The game of hockey is in a state of change. Traditional scouting, while still strong and respected in the ranks of the National Hockey League, is slowly beginning to take a backseat to the analytics and data tracking that has begun in the sport. NHL teams are taking a closer look at their budgets and pushing the entire game towards a new generation of specific data tracking and player analysis. For the first NHL organizations to spend their budgets on different methods of both human and video tracking, hockey analytics has held a treasure chest of information that the less-analytically inclined teams simply don’t have access to. With the money that these organizations have, they’re able to utilize their multiple scouts, as well as upcoming video analysis programs such as SportVU, to identify the best statistics to judge and predict player and team success. However, outside of an NHL Gamecenter subscription, a notepad, and a pen, the casual fan simply does not have access to advanced scouting or data tracking. That’s where Darryl Metcalf, and many others who make up the online #fancystats providers, come into play. Providing anyone with an Internet connection access to some of the advanced statistics used by multiple NHL teams, sites like Metcalf’s Extraskater.com, which provides both raw numbers and informative graphs on these statistics, have became popular reference points among the more informed hockey fanbase over the last few NHL seasons. Metcalf was kind enough to answer some questions for The Hockey House recently, and his answers shed some light on the origins of what is now one of the most useful hockey sites on the web, Extra Skater.
Like many hockey analytics fans, Metcalf began his interest in hockey advanced stats as a fan of both baseball and hockey, and was influenced by the success of Sabermetrics in baseball: “I wanted to better understand the game. I’m also a baseball fan and the impact and visibility of stats there probably helped push me towards the ‘advanced’ side of hockey stats… I think we can look to baseball to get a good sense of hockey’s future. More and more teams will buy in to advanced stats (some publicly), there will be better resources available and deeper analysis done, but there will probably still be a few teams and/or media types that reject the concept.” While hockey analytics have not yet reached the level that Sabermetrics have in baseball, where they are considered important among almost all levels of fans and management, people like Metcalf and hockey sites like Extra Skater are one of the largest influences pushing the casual fanbase towards new discoveries in the sport of hockey. “Stats can help us get a deeper understanding of the game. And they’re pretty basic stuff, too.” Extra Skater acts as a collection of different hockey statistics, gathered over the NHL season from many sources, but it wasn’t simply on a whim that Metcalf designed the site. “Extra Skater has slowly come together over a few years. It’s still a work in progress. At first I gathered stats from some of the great sites that were already out there like Behind the Net [www.behindthenet.ca]. Then I wanted more control so I started collecting data myself in spreadsheets. Then I figured other people might want the same sort of thing, so I started putting together what would become Extra Skater.” Extra Skater is credited by many notable members of the hockey media for its creative, easily-understood graphics, such as the win expectancy charts available on each and every game page, which calculate the chance of a certain team winning their game, updating continually as the game is played live. Along with this, Extra Skater’s player usage charts shine light on coaching decisions and player effectiveness across the league, and allow even the most casual of fans to analyze both coach and player talent on any NHL team. The easy-to-use interface along with user-friendly charts and graphs have made Extra Skater one of the most popular hockey data sites over the past year, and with a growing interest in advanced stats, it doesn’t appear the site’s popularity will be slowing down anytime.
While hard work has gone into advanced stats since the mid-2000s (estimated) when many originated, they have not been as notable as they are this year. One reason for this may be the recent collapse of a team with hockey’s largest fanbase, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs re-invented the essence of brutal defensive play this year, and although they managed to keep a playoff spot for three-fourths of the year, they eventually fell out in the last 20 games. While this was a giant blow for the Leaf fanbase, especially after the prior year’s playoff collapse, the advanced stats community nearly rejoiced in the team’s failure. After a successful, albeit short, 2012-13 season, analytics experts predicted the Leafs downfall based on poor possession play, unsustainably high shooting percentages, and terrible coaching, and boy, the Leafs did not disappoint. Finishing the season with an almost impossibly horrible four points in fourteen games (a 2-12-0 record), the Leafs did what many predicted (while still outplaying their original expectations) and fell apart. With a massive fanbase spreading outside the borders of Ontario, this predicted collapse likely dragged a few previously-skeptical minds into the world of analytics. “Every year there’s a team or two that advanced stats guys point out early will crash and/or take off based on their underlying numbers, and they get a lot right. Some fans of those teams that are initially skeptical buy in after seeing how things turn out. In this sense the Leafs’ huge fan base probably had some effect on general knowledge,” Metcalf stated when asked about the potential effects that this years collapse had on advanced stats knowledge. However, it’s important not only to credit this increase in knowledge to what happens on the ice, but what’s written in the mainstream media articles that many fans read on a daily basis. “Having a Leafs reporter who uses stats regularly in James Mirtle probably helped too.” Metcalf is rarely, if ever, incorrect on this topic, and he nails it on the head there. Becoming one of Hockey Twitter’s most popular mainstream writers this season, Mirtle’s use of advanced stats have further vaulted these statistics into the mainstream, and his common use of Extra Skater tables in his tweets have added to the site’s growing fanbase.
It’s easy to credit the growing popularity of analytics or an increased use in mainstream media for Extra Skater’s success, but none of it would have happened without the man behind the site. What was originally a simple idea to share more stats with fans has turned into a well-run, visually appealing site that hosts over 100 unique statistics, a vast majority of which cannot be find on a traditional site such as NHL.com. “There’s a bunch of player stat upgrades on the way: more stats, more ways to slice them, more ways to sort, etc.” Some of these have already been introduced since our interview, with new reports published and an additional 51 statistics added to the site, including more ways to sort stats by situation, and an important set-up passes stat created by Rob Vollman of Hockey Abstract. Extra Skater, once hosting around 25-30 unique statistics, has grown exponentially in the new year, branching into many new areas of statistics that will drastically increase our knowledge of the game fans love. And if Extra Skater faces some competition from a mainstream site such as NHL.com, Metcalf isn’t worried. “If anything, that’ll be a huge driver of general interest. MLB.com has come a long way over the years but people still use FanGraphs.”
Extra Skater will continue to grow, as Metcalf says, and so will the advanced stats community, and the usage of hockey analytics in the front offices of NHL teams. This is truly only the beginning of the stats movement in hockey, and as Metcalf puts it, “what we’re doing today is really just an evolution of Roger Neilson’s approach to the game where he watched, tracked, and analyzed as much as he could.” The introduction of video analysis to the NHL will come soon, and will likely provide teams with more data than they can currently even dream of. When these new statistics become publically available, Extra Skater could find itself bookmarked in every fans browser as an essential part of judging player talent.
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