Sbisa, the Sens, and the Scramble: Evaluating Defensive Play Following a Shot Attempt

This post originally appeared on Hockey Graphs.

Luca Sbisa may be one of the players who best epitomizes the divide between the old-school, eye test view on hockey and the statistics-focussed analysts offering their opinions from their mother’s basements on fan curated sites across the internet. While GM Jim Benning clearly thinks Sbisa is a useful defender, rewarding him with a 3-year, 10.8MM deal, and consistently praising his defensive zone smarts, Canucks fans have been less bullish on the talents of the 25-year-old Swiss pointman. Correctly noting his less than stellar possession numbers, J.D. Burke commented that his first season with Vancouver featured few “extended stretches in which any pairing with Sbisa on it looked passable”. These aren’t just the criticisms of a bitter fan wishful for better years, Burke backed up his arguments with a detailed numerical breakdown of Sbisa’s many failings, and video evidence of some of his less than professional defending from 2014-2015. Burke, and the Canucks’ fanbase in general, seemed to paint a picture of Sbisa that stands in stark contrast to what Vancouver management observed. Where the fans saw a player who frequently found himself out of position at critical junctures when defending his own end, Vancouver’s brain trust viewed Sbisa as the ideal player to disrupt a cycle down low. How could two groups of people who watched the same games with such intense devotion come to such different conclusions?

One of the biggest difficulties with evaluating Sbisa, and defencemen in general, is that what the eye test says is important is often wildly out of sync with what statistics can currently measure. While stats-based analyses focus on a defender’s ability to prevent shot attempts (in other words, their Corsi Against per 60), most of the praise for defensively-minded defencemen tends to focus on hockey IQ, being in the right position, and winning battles in the corner. While ideally these less “quantifiable” skills should lead to favourable statistical results, issues with differences in player deployment and the teammate-dependent nature of defending often mean that what gets praised in post-game interviews isn’t what shows up on the scoresheets, leaving a divide between management’s view and the story told by pure shot attempt numbers.

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Posted in Defence

How can we measure a goalie’s rebound control? Examining Pekka Rinne and James Reimer.

This post originally appeared on Hockey Graphs.

Pekka Rinne is good at controlling his rebounds. I know this, because people on the internet have made their opinions abundantly clear. Scouts and fanalysts alike credit Rinne’s quick glove hand with helping him catch a significantly higher volume of shots than most other goalies, leaving few opportunities behind for lurking opponents to deposit into his net.

James Reimer is not good at controlling his rebounds. I know this, once again, because people on the internet have made their opinions abundantly clear. Reimer’s (supposed) inability to prevent the shots he’s saved from bouncing into dangerous areas is often cited as one of the main reasons for why he should be the #2 goalie behind Jonathan Bernier on the Leafs’ depth chart.

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Posted in Goaltending

A New Way To Measure Deployment – Expected Faceoff Goal Differential

This article originally appeared on Hockey Graphs.

Zone starts are not that great of a metric. Although certain players do tend to be put out almost exclusively for offensive or defensive purposes, the reality is that for most players’ zone starts have a relatively small effect on a player’s performance. And yet, many hockey writers still frequently qualify a player’s performance based on observations like “they played sheltered minutes” or “they take the tough draws in the defensive zone”. Part of the problem is that we’ve never really developed a good way of quantifying a player’s deployment. With many current metrics, such as both traditional and true zone starts, it’s difficult to express their effect except in a relative sense (i.e. by comparing zone starts between players). So when a pundit says that a player had 48% of his on-ice faceoffs in the offensive zone, it’s difficult to communicate to most people what that really means.

Going beyond that, even if we know that 48% would make a player one of the most sheltered skaters in the league, the question that we should ask is so what? Simply knowing that a player played tough minutes doesn’t give us any information that’s useful to adjust a player’s observed results, which is really the reason that we care about zone starts. We know that if you start your shifts predominantly in the defensive zone, you’ll likely see worse results, but zone start percentages don’t tell us how much worse they should be. Traditional deployment metrics are too blunt of a tool – they provide a measurement, but not one that gives any context to the performance numbers that we really care about.

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Posted in Deployment, Theoretical

Why teams should use 4 forwards on the powerplay

A few days ago, James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail brought up one of the first significant shifts in tactics under the Mike Babcock regime in Toronto.

While the change may be surprising to some fans, particularly given the lack of depth in the Leafs forward corps, it shouldn’t be altogether unexpected. Read more ›

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Posted in Powerplay, Special Teams

Historical Player Projections – Available Now at Dobber Hockey

Over the last few years, Hockey Analytics pioneer Rob Vollman has been putting out a book of scoring projections using historically comparable players to calculate a player’s best case/worst case/average scoring totals. His method is really interesting and yields a lot of great fodder for discussion (for example, is David Clarkson really a similar player to Donald Brashear?), as well as a useful baseline to build a fantasy team off of.

This year, he was kind enough to invite me to contribute to the project, as I put together a similar set of comparable players and projections using some of the modern “enhanced” stats that we now have available. The full guide, with complete projections on over 700 NHL players, is available for $4.99 in the Dobber Store here, or is also available for free (free!!!) with your purchase of the complete 2015-2016 Dobber Fantasy Hockey Guide.

As a sneak peak of what’s inside, we’re going looking at one player from each team and analyzing what his comparables suggest is in store for the year to come. The whole series will be up on Dobber Hockey and will be going up over the next few weeks. To date, we’ve got articles up on:

I’ll keep this list updated as we go through the series, so you can always check back here to see what’s new.

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Posted in Fantasy Hockey, Predictions

Examining The Drivers of Score Effects I: Shooting and Save Percentage

Score effects – they’re real, and they’re spectacular. And while the idea and impact of score effects are generally understood by most in the hockey analytics community, they can often be a difficult subject to introduce to newcomers to the field. A solid knowledge of score effects is critical to understanding why teams that outshoot their opponents in a given game tend to lose more often than not, or why a player or team’s unadjusted statistics may be misleading you.

Furthermore, while many people have hypothesized about what causes score effects, there’s currently little documented analysis examining the actual drivers of score effects. So consider this article, and its coming sequel, as first steps at drilling deeper into the factors that lead us to observe score effects. Hopefully these pieces will serve as both a reference point to provide a basic understanding of score effects, and as evidence that helps justify any adjustments we do make when devising new statistics.

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Posted in Score Effects

Predicting Free Agent Salaries

With the NHL draft behind us, attention across the hockey world has turned to July 1st, when unrestricted free agents will be free to sign with the team that will give them the best shot at winning a cup the highest bidder, and fans of all franchises pray that their GM doesn’t screw anything up for a superstar to vault them into contender status. And while every deal signed will be scrutinized from a million different angles to determine whether or not a team paid fair money, most of this discussion will end up conflating the ideas of value (will Martin St. Louis still be putting up 20+ goals at age 42?) and price (should the Bruins, err Flames, really pay Dougie Hamilton $5.5MM per year?).

This, unfortunately, is a rather large mistake, because what teams pay for a player and what that player is actually worth to a team are two critical yet extremely different questions. Worth (or value) is what a player adds to a team on the ice (in goals or wins), and must be measured based on a player’s total contribution (see, for example, WAR on Ice’s Wins Above Replacement, Hockey Reference’s Point Shares, or Hockey Prospectus’ Goals Versus Threshold). Price, on the other hand, is simply what a team is willing to pay for a player, in contract dollars or cap hit. While ideally these numbers would align, the reality is that teams often value observed historical results more than they should. Teams tend to pay for basic counting stats while ignoring other potentially useful indicators of future success (such as general shot generation or prevention) or contextual factors (such as quality of teammates).

This market inefficiency presents an opportunity for teams, as GMs that can identify which players are over or underpaid relative to their actual contribution should have a long-term advantage in a cap-restricted world. The key to taking advantage of these opportunities, however, is being able to predict what your opponents are going to do. If a general manager knows what the rest of the league will pay a player, this information can be used to help identify potential targets in free agency before the negotiating period begins. Given that marquee free agents can often sign within hours of hitting the open market, this knowledge can help teams avoid chasing after players they know will be out of their budget. On the other hand, it can also help GMs know when they can play hard ball with their own players and refuse to submit to offers that are above what the market is likely to pay. All of which is to say that there’s a lot of value in being able to guess what the other 29 clubs in the league will be willing to pay a free agent, which brings us to the main question we’ll look at in this article: can we build a model to predict how much a free-agent will end up signing for, based on his historical stats?

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Posted in Free Agency, Predictions