The Canucks and Analytics: Focus on Performance

Thomas Drance
July 24 2012 09:23AM


The Canucks main analytical focus probably isn't Corsi stats, it's "fatigue," "readiness," and "peak performance."

On Monday afternoon, Mike Gillis appeared for two hours on the Team 1040. The segment was hosted by Matthew Sekeres who god bless him, spent a sizable portion of the show asking the General Manager and President of the Vancouver Canucks about analytics.

Read past the jump.

To some extent, Gillis parried Sekeres' question regarding what stats the team pays close attention to in player evaluations. "It’s different for different positions. For forwards it’s a combination of shots on net, quality of shots on net, location of shots on net versus time on ice." Quality shots on net is another indication that the Canucks count scoring chances, and it's good to hear Gillis qualify that they look at these numbers rated by time on ice. Shot location is a bit of a mixed bag, many are convinced that it's hocus pocus, though I've long suspected that the Canucks pursue players who have been shown to suppress on-ice shooting percentage

In any event, Gillis appears to be dubious about the ability of advanced stats to accurately build a predictive model for hockey (transcription via Cam Charron and the Province):

We do use advanced analytics to some measure. It’s more difficult in hockey than in baseball because baseball is a defined event. You’ve got 100 different things that go into player success. Who they play for, match ups they constantly play against. Their age. Injury history. So you’ve got lots of things that are determinant factors in hockey that can’t be properly analyzed just through analytics. In baseball you can.

The notion that hockey is too spontaneous and free-flowing to lend itself to statistical analysis is a popular one, but it's a narrow and overly restrictive paradigm in my view. Accurate predictive models have been built to measure, better understand and predict the outcomes of things like the voting behavior of an electorate of 350 million people, or global financial markets. Yes those aren't sports, but my point is that areas of macro-interaction that are significantly more chaotic than several seasons worth of on-ice events at the NHL level have been modeled accurately, so it seems odd to think that hockey simply cannot be. Corsi, Fenwick, Zone-Entries haven't reached Nate Silver levels of accuracy yet, no doubt, but they're steps in the right direction.

Where Gillis' comments on analytics become more forthcoming and thoughful, however, were when he got started on the topic of zone-starts and player development. The Canucks manipulation of zone-starts to gain an offensive edge is well documented and unique, as is Alain Vigneault's massaging of match-ups: "What we’ve done is look at things and try to design success based on where [young players] are starting, and who they’re playing with and what situations they’re playing in and the number of minutes they play."

It's worth noting that as recently as the 2009-10 season, the Canucks zone-start deployment schemes and patterns were pretty standard when held up against the rest of the league. Alain Vigneault told CanucksArmy that his zone-start deployment patterns were a matter of "personal preference" rather than an example of some sort of organizational philosophy, but I'd be curious to learn more about whether or not he's executing (with an impressive degree of discipline) a scheme concocted in concert with the Canucks front-office.

Finally, whenever the topic of advanced thinking, and how it informs Canucks management strategies is broached, the talk seemingly always turns to "Human Performance," and "fatigue." Yesterday on the Team, Gillis shared with the audience what he'd learned from looking at advanced analysis in soccer:

Well oddly enough we have looked at [passing efficiency] in soccer. And we put that in a very different context, we’ve looked at it relative to fatigue and conditioning and how you’re percentage of passing success is relative to your conditioning and the time in the game when you do it and how many minutes you’ve played. There are studies that we’ve looked at that indicate that passing percentage in soccer goes dramatically down depending on the time in the game or depending on the conditioning of the player... 

We’re trying to define fatigue levels in those circumstances and as you know, a player usually gets hit twice when he gets hit once. He gets hit by the player and then hits the boards. How you can attribute that to success and how you attribute that to fatigue levels is instrumental in finding out when a player in the third period makes a mistake. And something happens and I think that as we’ve found, in a dynamic, competitive contact sport that fatigue levels are really a lot of the determining factor in success or failure.

Mike Gillis' sleep doctors were one of the first "big innovations" that were instituted when he first took over as General Manager four years ago. This past season the team was subjected to a new type of readiness testing, in addition to their military type sleep schedules, "mind-rooms" and witch-doctor like "sleep bracelets" that monitor players circadian rhythms. 

After the team slept through the final four months of the 2011-12 regular season, by Mike Gillis' own admission, he spoke about the teams desperate need for an improved "Human Performance Plan" designed to help the club deal with a difficult travel schedule, the pressure of playing in Vancouver and the grind of playing extremely physical games (from April 24th):

"I've been working on a human performance plan to try and address those issues. I think fatigue was the first stage in it, about how you deal with the ups and downs. One of the things I've concluded is that compounded with the types of games that we play and the pressure - we have to find a better way to deal with that, and we have to find it quickly. That's one of the things we've worked really hard on, it's more complicated than you think and I'm hoping that we're going to have that plan in place for next year."

While the Canucks are aware of and use possession stats, zone-starts and quality of competition, it seems that they've been primarily concerned with gaining an exploitable knowledge edge regarding their own personnel's "peak performance." As Cam Charron points out in his excellent recap of Gillis' 1040 appearance over at the Province, Gillis' on-going analytical focus on fatigue has paid spectacular dividends during his tenure as GM:

But the big improvement for the Canucks in the last four years is in the third period. Pythagorean Expectation predicted 50 wins from the Canucks in the Gillis era per year (actual, 49.8) and 43.2 in the four previous seasons (actual, 43.3). That’s an increase of 16%.

But where did the increase come from? They actually lost ground in the second period, their win expectancy dipping by 8% in the middle frame in the Gillis era, but that’s propped up by a 23% gain in the first period and a 35% increase in the third period.

The median NHL team won an equivalent of 42.2 games pro-rated to 82 games in the first period over the last four years according to Pythagorean Expectation. In the second period, that dipped to 41.6 and in the third and overtime it dipped to 41.1, so perhaps the average team does get impacted by fatigue.

In March, Oakland A's General Manager and Moneyball protagonist Billy Beane spoke at a Yahoo! event and suggested that a better understanding of player health and injuries was the next frontier in advanced analytics in baseball. The Canucks efforts to apply advanced thinking and statistical analysis to issues of fatigue and readiness or "peak performance," strikes me as a not so distant cousin of what Beane was getting at.

Clearly this is a topic that the Canucks have targeted with an arsenal of research dollars, and a willingness to implement it at the management level. That they've been so successful, and open-minded enough to apply lessons from other sports like soccer, is fascinating.

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Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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#1 dan
July 24 2012, 10:58AM
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A comprehensive recap of Gillis and his comments. However, you again ignore the fact the Canucks have underachieved in the playoffs (relative to their regular season success).

Success in the playoffs, is not as you put a 'narrow definition' of success?!

Yes, They do deserve much credit for maximizing their reg. season record its been very successful. BUT Gillis and Av have shown that they don't have a clear grasp on what it takes to win in the playoffs. Gillis and Av have put too much emphasis on the regular season thinking and the flaw that that the same principles translate to playoff success. The fact is they don't. Playoffs are a completely different season and they have neglected to differentiate what it takes to win in the playoffs. Gillis and Av seem to think "if we just do what we did in the regular season and get some luck we will have success in the playoffs. This is painfully naive and misguided. By doing so themselves, the team and most fans have overrated the team believing they are only "2%" away.Their performance suggests otherwise.

As for the Ozone starts starting in 10-11. It is also important to point out that the Canucks lack of scoring in the playoffs the last two years (their downfall) has coincided with this strategy.It has yet to be shown that there is any offensive edge to this strategy in the playoffs ( Has there been a cup winner using it?) In fact, it needs to be pointed out that the Sedins inability to play tough minutes is a huge liability on a team needing to win four rounds.

How does such an analytical coach make the massive and 'rookie' coaching blunder and not have a plan B for D. Sedin?

This inexcusable mistake was grounds for firing alone.And, showed his inherent flaw in his ability to formulate game strategy necessary to win in playoffs.

How does an 'experienced' team get distracted by the Boston rematch in January peak early and fall flat for the rest of the season and not motivated or ready for the playoff season?

These facts reveal a large flaw in Gillis and AV's planning.

You keep applauding Gillis and Av for their innovation but choose to ignore their playoff stumbles and therefore open yourself up to legitimate criticisms that you are not objective in your evaluations and continue to cling to your pro-Canuck Bias.

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#2 Mantastic
July 24 2012, 09:42AM
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and that has clearly helped them claim the ultimate prize of the Stanley Cup! oh wait...

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#4 Innovation
July 24 2012, 10:12AM
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I have no problem with trying to get the most out of your players. I applaud trying new things as nothing has worked in the past 41 years seemed to as of yet. Part of me wonders though if a)all NHLers are so closely bunched together fitness wise that improving a player's 'peak performance' is enough to win games or b)all NHLers aren't bunched closely together fitness wise that a team that simply has better players could win regardless of what the fitness of the other team is.

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#5 Mantastic
July 24 2012, 10:44AM
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"winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" - Vince Lombardi.

I didn't say that they weren't successful, only the fact that all of this research and they haven't won the stanley cup, seems pretty futile. and if winning the stanley cup is absurd, that's why they call you guys canucks fans!

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#6 Cam Charron
July 24 2012, 10:54AM
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Mantastic wrote:

"winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" - Vince Lombardi.

I didn't say that they weren't successful, only the fact that all of this research and they haven't won the stanley cup, seems pretty futile. and if winning the stanley cup is absurd, that's why they call you guys canucks fans!

They aren't the only team doing research.

Pittsburgh is the most open team about their analytic methods. Boston and Chicago's have spoken in the past that they've found certain non-traditional methods of player evaluation. Los Angeles built a Stanley Cup-winning team by trading for puck-possession players.

I'd say about half the teams in the NHL use analytics to some degree.

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#8 Mantastic
July 24 2012, 11:09AM
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@Cam I agree with the advanced stats, it's the sleep and peak performance crap i'm sceptical of.

@Thom Luck has something to do with small sample size but has the biggest impact single game knock out rather than 7-game series. in my opinion, the canucks play a flawed game and focus each line purely in 1 zone and once they are out of that zone, they are fish out of water and the team falls apart

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#9 JDM
July 24 2012, 11:33AM
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Whatever team you're a fan of, I'm betting they aren't the champs. So following your logic, why waste your time watching them at all? It's futile.

... Futile? Really? There's no point in even playing the games if you're not 1 in 30 at the end of the year? I really despise this attitude. Yes, the cup is the goal and what you're aiming for. But not being the 1 in 30 that ends up with it doesn't make the whole year a write off. If your team had an entertaining season that was enjoyable to watch and cheer on and experienced some success on the ice, that's a good season. The Red Wings were the first team eliminated this year but set a home ice winning streak record - that's pretty memorable, and it isn't meaningless just because someone else ends up with the grail. The Blues took a leap from being a "potential" team to being one of the best in the league and got a record-setting goaltending performance. That was something to watch and something to follow, and while it hurts to get swept because you had higher expectations, it's still a great year for them. And suffice it to say, if I'm a Devils fan, I'm disappointed, sure, but I'm also pretty happy I got to watch my team beat the Rangers in the East Final and see Marty exorcise 2004.

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#10 Mantastic
July 24 2012, 12:21PM
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the point in trying to gain an edge on the opposition is to be better than last season at trying to win the stanley cup and not more of the same which is futility and that is where the canucks are at, trying more than last season but without the equal amount of success.

do you think perenialy successful teams are happy with just winning seasons and not care about the playoff success?

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