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The 4 Levels of Analytics & a story about Alexei Emelin

Could helping Emelin the person, fix Emelin the player?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

While most people in hockey - fans, media and management - are spending much of their time thinking about the upcoming NHL Entry Draft and the July 1st UFA milestone, I have been wondering about something else entirely.

Namely, the case of Alexei Emelin.

To recap, Alexei Emelin is 29 year-old defenseman standing 6'2" and weighing 220lb.

He has just completed Year One of a four-year, $16.4 million contract.

His contract includes a full no-trade clause until next summer, and a limited NTC thereafter.

Since 2012-13, he has averaged 19 minutes played per game while recording a 46.6% Corsi rating, the worst among all regular Habs defensemen (1000 minutes played at 5vs5).

So what to think of Mr. Emelin? It would most likely depend on your point of view...

Level 1

"Alexei Emelin is a huge part of this team. He's big, he hits and he plays on the penalty kill. We could use more guys like him."

At this level, we see extremely limited awareness of what actually drives results on the ice. It's a very dangerous place in hang out in, especially when you're a decision-maker (management) or an influencer (mainstream media).

Advocated course of action: "We need even more toughness. Let's trade for Nick Grossman and Rob Scuderi."

Level 2

"Alexei Emelin is a black hole. His Corsi's bad, and he should feel bad."

It might be fair to assume that every casual fan passes through this phase while learning about advanced stats. But if you're going to pass judgement on a player and shout it out from the rooftops, perhaps use a little more critical thinking and at least try to figure out why he's bad, instead of just comparing two digit numbers to each another and bashing whoever has the lowest one.

Advocated course of action: "Since we can't trade Emelin or send him to the AHL, let's just make him a healthy scratch for the next three years."

Level 3

"Alexei Emelin is a poor puck-possession player because he's not good at creating controlled exits or at preventing controlled entries."

Most of the great stats-related research I come across features Level 3 thinking. Their creators attempt to use numbers to uncover and describe patterns of play, turning data into actionable insights for more effective coaching and player deployment.

Advocated course of action: "Play Emelin with Subban for 20 games to increase his trade value, then move him for draft picks."

What about Level 4?

Level 4-thinking is starting to make inroads in hockey, most notably in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.

In essence, it's an expression of the belief that Corsi can be taught.

Or, more precisely, that the skills leading to good puck possession can be developed and fostered in any player in an NHL organization using holistic methods in addition to analytical methods.

While you can improve a player's output by sheltering him (which is what a Level 3 thinker would do), a much more sustainable and ultimately effective solution is to tailor a team's coaching and development philosophy to promote effective breakoutscontrolled zone entries and Royal Road passing, the biggest drivers of positive outcomes (goals, wins; championships) in hockey.

You're no longer buying Corsi or obsession about deployment, you're instead creating a lasting competitive advantage based on how you teach the game and develop your players.

It's using sound information to dictate decision-making, in order to make the most of an organization's talent and work ethic.

So how can we use holistic thinking to make Emelin better?

We've known for a while that Emelin is not very good at the shot differentials game, and the use of microstats (zone entries/exit tracking), coupled with video analysis has been helpful to pinpoint his main problem areas:

1) Emelin is not very good at creating controlled breakouts for his team. He has trouble "finding the middle of the ice" and ends up dumping the puck out, off the glass, way too often. (Which is bad)

Most of the time, the puck either finds its way to an opponent's stick in the neutral zone, or goes down for an icing. Emelin then spends the rest of his shift defending in his zone, which is terrible for his shot suppression numbers (CF/60 and FF/60 in above graph).

2) Because Emelin creates so few controlled exits, his teammates are unable to enter the opposing zone with speed and in control of the puck, which is terrible for Emelin's shot creation numbers (CF/60 and FF/60 in above graph).

3) In addition to his poor transition play, Emelin also has some issues with his decision-making in the defensive zone, either rushing to make plays with the puck, or being a step late when reading the play without the puck.

These are not the type of issues that a traditional hockey organization is necessarily equipped to deal with, from a player development point of view.

No amounts of weight training, plyometrics, power skating or stickhandling drills during the season is going to help Emelin improve his instincts and play his game in a freer, more effective manner.

Whether it was in juniors, the minor leagues or in the KHL, Emelin (or any other NHLer, for that matter) was once a dominant, confident player on the ice. But for some reason, he is unable to find that comfort zone when suiting up with the Canadiens. Finding the reason why and addressing it might well change his entire career arc.

In the big Russian's case, I happen to believe that there is something to be done in terms of helping him grow and develop as a person, and that those changes would inevitably carry over onto the ice.

Few people know that Emelin spoke very, very little English when he joined the Habs in 2011. Throughout his NHL career, he has rarely made himself available to speak with the press, and often relied on Alex Galchenyuk and Andrei Markov (the former much more than the latter, in my personal experience) to communicate with others.

While Pacioretty, Subban and Price spoke to journalists on a weekly, if not daily basis, Emelin would interact with the media no more than two or three times per season. Highly unusual for a top-four defenseman on a big-market team, but completely understandable given his background and personality.

During the 2013-14 season, I often worked from the Bell Centre's pressbox during Habs games. Emelin sat out the first part of the season while rehabbing his knee, and would sit by himself with a coffee and watch the game alone on one of the seats designated for scratched players. In contrast, Hamilton Bulldogs call-ups would often sit together and talk amongst themselves.

One night, I walked down to the media lounge to get a bottle of water. Randomly, I decided to grab one for Emelin as well. When I handed him the bottle, I could see on his face a look of genuine gratefulness. And yet he said nothing. He froze, as if he couldn't express himself in a language other than Russian.

I repeated the water experiment a few more times throughout the season. Always the same result. He was always obviously happy, but I don't think he ever once managed to say a word.

And so whenever I watch Emelin in yet another moment of indecision on the ice, I wonder to myself, "what would happen if he started working with a public speaking coach, in English?" I suspect that not only would he become a more effective communicator with his teammates and coaches, but that the breathing techniques he could learn would also allow him to better manage his stress level on the ice and make more confident, level-headed plays when the pressure is on.

In any case, I think Alexei Emelin in a quality human being, and having him be even a 49% rather than a 46% Corsi player would be a massive plus for the Canadiens.

Perhaps it's a stretch to believe that working on something completely unrelated to the sport can help a hockey player improve his game. But with $12.3 million tied up over the next three years and so much else at stake, it's worth a shot. With the analytics tools at our disposal today, we'll definitely have the means to measure how big of an impact these new, holistic ideas have.

Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.