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The unnecessary war over analytics

The conflict surrounding analytics in hockey is fierce, passionate, and pointless. Here's why.

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The nerds won. And are running up the score.

Analytics are entering the mainstream among hockey fans after several years on the margins. The NHL will soon be incorporating some of the more simplistic stats - Corsi, Fenwick, and other metrics used to more accurately track on ice production - on its own website. Teams ranging from the Edmonton Oilers to the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Carolina Hurricanes now employ statistical analysts to try and improve their clubs.

All of these changes were not without some resistance from skeptics within the community who believed that a game like hockey could not be reduced to a spreadsheet. Certain intangibles, like grit, heart, and effort, would always influence the outcome of a game in ways that could never be tracked, plotted, or otherwise calculated.

So who's right? If you go on social media and ask, the answer tends to be "everyone", with "traditionalists" in one camp and pro-analytics types in another. They rarely interact with each other beyond sniping at the other side's worldview.

This is ultimately a shame, because there really should not be any debate at all.

The traditionalists have it right; hockey is not a game that measurements like Corsi and Fenwick can capture. The speed of the game and the relative infrequency of major events (goals, shots, etc.) means that there are plenty of events that occur on the ice that affect the scoresheet without necessarily making the statsheet. Perhaps more in-house player tracking systems will reduce the amount of events that can't be tracked, but certain events will never be more than the luck of the draw.

But here's where most advanced stats critics get it wrong; no analyst, amateur or professional, believes hockey can be reduced to a spreadsheet. None. Zero. No stat minded writer or fan believes that Corsi and Fenwick will be a perfect indicator of future success, or that regression from one season to the next is an inevitability. Those that do are either out to grab controversy (and thus clicks), or are strawmen.

What advanced metrics have to offer the hockey community is an enhanced understanding of what transpires in the course of a 60 minute game. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the goals, the saves, and the scoring chances. But ultimately, everything that stats like Fenwick and PDO capture are events that are easily spotted in a game by the naked eye.

Stats help us make sense of what we're seeing, because most people don't have the interest and/or capability of indexing exactly what's happening at a given moment of the game while comparing that moment to the moments before it. Stats better clue us in to what the bigger picture looks like. They show us how often in a game a team manages to send shots toward the net, or how players enter the offensive zone. That doesn't contradict the eye test; it helps us find new things to look for.

And yes, stats are also meant to be predictive. But sometimes they aren't. And that's okay. Statistical analysis has a lot to do with separating the signal from the noise, as Nate Silver likes to say. That means figuring out what metrics influence outcomes, and how strong their influence is. Not all stats are created equal, and some will produce results that are not repeatable from season to season. That doesn't necessarily mean they're "wrong", but it does mean that there are other factors at work exerting more influence on the outcome.

To me, it seems that the debate about analytics in hockey is far less about analytics themselves and far more about where they come from. Video platforms like Gamecenter Live and readily available game reports from the NHL give anyone with the time and patience to compile stats the ability to garner significant credibility. And more and more often, those people are not long-time journalists, they are bloggers, part-time statisticians with full-time jobs, and simply fans.

Social media and the proliferation of online publishing services (stick-tap to SB Nation) has made it easier for these people who would have once been confined to online forums and local fan groups to connect with an international audience. And inevitably some established media figures have had their view on how hockey is played challenged in ways it has never been before. It shouldn't be too surprising that they have pushed back accordingly.

But there really is no debate to be had. Whether you enjoy tracking games and glossing over war-on-ice all day, or whether you prefer to use the old-fashioned eye test, you're still all watching the same game. Advanced statistics are slowly opening up new ways of understanding the game, but are ultimately all about helping fans learn more about the game they love.