Advanced hockey stats took the National Hockey League by storm this past summer, with almost every team taking notice of the sport’s fancy new numbers. But it’s not just NHL teams beefing up their stats department – the Ryerson Rams men’s hockey team took notice too.
At the start of this season, the team began using a new iPad app called Time On Ice, a tool used to help coaches track things more accurately. All the stats are tracked in real time by the team’s statistician, Dave Whiffen, who’s beginning his second year at the position.
The biggest addition for Whiffen is getting exact ice time for each player, something that isn’t tracked by the Canadian Interuniversity Sport. That info opens up countless possibilities for Whiffen, who can then use the data to figure out how effective players are on a per-minute basis. It also helps him track what happens when players are on the ice; specifically how many shots or goals the Rams record compared to how many they give up.
“You usually have a pretty good memory of the game, but all the different stats that you record kind of spark your memory and remind you of things that happened,” Whiffen said. “It’s not really meant to replace hockey sense, but it kind of confirms what you already know.”
Teams acquire advanced statistics, or analytics, by measuring things that weren’t typically taken into account in assessing hockey players and hockey teams. Things such as the amount of time a team (or player) possesses the puck or the number of shots taken or given up while a player is on the ice are collected and analyzed.
Whiffen relays the information that he collects to head coach, Graham Wise, between periods and after games. Wise has been very progressive in terms of using the stats as a tool, but gives full credit to Whiffen, who researched different stat packages to use for evaluating players before finding what works best for the coach.
“You’re always learning. And I say, the day you don’t want to learn, you might as in your grave. And so, you’ve got to take everything in,” Wise said.
One way Wise uses the stats is as a justification for decision-making. If he sees something he doesn’t like on the ice, and the stats back it up, he and his coaching staff discuss changes that need to be made. If Wise isn’t happy with a line’s defensive play and sees they’re playing in the negatives, it reinforces his decision to shake things up.
Wiffen has a lot of confidence in Wise, who has extensive experience. “(He’s) been coaching in the CIS for 30 years. He knows the game inside and out, he knows the CIS inside and out, he knows players. So when he wants to back up something that he already believes, he’ll ask me what the stats are,” Whiffen said.
But sometimes Wise has to use his natural coaching instincts as opposed to the numbers. During last Thursday’s game against Wilfrid Laurier University, Wise put out Kyle Blaney’s line to defend a late one-goal lead. The line was dead last in shots against for the night, but they ended up defending the lead and even scored an empty-netter to seal the deal. For Wise, it’s all about finding a balance between the two worlds.
Those familiar with hockey analytics will probably notice what the Rams are tracking isn’t exactly Corsi, which is all shot attempts, not just the ones that hit the net.
They were tracking shot attempts before this season when the system was on paper, but it wasn’t for individual players. The new app only allows for tracking shots on goal (it doesn’t include all shot attempts), which means a smaller sample size. But the difference in data is minute, so the trade-off for ease of use is worth it for Whiffen, who is essentially a one-man team.
Players who aren’t dressed for the game track other stats for the team, but he’s the one compiling the main data.
The reason teams are looking at this data to begin with is simple. Hockey has become all about puck possession, and if a team is taking more shots than it allows, it usually means it’s controlling the play. And when a team is controlling play, it usually leads to wins.
“I think that’s where the game is moving, you have to be able to hold on to the puck and it’s something Graham tries to encourage – hold on to the puck, try to force a play, throw a puck at the net anytime you can, force a goalie to make a save,” Whiffen said.
It was Wayne Gretzky who said you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take, and the Ryerson Rams are certainly taking a shot with hockey’s modern-day statistical revolution.