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My Excitement Over The Day the NHL Validated Shooting Attempt Stats

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As NHL.com has announced and released their enhanced stats section on their website, featuring shooting attempt statistics. As a user of these stats for a long time, I look back and explain why I think this is a big deal worthy of some excitement.

I can tell you that Jagr leads the Devils in shooting attempt differential - thanks to...NHL.com.  That's a big thing.
I can tell you that Jagr leads the Devils in shooting attempt differential - thanks to...NHL.com. That's a big thing.
Elsa/Getty Images

For long and short time readers of the site, I'm big on what have been called advanced statistics.  So I have quite a bit to say about recent news in this regard. Values like Corsi, Fenwick, PDO, and other stats not readily available except on sites pulling and calculating data directly from the National Hockey League. Years ago, I heavily referenced Gabe Desjardens' Behind the Net, scripts from Vic Ferrari's (or Tim Barnes') Time on Ice for game data, and David Johnson's Hockey Analysis (which is still around and very good for With or Without You charts).  When Time on Ice went away, Desjardens' Behind the Net became stale, and Darryl Metcalf's Extra Skater came along, that became the new place to go for these stats with it's superior layout and constant growth.  When Metcalf got hired by Toronto and Extra Skater was subsequently shutdown, there was a big gap that has quickly been filled in with A.C. Thomas' and Sam Ventura's War on Ice, which many of us here at ILWT use on a regular basis.  On Friday, February 20, a new source has emerged from the source of all of this data: the NHL.

Friday afternoon became the time of validation of all of the work done across blogs and their comment sections. The NHL, with SAP, announced their new Enhanced Statistics page. Personally, I was excited by the news.  Others in the larger stat community, less so.  There was disappointment at how the NHL presented the site as if it was all new stuff they were rolling out.  In reality, the data itself is closer to what Behind the Net had back in 2007 and the interface isn't that much better.  War on Ice has more stats, more features (Hextallys, which is a feature I wish I used more often because I think it's very good), and an easier to follow interface.   There are others who lament how the NHL and SAP quickly ended all of the arguments of what the stats should be called.  I've used Corsi, shooting attempts, and possession nearly interchangeably, so I'm fine with it.  There were outcries of an initial lack of attribution given to Barnes, Matt Fenwick, and others for developing these stats for the public. Those outcries were quickly answered by this longer-lasting-than-a-press-conference article at NHL.com. And those outcries totally ignore that those same people rarely got attributed at the other stat sites save for any stats named after them.  War on Ice, I think, is looking to change that though now.  Not to mention that all of the actual data used comes from the NHL in the first place, so if anyone had a claim to ownership, they'd have a large hand in it.

I can understand the disappointment that the NHL didn't announce a new stat section that did pretty much everything War on Ice currently has.  The NHL presumably has way more resources available and with how things have gone in the public sphere, more could have been in place.  Though, I'd like to think Thomas and Ventura are glad their site didn't become irrelevant on February 20.   I still think it is a momentous day for those who spent many of their own time, money, and energy identifying, understanding, communicating, and defending these new ways to measure events in the game of hockey.  My excitement still remains, perhaps because I have a bit of a different perspective as an enthusiastic user of these sort of stats.

The biggest reason is that the NHL essentially validated all of the work done by others.  By putting actual money and resources into putting up an Enchanced Statistics section, they have essentially stated that there's value in shooting attempts and how they're calculated.  Enough value to be put on one of the most mainstream hockey sites on the Internet.  Enough value that the site of the official governing body thinks enough people want this information available.  This is a recognition  As big as Extra Skater and War on Ice became, NHL.com is going to push it to a new level.   One could argue the declaration that this all matters really began when guys like Barnes, Tom Awad, Sunny Mehta, and others got hired by NHL teams.  This is a public declaration that work done in the public and spread around by the public is admittedly worth putting on a bigger stage than it was before.   As naive as it may sound, I believe good, valuable content online gets around.  This is further evidence of that.

This brings some legitimate stability to this aspect of analysis.  It's no longer the domain of people who were just passionate about the game and did it on their own.  It'll be someone's job to take care of all of this.  The values are not going to go away if a team hires Ventura and Thomas for full-time work, or if Johnson of Hockey Analysis and Puckalytics decides he can't continue for personal reasons.  One of the big gaps among the hockey analytic community has always been indexing the findings of why these stats matter.  This can be addressed at NHL.com, should they want to go that route.  The NHL didn't just spend all of this money to just let this go away.  NHL.com is here to stay and so will the stats presented there.

Further, while we've seen the use of Corsi, Fenwick, and other such statistical work break into the media in recent years, this new section can really push it further.  There will always be doubters of the value of this data, especially by journalists and broadcasters who have dragged their feet into this new ages such as the use of the Internet, increased video usage, and social media to name a few.  With the NHL essentially putting their branded rubber-stamp on it, it's going to be even more foolish to totally ignore these stats.   That may not be news to you and me, but it will be news to those who only watch the games on TV and/or radio or follow team accounts or just started to watch.  Imagine Steve Cangelosi talk about the Devils' shooting attempts percentage instead of lamely trying to pump up a player for how many hits they have.   This new section along with the announcement can really push for further acceptance in broadcasts and media beyond what little blogs and tweets we have on the Internet.  There will be those who will drag their feet, but their time is nigh.

This announcement and new section could lead to a new push for further changes and additions to hockey analytics.  In their press conference, the NHL has already brought up the notion of player tracking.  That's something that in theory could be done by you or me, but not in a practical way to handle all 700+ players in 1200+ games in a season.  Adding historical data before 2005 would be absolutely massive and can provide further context of who was really good in past decades beyond reputation and how many points they got.   These stats being publicly available could also provide the incentive the NHL to make valuable changes to how games are scored.  With NHL.com posting the outputs of their game logs, they have reason to make sure their inputs are correct. We may not be able to easily identify those changes, but reducing scorer bias would be massive.  The NHL can realistically push for this, whereas you and I may not be able to do so realistically.   And one of the big challenges with analytics is getting that initial buy-in from people new to it.  While there have been thousands of explanations online, the NHL, with a user base in the millions, can better reach out to them and at least provide the basics of why these stats matter beyond the fact that the NHL is publishing and maintaining them on their site.  You won't see the regression analysis of a J Likens, but I don't think the mainstream wants R-squared values anyway.

This is also a good thing for the larger community. There should be a renewed push on going deeper. For example, Ryan has got a few people together to track passes.  This can lead to new conclusions and ways to look at the game not yet realized.  For example, on this very site, Ryan and CJ laid out why possession isn't necessarily everything (something I've believed for years) and that efficiency can play a real role as to why some teams are better than others. With the Hextally charts at War on Ice, we can see how teams defend parts of the ice, relative to other teams. There can be further effort spent on special teams and other aspects of the game.   With the NHL further validating the value of shooting attempts, less time can be spent on defending them and more time can be spent by going deeper.

The advantage of the community and sites like War on Ice and Puckalytics is they are not bound by answering to corporate protocol and the regulation that comes from managing thirty franchises that may not want certain data to be available.  If Thomas and Ventura identify a problem or someone else comes up with something new and useful, they can add it to War on Ice with ease.  Not necessarily the case for NHL.com.  To that extent, the NHL may always be behind the cutting edge. What's more is that the NHL recognizes this so War on Ice aren't going to be taken down for scraping game data or anything like that.

Again, I recognize the criticisms and disappointment. The NHL can and should make their interface clearer, add additional stats where they can, and start to add to their primer the meaning behind zone starts.  I can see why some would be turned off by the league's triumphalism in their announcement.  But the NHL can and will update their section with more information. They have further reason to get to the root causes of current issues.  Those in the community who actually put in the work - the actual community that matters - instead of just being snarky on Twitter about it - the community that doesn't - should be freed up to go deeper in analyzing the game.  There will continue to be incorrect and bad arguments made as well as statistical pathways that ultimately don't tell us much, but we can continue those discussions as they have been had online for years now.  Progress will continue marching forward, but a victory was obtained on Friday, February 20, 2015.  I, for one, think that's exciting and worth celebrating on some level.  To say it is not a milestone would be a massive understatement. (Post-script: Just wait a few hours, I'll have something more Devils-specific up.)