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Shiny new toys: 4 useful tools for next-level analytics

How can an NHL team get ahead of the crowd? A few R&D ideas for a smarter hockey organisation.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

As someone with a background in marketing tech start-ups, I am always on the lookout for new technological solutions in order to better understand the game of hockey. Here are a few which have caught my attention recently:

1) New visualisation tools (ex: HERO Charts)

If you’ve read any of my recent pieces (like this one or this one), then you probably already know that I really love Domenic Galamini’s Horizontal Evaluative Rankings Optic. The statistical categories are well-chosen and allow for nice, apple-to-apple comparisons between players.

Now, I have heard others question the reliability of the Usage-Adjusted ratings used by HERO, but I don’t feel it’s a big issue since NHL teams (and players, for that matter) are really a fairly homogeneous group compared to what you would see in other leagues. Personally, I feel that there is too much emphasis being put on finding The One Rating to Rule Them All. It is much more instructive, and interesting, to evaluate players based on several metrics and putting them in the best position to succeed. Comparing Thomas Vanek to Erik Condra illustrates that point. It’d be unfair to say that one is "good at hockey" and that the other isn’t, no matter which camp you happen to belong to. They’re just different players who need to be deployed in different ways by a coaching staff. That's just what hockey is.

2) Optical player tracking (ex: SportLogiq)

EOTP reader Alex Danco was the person who first told me about this Montreal-based company using computer vision for player tracking purposes. Founded by a former Olympic figure skater who yearned for a more objective way to evaluate skater performance during competition, the product concept lends itself well to tracking player and puck movement during a hockey game, too. Having worked with a similar technology in a different industry a few years ago, I was surprised to see how much the expertise has evolved since 2011. If it didn't really work back then, at least it works much better now...

While I am bullish on the potential of SportLogiq to be used to scouting and player development, especially since it promises to track movement without the need for special cameras or chips, I do anticipate certain issues to be overcome. Analysts across the blogosphere have gotten pretty good at squeezing insights out from NHL’s play-by-play data (the RTSS logs generated by statskeepers sitting up in the press box), but they did not get there overnight. RTSS is a mature technology. It took about a decade for the idea of 5vs5 shot attempts being a good proxy to puck possession to be accepted and another couple of years for "score close" and "adjusted" ratings to take hold. All in all, it was a decidedly un-smooth process filled with online flame wars and much uncertainty about what the numbers are actually saying.

There will likely be the same learning curve with raw data collected from player tracking – it’ll be about finding what’s repeatable (not luck-driven) and what really influences the bottom line (future goals for and against). In the meantime, hockey teams looking to implement changes based on tracking data may find themselves in a two step forward, one step back situation. For example, looking for players with a high work rate or distanced skated in all three zones may unfairly penalize Nick Lidstrom-types who simply don’t need to work as hard thanks to their positioning and stick skills. The blind spots can be minimized, but, as in any other industry, there will certainly be growing pains as new technologies mature into reliable tools.

3) Wearable technology (ex: FWD Powershot)

Some teams are actually already adopting wearable technology as a means of tracking player performance. Those with a sharp eye would have seen the Toronto Maple Leafs staff collecting Nike Fuel bracelets from each player after a training session on HBO's 24/7 series. A more hockey-specific product is the FWD Powershot, which fits into any hollow composite stick and can collect data on a player’s shooting abilities.

There is some skepticism about the immediate utility of wearables in hockey, since many products are essentially jazzed-up accelerometers using similar chips that you may find in your cellphone (allowing it to detect which way it is pointing) or in a Nintnedo Wii controller – in other words, nothing mind-blowing. However, the available technology does allow a team to find and document the physical baselines of their athletes, making it possible to adjust player usage and training routines over the course of a season. A chip can’t necessarily tell us how to make players skate faster or shoot harder just yet, but it can give us some pretty interesting information on how well he is recovering from an ACL sprain, a shoulder surgery, or the bag skate the coach put everyone through after a road loss.

4) Other connected objects (ex: BU)

While attending a tech conference in Montreal earlier this week, I was presented with a fascinating design study undertaken by the marketing agency and the ALTO design firm. The BU system links a smartly designed water bottle with a mobile app which calculates how much you need to drink to stay hydrated throughout the day and alerts you if you are not on path to reach your objective. The concept’s usefulness is clear for the general public, but especially so for elite athletes who are always traveling or doing strenuous physical work.

Athletes themselves may object to being told what to do and when to do it outside of practice and game situations, but having some smart, minimally intrusive tools to help these young people drink more water, eat better and sleep sounder will definitely produce a positive impact on the ice. And if their teams can monitor that data over time, well, that create yet another opportunity for them to think the game at a higher level. The Vancouver Canucks have already tapped into that inefficiency by employing Fatigue Science as "sleep consultants," so it's just a matter of time before every organization starts doing something similar as well.