What the Maple Leafs and Blackhawks tell us about advanced analytics in the NHL


(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Moneypuck is real. And it is spectacular.

It is also a closely guarded secret.

“What we do is different,” Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman said. “It’s also a competitive advantage. Which is why I’m really trying not to talk about it. I think what we do gives us an advantage over other teams.”

Hockey analytics is nothing new. In fact, less-traditional metrics (such as Corsi and Fenwick) have been used by for years to better determine a team’s true talent level and chances of making a deep playoff run. But the Blackhawks appear to have taken it to a whole new level, and just last week I got this question in the Fancy Stats mailbag:

The answer was easy.

Stan Bowman, general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks, appears to be doing the same thing [as Moneyball]. Instead of over-spending on fourth line players, he instead has invested $2,462,500 in the trio of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith who take a lion’s share of the defensive zone draws.

“[Stan BowmanJoel Quenneville] knows exactly which players do well in what zone, where they should start, where they should finish,” Ken Hitchcock, head coach of the St. Louis Blues, explained this week.

The results are undeniable: the Chicago Blackhawks took 55.4 percent of the even-strength shot attempts, second best in the league next to the Los Angeles Kings (56.1 percent). That means they possessed the puck quite a bit during their 2013-14 regular season games. Even if you eliminate score effects – a team protecting a lead is more likely to go into a defensive shell and a team trailing is more likely to just heave pucks on net – that number stays steady at 55.2 percent.

“The game’s changed,” said Kings’ Coach Darryl Sutter. “They think there’s defending in today’s game. Nah, it’s how much you have the puck.”

Having the puck generates more offensive zone time, which creates more scoring chances, which gives more opportunities to score goals. Over the long term it is one of the best indicators of how a team will perform over the remainder of its schedule, regardless of the point in the schedule you choose to start from.

Chicago’s analytics likely includes zone entry tracking, which debuted at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference by Eric Tulsky in a paper titled “Using Zone Entry Data To Separate Offensive, Neutral, And Defensive Zone Performance.”

[T]he team’s shot differential – which has been shown to be a strong predictor of wins – is determined almost entirely in the much less-heralded neutral zone. Neutral zone success involves more than getting extra zone entries; since carrying the puck across the blue line generates more than twice as many shots, scoring chances, and goals as dumping the puck in, gaining the zone with possession is a major driver of success.

Whatever Chicago is doing it is working: they are the only team in the salary-cap era to win two Stanley Cups (2010 and 2013) — which includes a major rebuild of the team after the first championship in 2010 – plus are Vegas bookmakers’ favorite to win a third.

But not all teams are buying into using analytics to gain an edge.

Former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has been one of the most vocal skeptics. “Numbers are overrated a lot of the time,” he said at the Sloan conference. “It’s an eyeball business.” He would go on to add “Statistics are like a lamp post to a drunk: Useful for support but not for illumination.”

His successor in Toronto, Dave Nonis, didn’t feel like there was anything worth committing resources to either.

“We’re constantly trying to find solid uses for [our analytics budget],” Nonis said. “The last six, seven years, we’ve had a significant dollar amount in our budget for analytics and most of those years we didn’t use it. We couldn’t find a system or a group we felt we could rely on to help us make reasonable decisions.”

“People run with these stats like they’re something we should pay attention to and make decisions on, and as of right now, very few of them are worth anything to us,” Nonis continued.

Toronto’s Vice President of Hockey Operations Dave Poulin  would echo some of those same sentiments.

Two teams. Two very different views on analytics. Two very different levels of success.

Here are the percentage of shot attempts in each team’s favor when you ignore special teams and lead-protecting situations.

And here are the team’s postseason fortunes.

Chicago Blackhawks Toronto Maple Leafs
2013-14 Playing NHL Conference Semi-Finals Did not qualify
2012-13 Won Stanley Cup Lost NHL Conference Quarter-Finals
2011-12 Lost NHL Conference Quarter-Finals Did not qualify
2010-11 Lost NHL Conference Quarter-Finals Did not qualify
2009-10 Won Stanley Cup Did not qualify
2008-09 Lost NHL Conference Finals Did not qualify
2007-08 Did not qualify Did not qualify
2006-07 Did not qualify Did not qualify
2005-06 Did not qualify Did not qualify

Yup. No problems at all.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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