the reason the Rangers have secured the Presidents' Trophy.

Disappointment: The Rangers evolved into one of the better puck-possession teams in the League near the end of last season. That hasn't been the case this year, and it's been going in the wrong direction near the end of the season. Losing Anton Stralman, Benoit Pouliot and even Brad Richards has had an effect, as has a disappointing year in general for Martin St. Louis. Possession numbers for Marc Staal (without Stralman) and Derek Stepan (with St. Louis) have dipped, though Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello have improved. Tanner Glass is a possession problem in any role.

5. Chicago Blackhawks

MVP: Patrick Kane was in the mix for League MVP honors before a broken clavicle, but Jonathan Toews will end up leading the team in scoring and be a contender for the Selke Trophy as the top two-way forward. He hasn't been quite as dominant as last season, but that's a theme for many of the top players on the Blackhawks.

Surprise: Before this season, Scott Darling had more games in the ECHL and more than twice as many games in the Southern Professional Hockey League than he had at the American Hockey League level. Now he has 13 games at the NHL, a .939 save percentage and a two-year contract through 2016-17.

Disappointment: Patrick Sharp's shooting percentage has not been below 9.4 percent in a full season since 2005-06, but he's at 6.6 this season, including 3.75 percent at even strength. He is almost certain to rebound next season, and it's possible his return to form could start during the postseason.

6. Washington Capitals

MVP: Alex Ovechkin is having an incredibly similar season to what he produced in 2013-14. The difference is his linemates have converted more chances and his goaltender has stopped more shots, so to anyone who still values plus-minus, it looks like he is much improved. The analytics community knew Ovechkin was a near certainty to "rebound" and he did. He's almost certain to finish in the top two in the Hart Trophy balloting.  

Surprise: Before the season, the Capitals appeared to be light up front beyond Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but a quartet of other forwards have between 19 and 21 goals. Marcus Johansson has 20 goals and 47 points, and has cemented his place as a legitimate top-six forward.

Disappointment: Andre Burakovsky has been productive (third among Washington forwards in points per 60 minutes at even strength, first in score-adjusted shot attempt percentage) but he's struggled to earn coach Barry Trotz's trust and find a regular role.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins

MVP: While Kris Letang was in the Norris discussion before an injury and the team's record without Evgeni Malkin looks really bad, Sidney Crosby is the correct choice here. Crosby, despite missing time with the mumps, could still lead the League in scoring despite a rotating cast of characters playing next to him.

Surprise: His save percentage has regressed a little during the second half of the season, but Marc-Andre Fleury should still finish with his best season since 2007-08. New goaltender coach Mike Bales has helped, and new coach Mike Johnston's system probably has as well.

Disappointment: GM Jim Rutherford set out to improve Pittsburgh's depth and he acquired or retained several players who helped. Marcel Goc, Rob Klinkhammer and Mark Arcobello are all solid possession players to populate a third- or fourth-line line. Unfortunately, all three of those players are no longer in Pittsburgh, and the Penguins' serious depth issues remain. Brandon Sutter is overvalued, and while additions like Daniel Winnik and David Perron have been helpful, they alone aren't enough and the acquisition cost for each was high.

8. Winnipeg Jets

MVP: Coach Paul Maurice dealt with a myriad of injuries, particularly on the back end, and also severe fluctuations in performance from both goaltenders. He avoided staying with a "cold" goaltender for too long and recognized the Jets needed Dustin Byfuglien on the blue line. He might not win the Jack Adams Award, but he should be one of the top candidates. 

Surprise: Ondrej Pavelec never finished a season with a save percentage above .914 before this one, and he spent the middle of the campaign watching after Michael Hutchinson took his job. He has it back now though, and is one of the hottest goaltenders in the League (though Maurice would be wise to keep an open mind about going to Hutchinson if needed). 

Disappointment: Evander Kane's sometimes unlucky (on the ice), sometimes turbulent (off the ice) time in Winnipeg came to an end. This season he was trying to play through an injury and eventually had surgery, but he could revive his status as a potential star in Buffalo.

9. Los Angeles Kings

MVP: Drew Doughty has been leaned on this season because of various injuries and Slava Voynov's suspension. He's averaged more than 29 minutes per game and is a worthy contender for the Norris Trophy.

Surprise: Losing Tanner Pearson because of a broken leg is likely to be an underrated part of Los Angeles' demise, but Dwight King did fill in admirably at times and finished sixth on the team in goals with 13. Pearson was seventh though, and he missed 40 games. 

Disappointment: Having Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards as the third- and fourth-line centers was a big part of Los Angeles possessing the deepest roster in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Stoll's play has dipped significantly and Richards was sent to the AHL for two months. What was a strength became a weakness. The Kings are also 3-15 in games which did not end in regulation.

10. New York Islanders

MVP: John Tavares will go head-to-head with Crosby on Friday night and one of the subplots will be the race for the Art Ross Trophy. Tavares started slowly and the Islanders have more depth this season, but there was stretch in the middle of the season where he was the best player in the NHL.

Surprise: Nick Leddy had strong possession numbers in Chicago but Joel Quenneville didn't trust him in the postseason. He was the breakout star at his position this season, and combined with Johnny Boychuk to alter the present and future of the franchise. Garth Snow may win GM of the year just for his work on Oct. 4 when he acquired both players.

Disappointment: It's hard to call it a disappointment since it is still a significant upgrade from years past, but the goaltending hasn't been great since a strong start by Jaroslav Halak. He and Chad Johnson have underperformed compared to their resumes, though Halak has won five more games than any goalie in franchise history. If the Detroit Red Wings go with Petr Mrazek and the Vancouver Canucks stick with Eddie Lack, Halak would have lowest regular-season save percentage of any starting goalie in the 2015 playoffs. His .913 save percentage is the second-best in franchise history among goalies with at least 45 games played.

11. Minnesota Wild

MVP: Devan Dubnyk, the goalie they acquired for a third-round pick in January who proceeded to go 27-8-2 with a .938 save percentage and transform the Wild from the 30th-best team at the position to top five, seems like a good call here. 

Surprise: Dubnyk would obviously work here as well, but let's go with Jason Zucker. He was a much-needed source of offense earlier in the season when some of Minnesota's top guys, and especially the power play, was struggling. With 21 goals and five assists, Zucker would be hockey's "Cy Young winner" in most seasons (his "record" is 21-5) but Florida Panthers forward Brandon Pirri has 22 goals and two assists and probably wrapped that fictional award up unless he goes full Gretzky in the finale. 

Disappointment: There were points in the season where Thomas Vanek seemed destined to land here, but the other goaltenders not named Dubnyk finished with .906 and .887 save percentages.

12. Detroit Red Wings

MVP: Pavel Datsyuk has 63 points in 62 games. He's the only player who has turned 30 years old to average a point per game this season, and he's 36. Among players 35 and older, only Joe Thornton has more points (he has one more in 14 more games). And Datsyuk will probably finish in the top five or six of the Selke Trophy voting. 

Surprise: Tomas Tatar leads the Red Wings in goals in his second full NHL season. He's been a talented prospect for years, but that qualifies as unexpected. Detroit's top four scorers are all homegrown, European-born players who were selected no higher than No. 60 in their respective drafts. Maybe Director of European Scouting Hakan Andersson should be team MVP.

Disappointment: It's been Jimmy Howard of late, and the goaltending is in flux as the playoffs beckon. Mike Babcock said he wasn't sure who would start Game 1 after Detroit's overtime loss Thursday to the Montreal Canadiens. Among the goalies with at least 40 games played and a save percentage below .913, Howard is the only one who could start a playoff game.  

13. Nashville Predators

MVP: Pekka Rinne had struggled with injury and inconsistent play the past two seasons, but he firmly put himself back among the League's elite with a strong 2014-15. His save percentage slipped late in the season, but he still probably did enough to be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

Surprise: Filip Forsberg has had a wonderful first full season in the NHL, leading the Predators with 25 goals and 62 points. Like Rinne (and coach Peter Laviolette), he's been considered the favorite for a major individual award for a large part of the season, but he may not be able to hold off Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad, Calgary forward Johnny Gadureau ,Ottawa forward Mark Stone or Dallas defenseman John Klingberg for the Calder Trophy. The voting will likely be very close. 

Disappointment: Derek Roy didn't cost much as a free agent in the summer, and didn't really fit in Nashville. He had one goal and 10 points in 26 games, but has been far more productive with the Edmonton Oilers after the Predators traded him for a player they waived after four games, Mark Arcobello.

14. Montreal Canadiens

MVP: It has been a remarkable season for Carey Price, and he could become the first goaltender to win the Hart Trophy since Jose Theodore in 2002. His victory in the Vezina Trophy will probably be the widest margin of any of the major awards this season. 

Surprise: Dale Weise had 13 goals and 30 points in the past three NHL seasons (169 games played), but he has 10 goals and 29 points in 2014-15. His placement in the lineup has at times been a source of consternation for analytically inclined fans of the team, though.

Disappointment: The Calgary Flames making the playoffs saves the Canadiens from being the worst puck-possession team in the tournament, but not from the bewilderment of how a well constructed and talented roster fares so poorly at it. They should be better in that department, but they aren't.  

15. Ottawa Senators

MVP: Erik Karlsson's ability to generate offense, particularly at even strength, is unmatched at his position. A worthy Norris Trophy candidate, he has been incredible for Senators during their second-half surge. Mostly unfounded criticism of his two-way play remains, but the defensive play he made in overtime Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins may have earned them the one point they need to make the playoffs. 

Surprise: Andrew Hammond played 25 games in the AHL and had an .898 save percentage. Hammond has played 23 games in the NHL this season and is 19-1-2 with a .939 save percentage. In a season of remarkable goaltending stories, nobody tops The Hamburgler.  

Disappointment: While Hammond, Stone and Mike Hoffman have been revelations for the Senators this season, Bobby Ryan and David Legwand are two of the highest-paid players on the team (and Ryan becomes the highest when his seven-year, $50.75 million contract starts next season) and they have combined for the same number of goals as Hoffman.

16. Vancouver Canucks

MVP: Daniel Sedin leads in points and Radim Vrbata leads in goals, but Henrik Sedin, while tough to separate in value from his brother, earns the nod. Willie Desjardins, who doesn't seem to be receiving much attention as a Jack Adams Award candidate despite missing multiple key defensemen for large chunks of the season and returning the Canucks to the playoffs, would also work. 

Surprise: Bo Horvat's talent and ability to produce in the NHL at 20 years old is not a surprise, but he missed the start of the season with an injury. Teams often don't keep a precocious prospect on the roster in that situation, but the Canucks let him learn on the job and stuck with him despite only having three goals and seven points in mid-January and he's rewarded them with a strong second half of the season.

Disappointment: Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider are gone, but the Canucks replaced them with Ryan Miller for a similar per-season price. He has missed time with a knee injury and whether or not he actually starts Game 1 instead of Eddie Lack, who has outperformed him this season, remains to be seen.

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