NHL seeks to grab fans with data analytics

The NHL wants to bring in hardcore fans and casual fans alike with a multi-phase plan to offer 'enhanced statistics' along with advanced visualizations on 100 years of historical data and its real-time scoring data.

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Credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Data analytics aren't just for identifying potential cost savings or driving new insights into customers. They can also be used to create new data products.

Case in point: The National Hockey League (NHL), which is digitizing and repackaging its statistics — some of them going back nearly 100 years — to create a new enhanced statistics offering that it hopes will appeal to hardcore hockey fans while drawing in more casual fans.

Last month, the NHL announced a multi-year North American partnership with SAP SE, which will help it provide fans, broadcasters and media the ability to analyze official NHL, team and player stats that will include advanced visualizations that will "tell stories," as Steve McArdle, executive vice president of Digital Media and Strategic Planning at the NHL, puts it.

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"There is fan appetite to be able to derive insight around what happens on the ice as computing power increases and fans are starting to understand more about the strategy and tactics and action on the ice," he says.

Analytics are changing on the fly

Hockey has always been an old-school sort of sport, and many clubs and coaches have been slow to embrace analytics — much like baseball before Sabermetrics exploded into the wider public consciousness. And it has been argued that hockey's rapid and fluid nature, with players entering and leaving the ice on-the-fly as play continues, makes it resistant to the sort of modeling that can be done on baseball with its stately pace and one-on-one matchups.

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But as with baseball's Sabermetrics, a niche core of devoted hockey fans embraced the challenge of modeling hockey and created their own language to describe it. You don't have to go very far down the rabbit hole to encounter some of their metrics:

  • Corsi. Corsi, named for Buffalo Sabres goaltending coach Jim Corsi, is the sum of shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots — essentially the number of shot attempts. It can be expressed as a differential or percentage by comparing shot attempts for and against a team. The idea is to approximate puck possession. You can use the stat to understand how well a team controls the puck, but you can also apply it to players by calculating a team's shot attempts for and against while a player is on the ice. While controlling puck possession doesn't guarantee victory, teams with better puck possession have a higher probability of success in the long-term. Hockey blogger Kent Wilson notes that most players and teams have Corsi ratios between 40 and 60 percent, with the elite coming in at 55 percent or better.
  • Fenwick. Fenwick is a variation on Corsi named for Calgary Flames blogger Matt Fenwick. It counts onlyshots on goal and missed shots, excluding blocked shots. Wilson says it tends to have a stronger correlation with scoring chances, though he also says the difference between Corsi and Fenwick is negligible in the long run.
  • PDO. PDO looks like it's an abbreviation but it's not; it's taken from the Internet handle of Brian King, who first proposed it. PDO is the sum of a team's even-strength shooting percentage and save percentage. It can also be used to quantify individual players by summing even-strength shooting percentage and save percentage when a particular player is on the ice. The idea is to quantify "puck luck" and therefore determine whether a team is over-performing due to good luck or under-performing due to bad luck. As NHL.com Staff Writer Evan Sporer notes, PDO can help explain how the Washington Capitals' fared so poorly last season despite having wunderkind forward Alexander Ovechkin. Ovechkin managed to find the net on 8.97 percent of his own shots, but the team only scored on 5.84 percent of shots when Ovechkin was on the ice. That gives him the fifth-lowest ranked PDO last season among skaters who skated at least 1,000 minutes.
  • Zone starts. The descriptively named zone starts is used to modify a player's Corsi stat. Zone starts is the ratio between offensive zone faceoffs and defensive zone faceoffs at even strength. It can be used to offset the fact that players with a high zone start ratio — meaning they start more frequently in the offensive zone — will naturally tend to have a higher Corsi than players with low zone start ratios that tend to start in the defensive zone.

There are others as well. While McArdle notes that fans who argue about these stats online are extremely engaged, he says the obscure jargon can be impenetrable to more casual fans and the conversations are happening away from NHL.com

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