A new way to measure NHL talent

By Justin Azevedo

Hockey recently increased its math requirement. The game has a new way of doing business that mirrors baseball’s Moneyball — adapted as a film starring Brad Pitt.

Moneypuck, as the hockey version is called, is a statistically-oriented system designed to increase spending efficiency in hockey. The purpose of these systems is to use advanced statistics to dig up undervalued players who have easily correctable problems in their game.

The Moneypuck revolution has been gaining steam for the last few years. In baseball, it is called Sabermetrics. In hockey, it is simply called advanced stats. The point of both systems is to evaluate players beyond traditional means, like goals, assists and plus/minus in hockey.

“There is a line in Moneyball that goes, roughly, ‘People pay too much attention to results instead of processes,’” said Kent Wilson, managing editor of the Nation Network. Wilson said that puck possession is one of the most measurable talents — making the jump from puck possession to wins is more challenging. Logically, more puck possession means more shot attempts, more scoring opportunities and a higher chance of winning.

Wilson said people tend to evaluate players on goals and wins. The problem is, however, that goals are often random. Compared to other methods of evaluation, goals are extremely rare — the sample size can be quite problematic.

“Instead of focusing only on the output, I am far more interested in how something happened, why it happened and how likely it is to reoccur,” said Wilson. “I try to determine how [players] manage their ice and anticipate plays. I also pay a lot closer attention to how they are deployed by their coach. Does he take many defensive-zone draws? Who does he play with? Against?”

Wilson said this method has an impact on how we perceive the quality of a player.

Most of these stats only apply to the nhl, which is a problem when evaluating talent in other hockey leagues. Wilson said in the future there will be developments for other leagues.

Advanced stats show the value of a player beyond traditional approaches. A player like Vancouver Canucks centre Manny Malhotra is likely undervalued by many because he doesn’t score much. But most fans don’t realize that Malhotra is a large part of why the Sedin twins have as much success as they do — 88 per cent of the time he’s in his own end, which is 37 per cent lower than the league average. This means the Sedins are in the offensive zone more often, meaning they will have more chances to score.

However, the acceptance of Moneypuck — like many innovations — is by no means widespread. Arguments regarding the validity of the stats vary and range from if hockey can be measured like baseball to personal attacks using tired cliches.

Wilson, however, is optimistic about the future of Moneypuck.

“Networked individuals in the hockey blogosphere can publish and discuss new studies daily,” he said. “Numbers are far easier to find and use thanks to the internet and modern spreadsheet programs as well. The fact that Bill James and others in baseball blazed a trail that was popularized by the book and movie Moneyball, means there is less resistance to this way of thinking.”

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