Hockey is an amazing sport in its seamless and constantly morphing flow-of-play. There are times, beautiful times, when there is no whistle for many minutes, just allowing the sound of the skates to be heard through the arena as bodies mix from each bench every 40 seconds and seem to all find their place.
That is part of the draw of this sport - the speed and the flow. There are no huddles and breaks between plays or pitches or 7 timeouts a side, like in the other sports we know so well. That is great for the viewer and the fan - the idea that a period can happen quickly and you require the intermissions to take a breath and to ponder all that has transpired. But, it does come with some downside.
That, to me, is the idea that with no boundaries there is no way to separate one moment from another, and thus, unlike baseball or football, it is difficult to see things in a way that allows us to evaluate repeatable moments and scenarios. In football, each play can be sorted easily by down and distance and before long, you can see trends and measure what a team does well and not so well. In baseball, each at bat is its own story and it is like a sport that was created for deep thinking and analysis.
That makes those sports a bit easier to consume on a more advanced level of understanding than hockey has for a long time. If you want to just watch the guys in your color fight for the puck and attempt to accumulate goals all night, great. Hockey is perfect for that level of consumption. But, if you want to figure out WHY you are winning or losing or WHICH particular players are pulling their weight and winning their particular time on the ice and which are not.
Over the course of time, in following sports, I have become a very curious human being when it comes understanding the process of players, coaches, and general managers when it comes to seeing the sport from a different perspective. They are graded for each game and sometimes each shift. How? It is a good grade when they score, a break-even score when they break-even, and a failing grade when they are scored upon? That seems like something anyone in the crowd could evaluate. Surely, this sport with numerous full-time experts employed can understand the sport on a much higher level than those of us who merely observe it.
Of course they do. And since we live in an age where data and analysis is something we enjoy about our sports (at least some of us), it is invading every sport. How can numbers or statistics help us know how good our team might be and how good each player on our team might be, relative to the entire sport or to themselves from one night to the next?
And this is where an old statistic has started this entire process. Shots. It starts with shots on goal, a statistic that is announced at the arena after every period of every game. The announcer will inform the audience of the totals and many will ignore them because they don't mean a thing if they don't light the lamp, right?
Well, actually, we have found that no statistic can correlate to winning more in hockey than shots on goal over the large sample. Now, that is where things get a bit murky, because it takes a large sample for those things to even out, and you can lose many games in which you have dominated the shots and win many games in which you don't. In fact, one of my favorite Stars memories was Game 4 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals in Denver when the Stars were dominated and out-shot 39-15, but Ed Belfour was fantastic in outplaying Patrick Roy, Brett Hull made his few chances count, and the Stars won the game 4-1 on their way to winning that series.
Shots on goal are different than shots. When the puck hits the pipe, that is as close as it gets to a goal, but it doesn't count as a shot on goal. Shots on goal can count a dump in from center ice which is on net, but it won't count a great scoring chance that hits the crossbar?
About 15 years ago, I remember that the NHL offered "zone times" on their official box score. This helped my football brain compute better because this seemed like field position. The more time the puck is in your end, the more nervous you get that something bad is going to happen. The more it is in their end, the more upbeat view you have on the game because it seems like your team is bossing the action and making sure that they are on the prowl for the next goal. This seemed so useful, that the league than took zone times away from us. In that particular case, the NHL removed this as a specific metric for some reason I have never understood - but some have argued that salary arbitration might have made the league offer less information that might help a particular player argue for a higher wage.
I should point out that much of my hockey education was supplemented with the Sega Genesis NHL games of the 1990s, and zone time was a huge feature there to evaluate how badly you were dominating your opponent.
Instead of zone time, teams and hockey observers started tracking everything that leads to goals. What is it that causes the final moment where shooter beats goalie and the arena goes nuts? How do we get there? Is it face-off wins? Is it zone exits? Zone entries? Puck handling? Passing accuracy? Shooting skills? And how much of the good result is dependent on the opponent doing something bad on defense?
All of the above. Yes, on all that. Which is why many viewers just end up watching the puck and the score and enjoying the game.
But, again, as someone who wants to understand the game at a higher level and to know why the Dallas Stars in particular are sometimes a great team, other times not good enough, and still other times either getting good results while playing poorly or bad results while playing well, I started down this journey of sorting more and more numbers to try to comprehend this game I have great passion for.
Thankfully, others beat me to it and that is how we eventually have arrived at our present day hockey statistics that you might see when reading about this game called Corsi and Fenwick.
They are both very similar ways of considering the "shots correlate to wins" idea, but with Corsi they include everything from shots on goal, to shots not on goal, and blocked shots. Fenwick does not include blocked shots, but they are similar enough that I just roll with Corsi and study it from there.
Again, though, it is much more fun to find someone else doing the heavy lifting and then we just look at the results, so when I am watching the Stars on my couch, I generally have my digital device right next to me. There are 2 websites that I use every game that I think might enhance your viewing that I think are worth telling you about for different reasons.
ExtraSkater.com is one I use constantly, because it updates Corsi, Fenwick, and a number of other statistics that are useful as the game goes on. They are usually about 15 minutes behind, but the data in game is fantastic and you can see who is doing well and who is not. For instance, as you are watching the game, you might be convinced that only the Seguin line is doing well on this occasion, and when they have a Corsi For/Corsi Against differential of +10, while the other forwards are below 0, it is confirmed. They also tally percentages relative to the team and then the team relative to the opponent.
As an example, in this last back to back with Colorado, the two games were drastically different. On Monday, Colorado generated 74 Corsi events for themselves (shots, missed shots, blocked shots) and the Stars 60. That means that you can see Colorado had 55% of the game and the Stars 45%. But, the next night back in Dallas, Dallas flipped the game and had 61 Corsi events to Colorado 52. Again, this gave Dallas a 55% to 45% advantage. This certainly doesn't determine the winner, but there have been games where one team is up at 70%/30% advantage, and that usually does tell you domination is happening. You can sort all situations, just 5 on 5, just 5 on 5 in "close game situations", or however. I like to look at all 5 on 5 play, personally, but it is all on that site. I don't know how they do all this work, but it has allowed me to understand plenty more.d
The other site I use every night is ShiftChart.com to understand player usage. Clearly, to understand Corsi or Fenwick differentials, then I better know what Lindy Ruff is asking of each of his troops. If Seguin's line is being matched up against Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, then I need to understand the difference in results than if they were being snuck out against bottom line competition. You have to know what each player is doing on that night and who they are being asked to play against and who they are playing with. That is where your head might start spinning, but I just focus on the opponent's marquee players usually. Who is Ruff asking to deal with Toews and Kane? And that is where ShiftChart.com comes in. This site basically tracks who plays with who and who they are playing against in a mesmerizing simulation of how each player is used by pressing play on their site. Your understanding of the team will be enhanced greatly if you know what each player's particular role is from night to night and with these two sites, it all comes into greater focus.
One last site I use less frequently but still enjoy is SportingCharts.com and their ice tracker. This shows you an amazing heat map of the location of each shot Jamie Benn has taken and you can see where he loves to get his shots versus Sidney Crosby or Sergei Gonchar. You can spend plenty of time there.
So, what are we learning?
Now, this part is important. Hockey has been taught to us for years, on a nightly basis by a man named Razor. And if there is one thing Razor has said a million times, it is that this wonderful sport often comes down to "goalies and special teams". And I have admitted that I like to track Corsi events based on 5 on 5 play. So, basically, I am not considering goalies or special teams at all. This seems like a pretty big contradiction, right?
Well, for now, I have accepted that all saves and therefore all goalies are not created equal. For any of this to make sense, we know that a great power play/penalty kill and a great goalie can cover all sorts of issues on your team, whereas the opposite can make a good team look poor.
But, there have been too many times where this team is winning, but my eyeballs were not liking the 60 minute product and I would feel that this cannot sustain, but it is riding a hot goalie. Or, the Stars lose 3 of 4, but my eyes tell me they deserve better. These are simply metrics that seem to indicate how well a team is playing in the "big picture", but in the end, this is always going to be a sport where the team with the most goals wins.
And you can certainly enjoy it on that level. In fact, I might recommend it.
However, if you always wanted to try to dive in a little deeper to try to view the game on another level, these websites are made for you to enjoy.
As for the Stars? League-wide, this year they sit at 9th in Fenwick (19th last season) and 10th in Corsi (up from 15th). It says the Stars 5 on 5 quality is as good as it has been in a long, long time and rising. It says that there is work to be done, but in stats where Chicago is 1st and Buffalo is 30th, the Stars are holding their own. If the Power Play can enhance these numbers, the game to game results might show the Stars heading to the upper parts of the standings, too. But, for now, know that the numbers say this team is showing marked improvement and is continuing to get better.
In other words, the new Stars are, in fact, rising.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Bob Sturm is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can listen to Bob weekdays from 12-3 on Sports Radio 1310AM and 96.7FM The Ticket and follow him on Twitter @SportsSturm