Kukla's Korner

Here Comes the Forechecker

First off I have to say it’s a great honor to join the gang here at Kukla’s Korner; my only wish is that Paul had extended the invitation before I spent two days wrestling with my Old Blogger template over Labor Day weekend.  For those of you who are new to On the Forecheck, you can look forward to a combination of Nashville Predators commentary and a healthy dose of NHL statistical analysis.  On occasion, I’ll dive into the world of Fantasy Hockey and chime in on business issues facing the league as well.

So why “On the Forecheck”, and why do I use the nickname “The Forechecker”?  Well, taking a nickname was an easy choice; amidst a vast ocean of online sports writing, I thought a moniker might make a more memorable tagline than my real name (Dirk Hoag; and no, I’m not the love child of the former Chicago Blackhawks captain and a journeyman Quebecois forward).  When it comes to the game of hockey, the forecheck to me is where the action is; it’s where speed, hustle and smarts can override talent and size, and momentum can change completely as a team’s offense is shut down before it even breaks out of its own end.  I should also note that as a veteran beer leaguer with minimal size and negligible talent, it’s only natural that I’d throw my lot in with the muckers and grinders of the game.

The Forechecker No, I’m not going all “Ocho Cinco”

But what about all this statistical nonsense?

In a quest to achieve a Moneyball-like insight that uncovers previously undervalued aspects of hockey, one branch of the statistical analysis field aims to define measurements which can be applied across all NHL players to express their impact on team performance.  Examples of this include Alan Ryder’s Player Contribution, Gabe Desjardin’s On-Ice/Off-Ice +/- Rating, and Dave Johnson’s Player Rankings.  Many are quick to shoot down such work as inherently flawed due to the dynamic nature of the game (as opposed to baseball which consists of discrete events which are easily described statistically).  Recently, Dave Staples of the Edmonton Journal launched just such a debate, with the geeks represented well by Lowetide and Andy Grabia of Battle of Alberta.

As for my 2 cents on that issue?  I tend to think of those of us investigating such matters as playing the role of the escaped prisoner from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  While the cynics remain comfortable with bottom-up, individual observations and qualitative debates, the statisticians are trying to complement (not replace) that approach with a top-down, overall view that reveals patterns and trends.  As the traditionalists remain chained, watching and interpreting the game in the same old way, the analytical crowd is compelled to stumble out of that allegorical cave and try to ascertain fundamental truths in the full light of day (or in this case, by utilizing hordes of data).  Having caught a glimpse of what this approach can offer, the analyst simply can’t go back to the old way of looking at things.  Understanding all too well the current limitations of NHL statistics, he is motivated by the potential of what might be achieved; a genuine advance in understanding the game that provides a deeper fan experience and perhaps, someday, a place at the Hockey Operations round table for the stats geek.  Hey, a guy can dream, right?

Besides seeking the Holy Grail of objective player evaluation, advanced NHL statistics can also provide a more granular view of the game.  By taking the Play By Play files made available on NHL.com after each contest (here’s an example), we can do a number of things by rolling data up from the root level.  For instance, we can count not just how many penalties a player takes, but how many they draw from the opposition; comparing the two figures leads to a stat I like to call Penalty Plus/Minus, a reflection of how many Power Play chances a given player generates for his team, minus the number of times he leaves his teammates on the Penalty Kill.  Penalties have a tremendous impact on the outcome of a given game, but until this information was included in the Play By Play files last season, we didn’t know which players were contributing the most in that area.  Here are the final numbers from the 2007-8 Regular Season:

 

While it was no surprise to see the names Crosby, Datsyuk and Ovechkin up there, it is interesting to see Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar so highly listed; despite being such a lousy team, the Los Angeles Kings clearly had the sympathy of the referees.  At the bottom of the list are a variety of defensemen.  That’s not unusual when you consider the nature of their job.  When an attacking forward gets the jump on you, as a defenseman sometimes you just have to haul them down.  This is a good example of how one always needs to place these statistics within their proper context.  Penalty Plus/Minus is a simple counting stat, and it might be more useful to prorate it relative to each player’s ice time (say, per 60 minutes of play), or break the list down by position, so stay-at-home blueliners aren’t unfairly compared to puck-dangling forwards.

In terms of what you can expect to see here, you’ll get more of this “rolling up the details” approach to statistical analysis than any attempt to create an objective player evaluation system.  Since this field is still relatively new, I think it’s more useful to focus on topics like whether quick shots after a faceoff are very important, how reliable the NHL official scorers are when it comes to these Play By Play files, and who is banging in the most rebound shots.

There are a zillion such interesting questions to ask and answer, and by stopping by here, I hope you’ll join me in the conversation.  Like I said at the beginning, it’s an honor to join Kukla’s Korner, and I hope to keep pace with the fine writers who roam these pages.

Filed in: Nashville Predators, NHL Statistical Analysis, | On the Forecheck | Permalink
 

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