Statistics and the Stanley Cup

The summer of 2014 was called the “Summer of Analytics” for good reason. The Toronto Maple Leafs made several important hires, among them Kyle Dubas and Darryl Metcalf (which led to the demise of ExtraSkater). The Oilers hired Tyler Dellow. Sunny Mehta was hired by the Devils. Eric Tulsky was hired by, well, someone.

Analytics also became more and more visible in hockey writing. Many journalists made their playoffs predictions based off of sorting Fenwick Close in ascending order. Some denounced Duncan Keith’s Norris win based on his offensive zone starts: not only behind Weber and Chara, but not even the hardest on his own team. Analytics were probably the reason Mark Giodano received Norris votes as well. They could have been used more, especially regarding the NHL Awards (in my opinion, Torey Krug should never have sniffed a Calder ballot, let alone come in fourth) but the fact of the matter is that they were used.

But here’s the thing. Possession alone is not going to tell us who will a playoff series, let alone the Stanley Cup.

5v5 Fenwick Close is generally thought of as the best way to predict future success. The New Jersey Devils, fifth in the league, lost every shootout, probably started Martin Brodeur more than they should have, and failed to make the playoffs, let alone make a deep run. San Jose was third and not only lost in the first round, but reacted by signing John Scott and stripping Joe Thornton of the captaincy. The Panthers came in twentieth, ahead of Minnesota, Montreal, and Philadelphia, and the Panthers picked first overall.

Possession doesn’t tell the whole story. Possession tells a plurality of it, sure, but we still have to factor in goaltending, goalscoring, systems and player usage, injury, and a lot of variance we’re currently categorizing- for lack of a better term- as luck.

This holds true even when it comes to the playoffs themselves. It took seven games for the Rangers to beat the Flyers in the first round; the Rangers had a 5v5 FenClose of 53.6%, and the Flyers were at a much lower 48.2%. The Flyers also ran with a goaltending tandem of Ray Emery and a probably-still-concussed Steve Mason.

So what can possession tell us?

Firstly, it can help us predict. Glancing at that list of NHL teams ranked by possession allows someone to say with reasonable confidence that the Colorado Avalanche likely won’t repeat last year’s success this time around. The Flyers may miss the playoffs. Nashville and New Jersey may make them. Florida probably won’t be quite as godawful. Is any of this guaranteed? Of course not- to use the Avalanche as an example again, Varlamov might stay incredibly hot and Nate MacKinnon might turn into a possession beast and make up for the loss of Stastny. However, more likely, the Avalanche tend more towards the 2013-2014 Toronto Maple Leafs and continue to get outshot.

Possession can also tell us who to pursue and who to sign. The Rangers signed Benoit Pouliot after “team data analysis”, taking a chance on him. His line, with Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard, was very, very good and contributed immensely to New York’s trip to the Final. It can tell us that the Flyers probably shouldn’t have given Andrew MacDonald the contract that they did.

There’s more and more data available to hockey teams and hockey fans almost every day. ExtraSkater was shut down, but war-on-ice.com popped up in its stead. There’s now data on zone entries and zone exits for almost all of the previous season thanks to inhuman efforts by Corey Sznajder. Data is becoming more popular and more mainstream, and more people have access to it.

It’s not going to tell us who will win the Stanley Cup. But it will give us a much better idea of who might make it there and, more excitingly, the ins and outs of hockey itself.

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