How much do NHL athletes and coaches rely on stats—versus their eyes and game film— to tell them about a player or his performance?
The stats part of the question was alluded to a few weeks ago in a radio interview Capitals forward Brooks Laich did on The Sports Junkies, where they briefly discussed statistics and what Laich thinks of their application to the game. The hockey community in general has plenty of dissension about whether stats or eyes should be the bottom line when it comes to measuring a player’s performance.
It’s striking, in fact, that statistics are often treated with more reverence by everyone except the people who actually play the game. That’s been my experience, at least, with the Capitals. While some players occasionally reference stats when responding to questions (see again: Laich, Brooks), there’s often a take-a-grain-of-salt attitude towards stats—particularly personal ones—in players’ attitudes when stats are brought up by media members in locker-room scrums.
So I asked two Caps players and a coach what they thought. Stats devotees will probably discount my analysis because of the small sample size I pooled. That’s fair. I’m working with variables (actually, it’s more like a constant) such as time and, well, not having enough of it.
But note how Washington Capitals forward Dennis Wideman frames his answer to the stats sheet vs. eyes question.
“Among ourselves—everyone else looks at stats, everything else is based on stats—but among ourselves, we know there’s games where a guy could be best player on the ice but doesn’t get a goal, or doesn’t get a point, he had four or five scoring chances and the goalie just made great saves,” Wideman said when asked how much he felt stats reflected a player’s game or ability. “Then there’s other games where you feel like you played terrible and had two or three points. It reflects somewhat, but also sometimes you play really, really good but you had nothing to show for it that way.”
Brooks Laich says his assessment of his game ultimately relies on how he feels.
“I’m going to trust how I feel on the ice, and whether or not I did a job to help us win,” Laich said. “They’re [statistics are] not gonna lie, but they’re not gonna tell you the entire truth. … You can read into them what you want. Ultimately, as players, I don’t think many guys really actually care that much about their stats. They just want to feel good about their game.”
Callups present another interesting angle on the stats vs. eyes question, since often the coaches aren’t in the position to evaluate a player in person.
Capitals assistant coach Dean Evason said the coaches will look at stats to see if a guy’s involved in the offense—goals and assists—but that they’ll rely heavily on conversations with the player’s coaches ( in the Capitals’ case, AHL Hershey Bears head coach Mark French) to see who’s hot.
There’s a lot of trust between the Capitals and their AHL affiliate. Even with that, however, Capitals head coach Dale Hunter took a trip down to Hershey with less than two months under his belt as Capitals head coach so that he could get his own thought process going about the guys he saw on the ice.
“Stats are going to tell you trends,” Laich explained. “They can be useful, but I don’t think you should absolutely rely on them.”
Sometimes, in fact, they’re downright misleading. Evason gave an example with faceoff stats:
“It varies from rink to rink,” he said. “A lot of times, our center iceman will win the faceoff back, they’ll get possession of it, and that center iceman doesn’t get credit for the win. Whereas for us, if Jeff Halpern wins it back, and our guy gets beat to the puck, that’s not his [Halpern’s] fault. He’s done his job. And it’s such an individual stat, but yet some rinks will view it as more of a team stat. So there is variation from team to team. I don’t know if there’s a specific structure to each one, or that everyone in the league says, ‘If it’s possession on a faceoff, then it’s a win.’”
Laich summed it up: “I’m not worried about my stats during the game, I’m not worried about them after. The only stat I might concern myself with is ice time. I want to get shots, I want to win faceoffs, I want to strip pucks and that sort of stuff, but I’m not too concerned about that.”
Evason had a different twist on how much he thinks the players concern themselves with stats: contract disputes. He brought it up as part of his discussion on the discrepancies in stats from rink to rink.
“A guy’s gonna complain, because they can use it in their contract disputes, and it can be used against them. So they’re very conscious of it, obviously,” he said.
What about the coaches themselves?
Evason confirmed that he’ll trust his eyes more than the stats sheet when it comes down to it.
“We put not a lot of stock into it, but yet, there are some that you look at that you take into consideration,” Evason said. “We’re more, as a coaching staff, we’re more concerned of making mistakes on the ice. … We’ll know if Troy Brouwer isn’t hitting one night.”
Of course, eyes can miss things the first time around. The more helpful tool, gleaned from the conversation with Evason, seems to be rewatching game tape. Evason said, for example, that watching a game, it will look like one player wasn’t hitting, but when the coaching staff goes back and rewatches the entire game again the next morning, they can change their opinion.
“So there’s a lot of times we sit in there, and we think we’ve done one thing, but we’ve actually done the other after we can sit down and evaluate,” Evason said.
In fact, that time to evaluate is so important that the coaches aren’t too concerned with talking to players about the performance immediately after the game.
“That’s why we don’t put a whole lot of stock after a game – we don’t go in and talk to the guys. We want to just wait, reflect on the game, what we saw, and then watch the tape obviously. It doesn’t lie,” Evason said.
Evason also said that the coaches will evaluate scoring chances (music to a stats-lover’s ears); however, Evason has worked under three different head coaches in Washington and says everyone has their own version of what a scoring chance is.
Hunter, for example, has his preferred stats method of what Evason describes as “scoring chances for and against,” and who’s contributed “positively” to help the team get that chance for. When asked if it’s a known public method, Evason said it’s Hunter’s personal way to determine it.
“Every coach has a different eye for what a scoring chance is,” Evason said. “Comcast will put up that we’ve had so many scoring chances, and … we’ll be like, ‘No way we had 15 scoring chances,’ but it’s just because our thought process on scoring chances is different than whoever’s keeping them for them.”
It’s good to make one thing clear at this point: no one is arguing that stats don’t play a role in hockey analysis. Even I am not stupid enough to suggest that. But the impression I got from everyone was that they were willing to trust either what their eyes told them or how they felt they played after a game more than a stats sheet. Of course, the outlook or emphasis can vary slightly by coach. Laich remembers head coach Bruce Boudreau as being a “big stats guy” (though he didn’t specify as to how or whether that made Boudreau’s coaching different), something that would also come across in post-game press conferences.
Perhaps stats are just the crutches the rest of us need to keep up with these guys whose eyes and instincts have been honed by playing and watching this game at an elite talent level for so long. But when we incorporate and understand how they are looking at the game, which is definitely less stats-based than we’re wont to do, our analysis will be that much the better for it.