My View On The State of Hockey Journalism

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I had the itch yesterday and wanted to dust off the ole’ blog.

I don’t really consider myself a journalist, although I did minor in the practice in undergrad, and have written a couple of longform pieces that fall outside of my normal practice of statistical hockey analysis. That said, I feel pretty strongly that what’s out there on average, particularly in the field of sports journalism — especially in terms of hockey journalism — could be a lot more convincing than it is..

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How I would “Fix” the NHL All-Star Game

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It seems like there have been 1000 of these articles written, so I thought I would throw my hat in the ring.

First of all, it’s important to remember that an All-Star Game is primarily for kids. When you’re 6 or 10 or even 14, All-Star Games are a novelty with no equal, the opportunity to see your heroes play together in a best-on-best competition, while learning more about their personalities. When I was younger, I got to go to the game in Montreal, the one where Alex Kovalev scored a hat-trick, the shootout winner, and game MVP. The Bell Centre was going crazy, it was a great environment, and a cool event. Live music (kinda trashy live music, but you take what you can get), different jerseys, all the stars, I loved it.

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On the St. Louis Blues and Seizing Rams Fever

There have been a lot of murmurs of late about the St. Louis Blues’ interest in Jonathan Drouin. There have also been rumors about the availability of star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. In short, nobody really knows what the Blues will look like come March, which is odd, considering they currently sit third in a competitive Central Division, 11 points clear of losing a playoff spot, and 10th in Score-Adjusted Corsi percentage.

But this uncertainty stems from the team’s salary situation. The Blues are a budget team, and one which, with this core of playoffs, has blown series leads and lost first round playoff series in consecutive years. Captain David Backes is a UFA this summer, and will likely command a huge raise despite nobody being quite clear on just how good he is. Shattenkirk is under contract at a reasonable $4.225 million for this year and next, but then he too will command a big salary, so it’s reasonable to entertain dealing him while he still has serious value.

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On Fourth Lines and Weighing Intangibles


CalClutterbuckNYI by Lisa Gansky. Licensed under Creative Commons via Commons.

I was listening to this great episode of the PDOCast in which the guys discussed the recently waived Alex Semin and had a couple of additional thoughts on evaluating fourth liners, and on how the mold of the bottom-six forward has evolved over the years.

First of all,  I don’t believe in ever dismissing conventional hockey wisdom. There is wisdom in experience, and guys who have been around hockey for a long time have deep insight that can shed a lot of light on the game. Let’s take fighting for example. A former player might tell you that a good fight can swing momentum, and a quant might (very many have) dismissively wave them aside.

“There is no proof of that. Run along now.”

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John Tortorella wants to know…

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John Tortorella by Robert Kowal. Licensed under Creative Commons via Commons.

Today, John Tortorella had a question about power plays.

It’s certainly a reasonable thing to wonder. It also seems like the kind of thing that, you know, your analytics person or department could quite easily figure out. But hey, the “let those Twitter guys figure it out” approach works as well I guess.

Anyway, I took the bait, partially because I am a power play fiend and partly because I’ve become more and more interested by faceoff impact. So I figured out the numbers. It’s important to note that NHL scorekeeping can be sketchy. Each scorer may have a different definition of a faceoff win, which can lead to some problems. But at this point, it’s what we have, so let’s take a look.

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The Dangers of Shooting and Save Percentage Graphs

Chart courtesy of @kikkerlaika

Chart courtesy of @kikkerlaika

Regression is a dangerous word.

That’s especially true because with the increase in the popularity of measures like PDO, fans have become prone to yell the term in a (figurative) crowded theatre and then run away. Regression is the beginning of the discussion, not the end. Teams don’t all regress to the same values, or at the same rate. Basically, tread with caution.

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How Do I Know If My Team Is Any Good? Introducing Inceptum

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ButlerVolmer1 by Enseeg via WikiMedia Commons.

Corsi has a lot of flaws. First of all, it’s not an accurate measure of possession. Corsi is just shot attempts, so it doesn’t actually measure how often a team has the puck on its stick, or its time in the offensive zone, or any other useful metric like that. Second, all shots aren’t created equal. Corsi treats a feeble wrister from the point with no traffic in front the same as a point-blank one-timer in front. Finally, it doesn’t take into account compete level or chemistry. I’m not sure why people try and use Corsi to evaluate teams.

I have come up with a far superior way to evaluate them. I called it Inceptum. Inceptum is a little difficult to explain, but the important thing is that it does a good job at predicting what will happen for the rest of the season. So if you want to know whether the team you support is as good as (or better than) its record, don’t look at goal differential, don’t look at Corsi — which isn’t even real possession — look at Inceptum, which has been shown to do a better job of predicting the results from the rest of the year than any box-score measures.

Goal differential after 10 games, for example, explains 23% of the variance in end of season goal differential, while Inceptum explains 32%! My metric is certainly not perfect, and one always has to take into account contextual factors and the eye test — luck plays a big role as well — but it’s one of the best evaluative tools we now have.

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A Look into Alex Ovechkin’s Elite Power Play Abilities

"Alex Ovechkin2" by Keith Allison. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Alex Ovechkin2” by Keith Allison. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

I don’t know if we’ll ever see a power play quite like that of this decade’s Washington Capitals. We can’t attach a firm date to it because it could extend as far as the end of Alex Ovechkin’s career at this rate, but we know that its peak of power began with the hiring of Adam Oates as Caps head coach back in 2012. Oates had run a successful 1-3-1 power play for the New Jersey Devils with Ilya Kovalchuk as his trigger-man, but nothing even close to the heights he managed to achieve with the man advantage in his two seasons in DC. Barry Trotz, to his credit, has kept the same formation — what’s that old adage about things that ain’t broke? — with only minor tweaks, and last year the power play continued to succeed.

Now there’s a lot to discuss about the formation and its success — I like to think of the Caps’ PP as a work of art more than anything else — but for the sake of this post I’m going to focus in on Alex Ovechkin. Never has there been a more criticized future first-ballot Hall of Famer, nor arguably a more controversial elite goal scorer. It should already be a given that Ovechkin is the best power play goal scorer of all time — he sits fifth overall in PPG/g despite playing in a significantly lower scoring era than his contemporaries like Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux — but I would argue by the time he retires, he will also likely be the greatest goal scorer of all time period. It’s the man advantage recently, in the latter stages of Ovechkin’s goal scoring peak, that has been the sniper’s bread and butter. Since Oates brought the 1-3-1 to town, Ovi has scored 48% of his goals on the power play, compared to 33% prior to that. He scored 25 power play goals last year, six ahead of the next highest total in Joe Pavelski’s 19. You have to go back another five to reach the player who is in third — Claude Giroux with 14 — indicating how great of a season the Sharks’ center/winger had, but that’s a story for another day.

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