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November 19, 2006
  

Revenge of the Nerds
The Bill James of hockey? Columnist Greg Wyshynski talks to the man who's trying to revolutionize the way the NHL keeps stats and evaluates its best players.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Who is the most productive offensive player in the NHL this season? The numbers tell us, as of Nov. 15th, that it's Marian Hossa of the Atlanta Thrashers with 15 goals and 30 points — leading the league in both offensive categories.

But can we really trust beauty pageant stats to tell us everything about a player's true value?

As hockey fans check the leader-boards while waiting to see who will shine up this year's Art Ross or Maurice Richard trophy, baseball sabermetricians are applying AP Calculus theorems to offensive figures — mining statistics for candid evaluations of a player's merit.

Chicks might still dig the long-ball, but baseball's intelligentsia stopped treating RBI and slugging stats as gospel the minute Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane accepted "Baseball Abstract" author Bill James as his sabermetric savior in the mid-1990s.

I'm not ready to christen Gary Cohen as hockey's answer to James — he admits he's not nearly the obsessive mathematician. But Cohen may be hockey's first statistical revolutionary: expanding the limited scope of current player data, and establishing entirely new standards for measuring true on-ice productivity.

"[Baseball] goes really deep into analyzing statistics. Hockey keeps it very basic — goals, assists, that sort of thing," he said. "I still think there are a lot more stats that hockey can use that tell you about a player."

Cohen is the man behind Hockey-Recap.com, a daily hockey fix that's all about the numbers and what's behind them. He keeps the basic stats, but includes a few that can't be readily found. I used the word "revolutionary" before, and I meant it: this guy's going to change the way we calculate, calibrate, evaluate and disseminate stats in the NHL ... even if his site looks like a no-frills version of the Drudge Report.

 

Cohen's thesis is that hockey fans are being mislead by the current numbers. He calls plus/minus "worthless," because so many players are given a role that emphasizes defense over scoring. He thinks giveaways and takeaways are as much a subjective mess as the nebulous "hits" category.

"I've watched games and looked at the stats and I have no idea how they came up with those numbers," he said. (And he's got about as much love for goaltenders as Mario did.)

"There's no goalie stat that tells you anything, unless [the league] starts breaking the ice down into zones and rating shots that come at them."

It's that sort of statistical specificity that Cohen's fighting for. Think of NHL stats like television ratings (I know: sore subject, hockey fans). The newspaper lists the broad categories: goals and points, ratings and shares. The advertisers, however, only care about explicit demographic information; broken down by gender, age, geography —even the number of minutes they viewed the program before flipping over to an old "Cheers" rerun.

Cohen yearns for that kind of detail. He wants first assists tracked. He wants a nightly shift report — how much did Alex Ovechkin play with the top line last game, and how much did he play with other mismatched pairings? Some of these numbers he needs the NHL to tabulate; others he plans on adding to his site in the future, like shot-types per player, face-off success by zone and other “ice-o-metrics” that include clutch goals. In the end, like James did in baseball, Cohen hopes fans will utilize all the numbers to evaluate and project a player’s efficiency rather than relying on the limited capacity of glamour stats.

For example: who did we say was the most productive offensive player in the NHL this season? According to Cohen, it’s not Hossa — he’s the sixth-most productive. No, the most productive is Buffalo’s Maxim Afinogenov, thanks to a stat Cohen created that measures the number of seconds between points on the ice for a player. So while he has 11 points less than Hossa as of Nov. 15th, Afinogenov (10:52) is still more productive than the NHL’s “best” offensive player (14:25).

THE PROCESS

So how does Cohen manage to take a night’s worth of facts and figures and turn them into a daily Web site and e-mail newsletter?

The 33-year-old, who lives near Montreal, started with a baseball site called TheBaseballCube.com, which culled both Major and Minor League stats. He turned to hockey, his true passion, this season. The process is fairly simple: he cuts and pastes box scores from sites like Yahoo! Sports and NHL.com into a database, and writes programs that sift through and order them in different categories. Without enhancements — like injury reports and a roll call of hockey stories from around the Web — Cohen said the updates take about 20 minutes a day.

He said he didn’t realize until he began his site that arbitration and contract negotiations are two good reasons why the NHL isn’t in the business of keeping a multitude of different stats. But that could change if its members demand otherwise: Cohen said teams like the Minnesota Wild are petitioning to get the league to collect more game-day data in order to better evaluate their own players.

“It’s really hard to come up with new stats because it’s a free-flowing game. It’s not like baseball; things are always moving in hockey,” said Cohen.

But baseball and hockey do share one thing: sacred records. And just like the home run has become about as commonplace as a Rick DiPietro joke, Cohen believes that statistic benchmarks in the NHL could become just as pedestrian under these new offensively emphatic rules.

“That’s one of the things I’ve had against baseball. [Milestones] were relevant for a while. To tell you the truth, I don’t care so much about the steroids as I do that the numbers are all different now. You have to have that benchmark where you know what’s good. Fifty [goals] needs to be good; 30 home runs need to be 30 home runs,” he said.

“[The NHL will] have to bring it back the other way to defense. I think that’s what they want to do. I don’t think it was so much that the game was boring [in the 1990s]; it’s that there were no goals. I think they want to keep the stats where they mean something, so that they mean something from generation to generation.”

Even for stat-obsessed American sports fans.

THE STATES

Soccer doesn’t work in the United States because there’s no scoring, just like basketball thrives here because it’s all scoring. Baseball is passed down through the generations because it’s as much about stats and speculation as it is slugging and strikeouts. American fans live to quantify, from the number-crunching on fantasy league Web sites to the pages of sports record books.

But Cohen doesn’t believe that casual fans are interested in hockey stats.

“I’m not even sure that when Wayne Gretzky was scoring 80 or 90 goals that it was even grabbing attention in the States,” he said. “I just don’t think they understand the game enough.”

So even if scoring records started falling more quickly than the Flyers’ playoff hopes, Cohen doesn’t believe American sports fans would care — unless you’re talking about the ones with a copy of “Moneyball” on their bookshelves.

“If they could study a game, study the stats that really tell the story…I think the intelligent types that really like that sort of thing would be more into hockey.”

Like I said, it’s a revolutionary notion: that the key to drawing new fans to the NHL isn’t in catering to Neanderthalic predilections for goal-scoring and the occasional fisticuffs, but in finding an access point for intellectual sports aficionados to begin devouring hockey stats. We’ve spent the last 20 years marketing to Bill Murray when it's Bill Gates who might actually end up appreciating the game. Forget pink jerseys for the ladies; where’s the hockey swag for the nerds? Officially licensed pocket protectors! NHLPA graphing calculators! Can't you hear it now? "Hi, I’'m Marty Turco for Texas Instruments…"

OK, perhaps that’s a bit of a reach. Then again, I'm sure those who read the first "Bill James Baseball Abstract" in 1977 didn’t think its theories would one day become mainstream, and that its author would be hired by the Boston Red Sox to help mastermind their first World Championship in 86 years.

So stranger things have happened; just don't shine up that Maxim Afinogenov Trophy for Best Production quite yet.

"Mike Ribiero would probably win it [someday]," said Cohen of the former Hab, "and I wouldn't want that to happen."
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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