Analytics in the NHL – a blip or a trend?


LOS ANGELES, August 23, 2014 — The NHL is a competitive endeavor and, as such, its member teams are constantly looking for any edge over their peers. Ironically, it is also a copycat league, with clubs mimicking patterns in drafting, scouting, and even recruitment regarding specific nationalities or areas.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early nineties, everybody fell in love with Russian hockey players. One or two came to North America, dazzled with their particularly flashy style of play, and, in no time, every team just had to have its own. The same phenomenon occurred a bit later with Czech players, then Swedes, and so on.

Diverting organizational attention to hockey analytics has become the newest hot trend in professional hockey. At least two NHL teams have hired analytics experts over the summer, and more will be jumping on board soon. The discovery of prospective talent, long the purview of NHL scouting staffs, could soon be split between scouts and data crunchers.

Wikipedia defines analytics as, “The discovery and communication of meaningful patterns in data,”which, in the hockey world, would mean using a multitude of stats and possibly video to map both positive and negative tendencies in a player’s game. This could aid a general manager in deciding if a prospect is trending up or down, either regressing or showing promise. Since the database would include any and all specifics which have been or could be collected, the possibilities of what could be analyzed are dizzying, perhaps too much so.

While advancements in technology can be helpful in evaluating a player, NHL clubs would do well to tread cautiously with this experiment. Access to so much collected data, much of it incidental and likely useless, could lead to what is often called analysis to paralysis, wherein so much sterile information is consumed, categorized, and studied that it becomes irrelevant. At some point, somebody has to watch the kid play, and gauge the understated, more human aspects of their game.

Any scout who has been at it long enough knows there are many subtleties to a player’s game, and much can be learned simply from watching them on the bench. The way a player carries themselves, how they interact with their teammates, or the body language after a particularly bad shift are tells a good scout will pick up on, and go a long way toward forming their opinion of a player, beyond simply tracking their goals and assists.

Stats are valuable, and they can say a lot about a player, but stats fall far short of telling the entire story. Hopefully, the current analytics craze in the NHL will prove to be just a passing infatuation.

It is difficult to justify crunching an endless landscape of numbers, simply because the technology exists to do so. Some blame for the analytics craze may rest with the trendiness of fantasy sports leagues, and the attendant significance of stats in that world, however, it takes more than knowing how many goals a player scored to ascertain their organizational value, or make an accurate projection.

The NHL will always need scouts to see the prospects play, and to discern the dozens of human details which analytics will never be able to tell us.

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