Starting next season, NHL player-and-puck-tracking technology will create up to 10,000 recorded data events per game as opposed to the current 350. Mining that data and figuring out how to best implement statistical nuggets into game planning will be a prime test for Seattle's new NHL team.
Inside the NHL
Seattle’s incoming NHL team will soon face a hiring decision potentially just as important as the general manager and coach.
That’s because new puck and player tracking technology unveiled at the recent NHL All-Star Game in San Jose could soon be felt as resoundingly as any Milan Lucic or Tom Wilson bodycheck. The technology will be fully implemented next season with sensors embedded in player shoulder pads and in 40 pucks per game, transmitting data to antennae positioned in arena rafters.
Fans watching a television broadcast of a game will be able to see, among other things, how fast a player is skating, his ice time logged per shift and how hard was that slap shot he just took. More importantly for teams, they will soon have an estimated 10,000 data events per game to sift through – up from the current 350 – in order to glean an advantage over opponents.
Ah, but there’s the issue. Data is great. But having reams and reams of it means nothing to sports teams without the proper analytics staff to interpret what it all means and best implement it.
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NHL Seattle senior adviser Dave Tippett agreed Friday this city’s team will need a top-flight analytics department to keep pace. But he and others want a more-detailed look at the data next season before deciding what that analytics department should focus on and who should be hired based on specific expertise.
“To me, there’s some stuff that possibly could help the game planning and the rest is more of what I’d call ‘fan-friendly’ stuff that’s more for watching on TV,’’ Tippett said. “For instance, I want to know how fast a player reacts to a situation rather than how fast he skates.’’
That said, Tippett knows there will likely be uses for the data that no one’s even thought of yet. He has some initial ideas.
“There may be ways of watching patterns of where the players are and how they play together,’’ Tippett said. “It will be interesting to watch and see what new stuff comes out of it that we can’t already get.’’
And how teams, especially the creative ones, put the information to use.
One of the biggest advantages gleaned off new pitch-and-hit-tracking technology in Major League Baseball this past decade had nothing to do with anyone actually pitching or hitting the ball.
Instead, the smarter, quick-thinking teams figured out how to incorporate the new data into how they positioned infielders in anticipation of having balls hit their way. From 2011 through 2017, the number of infield shifts in MLB increased twentyfold as all teams and their analytics departments gradually caught on.
Today, there’s debate as to whether such shifting truly works anymore as hitters – with help from analytics specialists – devise ways to counteract the defensive shifting ploy.
So, if recent sports history has taught us anything, it’s that Seattle’s NHL analytics group will need to be creative, adaptable to changing trends and – most importantly – collaborative with the front office, coaches and even players.
After all, the data means nothing without the delivery method.
MLB teams in recent years like the Houston Astros began employing data “translators’’ to break down complex information and relay it to players in an on-field manner. The Philadelphia Phillies, among others, allow fielders to use laminated note cards on opposing hitters so they can best position themselves. MLB even issued an edict last season that pitchers can use similar note cards on the mound to gauge stats tendencies of hitters they’re about to face.
In the NHL, teams are allowed to keep three iPads on the bench during games so coaches and players can study video clips taken in real time. NHL coaches have become increasingly adept at incorporating detailed video into their player analysis – breaking down clips into ever-smaller, specific bits to glean information they need.
And now, in coming weeks, the NHL is expected to allow an additional iPad Pro on every bench containing a “Coaching Insights” application with 60 league-generated real-time stats. The move is part of a lead-in to next season’s broader data dump, giving coaches a greater ability to employ data as it’s received.
The iPad Pro stats will deliver data as obscure as unblocked shot attempts and successful backhanded shots in shootouts. It will allow coaches to set thresholds for player ice time and warn them when they’ve approached their limit. And the application will allow teams to privately customize their own proprietary data within it.
“There’s a lot of information out there, but coaches are still writing it down on pieces of paper,” NHL senior vice president of business development and innovation David Lehanski told NHL.com. “They’re not using it the way that they could use it because there really hasn’t been a platform that will allow them to do it easily and efficiently and to quickly customize it to see what they want to see.’’
Tippett was one of those video-adept coaches, having worked behind the bench for much of the last decade and this one after an NHL playing career in the 1980s and 1990s. He’s excited to see what the new tools bring to a league widely considered the slowest of the “Big 4” to embrace analytics.
But Tippett also knows many NHL teams already use stats far more advanced than much of the general public is aware of.
While a few teams have been widely praised by fans and the media for their analytics usage – the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes among them – Tippett said other clubs are also very successful without getting noticed.
“Some teams may talk more about it than others do,’’ Tippett said. “But they’re all doing it and a lot of them are very good at it, but you may not hear that much about them because they don’t want you to know.’’
So, Seattle’s team in 2021-22 will inevitably start off behind some squads with long-established analytics departments. But our city’s team does already have one inherent advantage: The time to gauge the impact of next season’s data dump and then tailor a new department around it rather than having to overhaul how an existing analytics group does its work.
Worth noting: NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke worked for years in Tampa with Lightning stats guru Michael Peterson, Tippett once played in Hartford with now ex-Hurricanes GM Ron Francis, who helped usher in Carolina’s analytics era and is now a potential Seattle GM candidate. So the Seattle team will have some resources to consult ahead of careful hiring they must do for analytics positions about to be made tougher by an onslaught of information.
And while local NHL fans will have to wait a while to see how well that hiring goes, they can have fun in the meantime watching game broadcasts that should become a lot more informative and entertaining.