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Beyond the Plus-Minus

By Jamie MacDonald, 01/22/16, 10:15AM EST


Understanding hockey's advanced statistics and their impact on youth development

Back in the day, hockey statistics relied heavily (and almost solely) on things like the plus-minus column or shots on goal. But as the game has evolved, so have the statistical measurements. Today there’s advanced stats like Corsi (shots on goal + missed shots + blocked shots) and Fenwick  (shots on goal + missed shots) and a list as long as the numbers they’re compiled of.

But what do they mean? And more importantly for a youth hockey audience, what do they matter?

While these statistics are reshaping some perceptions at the highest levels of the game, they are significantly less useful in youth hockey.

“At a lot of levels, it’s ridiculous to look at,” says USA Hockey's Ken Martel, a key player in the creation, launch and managing of the American Development Model. He’s also a longtime data devotee with a deep interest in the evolution of advanced statistics and the application of technology in sports – both of which have their time and place.

“I think it’s a really cool thing,” he says of advanced statistics. “It’s really an attempt to more accurately assign reward and blame to players, and to figure out a way to evaluate decisions they’re making on the rink. There’s some really cool stuff that’s progressing along those lines.”

Martel points to technology that tracks player and puck location 40 times per second to measure acceleration, deceleration, changes in direction and relative positioning of teammates and opponents. The National Hockey League also records a dizzying amount of real-time, in-game data to help teams’ analytics experts transform a fluid game of variables into a numbers game where players are assigned data-driven values.

“(Advanced stats) were developed for the pro game,” Martel says. “That’s where performance is everything. If you don’t perform at a really high level, if you make too many mistakes, you can’t play at that level. The youth game is different than the NHL game. Nothing about a Mite game looks like an NHL game. Nothing.”

Mistakes are part of the youth learning curve, part of what might be encouraged as a matter of getting better – and part of the fun.

If you think your youth team’s movements should be tracked 40 times per second, OK. But if you think your youth team should be measured by the number of smiles you see coming off the ice, the number of players who return from one season to the next, or the number of friends a young player has at the rink, you're on to something far more worthwhile and lasting.

“What’s important to a kid? He wants to have fun,” says Martel. “He wants to hang out with his buddies. Hockey is a social game. Those are the things that bring kids back to youth sports. Remember, it’s a game. It’s fun. It’s really good for adults to know what’s going on, but you’re always managing information you put in front of your kids. Don’t overload them.”

Puck Possession Positives
Martel, however, does see application at the youth level for at least one data set: puck possession.

“One of the things that advanced statistics has revealed, and it’s a bit of a buzzword in the game right now, is puck possession,” he says. “In reality, we’re not a possession sport. In the average NHL game, the puck changes possession around 200 times, we really are a transition sport, but the teams that can maintain possession are generally successful.”

With the help of more technology, Martel can see a place for developing rewards systems through the data: “If we can reward programs for trying to make plays, who are hanging on to the puck, the kids are going to be better in the long run.”

USA Hockey’s Statistical Endeavor
While the highest-end tech and analytics may not be coming to a rink near you anytime soon, USA Hockey is installing some of the player- and puck-tracking technology at its rink in Plymouth, Mich., home to the NTDP and future home to a hothouse in terms of hockey data measurement, collection and study.

“We will get to take this system and try to analyze the difference between a Squirt game, compared to a Peewee game, compared to a Bantam game and so on,” says Martel. “What does the Bantam Tier I look like compared to a Bantam house-rec league?”

“We’ll be in a position to bring some of this technology and really look at the youth game. The NHL and college hockey, they’re always going to have access to analyze their sports as new systems and technology are developed. But who’s going to take the time and the resources to analyze what’s happening in the kids' games? USA Hockey.”

Martel sees a bright future for the sharing of this information with youth programs across the USA Hockey landscape, too. 

“I want to utilize the technology to analyze what’s happening in practice, even to look at certain drills, to try to figure out whether certain drills have more value than others,” he says. “What’s happening statistically?”

While the answers are vital to the business operations at the highest levels, where a shadowy arms race is underway within franchises to first discover the most accurate statistic in determining a player’s value, the paradigm shifts entirely for a youth player. The value and reward often comes merely through participation – not a plus-minus or how well he or she performs relative to a peer group.

“When it’s a kids game, you want them to be better, but they’re going to make lots of mistakes and they’re going to try things,” Martel says. “Sometimes we try to overdo things with our young kids that their brains can’t process. There are still cognitive functions that aren’t online at 8- or 9- or 10-years-old.”

The mistakes of a youth player shouldn’t be cataloged as a data set, unless that set is focused on the learning and developing of young players for greater success in the future. 

Now that would be a welcomed advance in statistics.