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Frank's Thought of the Day - 3/7/2014

by Frank Albin / San Jose Sharks

Some sports grant followers inside knowledge via the use of statistics, others not so much.

Baseball is a perfect game for stats. Major League Baseball came to life when the National League began business in 1876. Later the American League first breathed life in 1901. Over the lifetime of baseball very few rules have changed. More importantly none of the measurements have changed in that time. The bases have always been 90 feet apart. The mound has always been 60’ 6” from the plate. And while the height of the mound has changed and the ball has been wound tightened and loosened (juiced or deadened), the game remains essentially the same.

Anyone with even a passing interest in baseball knows what it means to be a .300 hitter; they know what it means to be a 20-game winner. 60, 3000, and 1.12 translate into…Babe Ruth’s longtime home run record, how many hits it takes to be an all-time great hitter, and Bob Gibson’s epic ERA in 1968. With the advent of fantasy sports and the internet baseball has found more and more ways to crunch the numbers in a never-ending effort to understand the game.

Basketball lends itself to stats quite well. Shooting percentage from the floor and free-throw line show fans who is a difference maker. Registering points, assists, steals and rebounds per game make it easy to compare teams and players.

Football stats have just recently become of age. However the NFL is never afraid of changing foundational rules in an effort to make their game more fan-friendly. We still look at yards per carry, TD receptions and quarterback ratings. Current stats can point to who might be the better quarterback…Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. More difficult to determine is comparing different eras. Is Drew Brees better than Johnny Unitas? The numbers do not so readily answer such questions.

Maybe the toughest game to understand by way of stats is hockey. When you sit back and look at the game, hockey has more in common with soccer than any of North America’s other big 4. Like soccer it’s a ‘flow’ game. All players are moving at all times with limited game stoppages. On the ice all players play both offense and defense, and some players get ice in even strength, powerplay and short-handed situations. The more you watch one team or one player, the more you know a player’s real worth to his team. With 30 teams and over 700 players in the NHL it is nearly impossible to know the value of each player. Hockey can’t be accused of not trying to use stats. Goals, assists and points are the most basics of hockey numbers. A 20-goal man tells us all that the player has enough skills to find his way to the net enough to score a goal roughly every 4 games. Not so clear is who that player plays with or what his ‘role’ might be in context of his team.

Detroit hall-of-famer Steve Yzerman registered some amazing scoring stats in the late 80’s and early 90's. Yzerman scored 50+ goals and 100+ points in more than a few seasons. However once Steve was surrounded with better players his role changed. No longer was it necessary for Yzerman to provide all the offense. When Scotty Bowman took over the Detroit bench…he needed Yzerman to win face-offs, kill penalties and play shutdown defense. When that changed is when Detroit challenged for Stanley Cups. However if you only look at the stats you might have been led to believe Yzerman had lost some ability. Similar to the NFL, the NHL has had distinctive eras. Scoring has risen and dropped due to these very distinct eras. Career totals tell us who was a great scorer and who was not, but it’s difficult to know how many goals Rocket Richard might score today or how many Wayne Gretzky would have scored during the original six.

In recent years the NHL has spent time and money to keep track of ice times, face-off wins, plus/minus and scoring percentage. But even with that there’s no accounting how good a passer or puck handler really is. Also unclear is how clutch a player is. In baseball there’s batting average with runners in scoring position in night road games after the 7th inning. In hockey we do not readily know puck clears in the last 30 seconds of tied road game.

The numbers tell us something but we aren’t certain what.

Two ideas which I think might give us better, quality information are by tallying 1st assists as compared to 2nd assists. More time than not the 1st assist makes that goal possible…it credits a player with that quality which led directly to the goal. A 2nd assist does not share that knowledge. Watch any game and you’ll see what I mean. Players routinely get assists for pucks that bounce off a skate or other body part. Little 5 foot passes in the defensive zone can lead to a goal if the scorer makes a series of remarkable moves. The practice of giving the same points to goals, 1st assists and 2nd assists do not clearly tell us who is ‘best scorer’ is among the league leaders. How about 3 player points to a goal, 2 for the 1st assist and 1 for the 2nd assists? It might give us a better measure but it would not give us a good comparison to the history of the league.

My other suggestion is to change the way we view powerplay and penalty kill statistics. Presently one can calculate powerplay percentages by dividing powerplay goals by powerplay opportunity. Say a team has 20 PPGs in 100 powerplay opportunities…it’s a 20.0% ranking. However there is no accounting for true powerplay time. A 3 second powerplay counts as a powerplay opportunity just like a 2 minute powerplay. The resulting numbers give us a distorted view of a team’s powerplay true ability. My recommendation is to change the powerplay and penalty kill from a percentage base to an index. This system would be derived from powerplay time divided by total powerplay goals. The resulting number would tell you how many minutes and seconds of powerplay time is needed to score a goal. Let’s use the previous scenario…team A scores 20 powerplay goals in 145.00 minutes of powerplay time. The result of this is an index of 7.15. The penalty killing would use a similar equation. Once this system begins to be used it wouldn’t take too long to know what number is a good pp or pk index.

While some get frustrated not being able to translate the action into numbers, others see this as a good thing. Baseball, football and basketball are tamed by the stats. Hockey is a wild animal that’s hard to capture but fun to watch.

For you stats geeks…this article is 1159 words long. Enjoy the games.

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