The Saskatoon Blades have become the first Western Hockey League club to publicly declare their interest in hockey analytics. It seems to be all the rage in major junior. A month ago, the Ottawa 67s hired 19-year-old Matt Pfeffer, who'd done lots of work creating and publishing player usage charts with the limited data the Ontario Hockey League keeps on its boxscores.
The Blades hired an Outlook, SK resident and Blades fan named Bruce Peter who is known to the general hockey blogosphere on Twitter as @saskhab. Peter is known for his work at Habs Eyes on the Prize and formerly Puck Worlds, two blogs belonging to the gargantuan SB Nation network that are dedicated to the Montreal Canadiens and international hockey, respectively.
It's not exactly a shift in identity or a new way of thinking now that Mike and Colin Priestner have taken over control of the club after the team was sold during the summer, but the WHL is a league that publishes very little information via its boxscores. For Colin, a minority owner and managing partner, "he vowed to leave no stone unturned when it came to improving the club".
Peter is an excellent match for the Blades. There's a lot of familiarity of the team already and he agreed to join on a voluntary basis. Like many online personalities that write about analytics on a day-to-day basis, Peter is a hobbyist, writing for sheer enjoyment of the game and learning more about the sport.
The goal is to give the Blades management that extra bit of information to evaluate its players.
"I've been looking for any angle that I can, knowing that I have a young and inexperienced team," Priestner said. "I believe it can be of value to any team if you're tracking the data correctly and you're looking at the right stuff.
"My belief is if we go over a 72-game season, we're going to find a lot of valuable data." [StarPhoenix]
Analytics are tricky in the WHL. The National Hockey League in 2007 began publishing play-by-play sheets that didn't just record when shots, hits and giveaways occurred, but also which players were on the ice for each event. That sort of information has been transformed into several different categories, the chief of which is the Corsi number, a plus-minus number that factors in every shot attempt for and against when a player was on the ice.
Since Corsi is a team statistic, work has been done to attempt to separate a player's individual contribution to his team's Corsi number. Because of the number of games in the WHL and the limited availability of information, coming up with a Corsi number and putting it in the appropriate context is impossible. The work that Peter will be doing, generally zone entry and exit information, is something that can be done by a single person sitting high up in the arena, or on TV with the benefit of a rewind button.
"When you watch a game, keep an eye on how often teams carry the puck into the offensive zone. You'll find that the players who really drive possession are the ones who are aggressive at the blue lines, and that teams in general seem far too willing to dump the puck in, making the seemingly conservative play that actually costs them in the long run." [NHL Numbers]
It's not new information that the Blades last season were a conservative hockey team, and their dump-and-chase style did not work in the MasterCard Memorial Cup last spring against puck-possession behemoths Portland Winterhawks, Halifax Mooseheads and London Knights. The "chip-and-chase" style of play has already been rejected by a rival Saskatchewan team in the Regina Pats, but information on the success and failure rates of each player could help the Blades tailor their style around getting the puck to certain players in the neutral zone or specific sides of the ice.
To record zone entries, a tracker marks down which player attempted to enter the zone, whether it was by a carry-in, a dump-in, or a failed attempt at a carry-in. By cross-referencing that data with the information found on NHL.com, the tracker can easily determine just how much more preferable a carry-in is than a dump-in. It will result in more shots on net, more scoring chances, and more goals. The theory is that by determining which players are the strongest in the neutral zone, a tracker can determine which players contribute the most to their team's overall success.
Information is a good thing, and while most teams track their own team's individual shots on goal and scoring chances for further video review, the distance between clubs and lack of useful information published on its boxscore does not make the WHL a haven for statistical analysis.
Junior hockey is a proving ground for young players. Young data systems, too? It's become the thing to do in major junior hockey with three executives for different teams expressing their interest in using just a little bit of extra information to gain an edge.