On March 13, with his team down, 2-0, to Philadelphia with five minutes remaining in regulation, Devils coach Peter DeBoer did something that would have startled most of his counterparts. During four-on-four play, he yanked goaltender Martin Brodeur and replaced him with forward David Clarkson, leaving the net empty.
The brassy move caught the attention of Michael Schuckers, associate professor of mathematics at St. Lawrence University. Schuckers doubles as the cofounder of Statistical Sports Consulting. In that position, he consults with NHL teams, using data to promote less-considered approaches. For example, signing a mid-tier goalie and a forward instead of focusing all resources toward an elite puck-stopper. Or that winning faceoffs isn’t as important as coaches believe it to be. Or pulling the goalie earlier.
Schuckers bases the latter proposal on a paper by David Beaudoin and Tim Swartz, based on data from the 2007-08 NHL season. The researchers concluded that in such a scenario as New Jersey’s (trailing by two goals with six minutes left), the losing club should pull its goalie far sooner than with 1:30 remaining, the traditional mark when coaches consider the maneuver.
“If you’re in a situation where you’re pulling your goalie, you’re obviously already in a spot where you’re likely to lose,’’ Schuckers said. “You’re down a goal or two goals. You’re likely to lose and get no points.
“The strategy, admittedly, is a risky one. But it’s one which can pay off. If you pull your goalie with 4-5 minutes left, yes, you’re probably still going to lose. But the chance you get some points out of the game improves drastically.’’
With 4:49 left in regulation of that Flyers-Devils game, Danny Briere scored an empty-net goal. Philadelphia won, 3-0. But Schuckers still believes the Devils made the right move.
“By giving yourself an extra attacker, you’re increasing the probability you’re going to score a goal,’’ Schuckers said. “Over the course of repeating that strategy in an 82-game season, it eventually pays off.’’
That scenario and its outcome illustrate the challenge Schuckers and his colleagues face when pitching their theories to hockey’s gatekeepers. Earlier this month, Schuckers participated in a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Also on the panel were Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, Toronto GM Brian Burke, NBC analyst Mike Milbury, and former NHLer Tony Amonte.
Burke dominated the discussion, downplaying the significance of the oft-cited but irrelevant plus/minus statistic, which largely reflects whether a player is on a good team or a bad team. (See Jeff Schultz’s plus-50 in 2009-10 or Tim Gleason’s minus-11 in 2010-11.)
But Burke also emphasized that he prefers the traditional methods of scouting. He noted that he watched just one of Ryan Kesler’s shifts at Ohio State to decide that he would draft the center in the first round of 2003. Burke also acknowledged scouting Wayne Simmonds as a junior multiple times and not seeing anything to command his attention.
Like most in the game, Burke endorses the use of experienced bird dogs in pro and amateur rinks to evaluate players and determine who stands above the rest.
As for the statistics gathered and applied by Schuckers and others in analytics, Burke used the metaphor of a lamppost for a drunk: useful for support, but not for illumination. You could say there is resistance.
“You still have a culture of hockey that is very old-school,’’ said Schuckers. “There’s plenty of skepticism in hockey for the role that hockey analytics and statistics can play.’’
Schuckers acknowledges the hurdles analytics must overcome in hockey. The practice has become standard in baseball, where the sport’s rhythm makes it perfect for statistical analysis.
Hockey, however, is a chain reaction of events that unfold rapidly. Take, for example, Chris Kelly’s goal in the Bruins’ 8-0 thrashing of the Maple Leafs last Monday.
That Kelly scored on Toronto goalie James Reimer is a static piece of information, of little use.
But by breaking down the series of events that led to the goal, the Bruins could accrue some valuable data. The goal took place in the first period. The scoring chance, which started off a Luke Schenn turnover, started against the left-side boards. It happened on a one-man forecheck. The Leafs had just played D-to-D, with Jake Gardiner passing to Schenn. Kelly scored on his backhand.
By examining each component, the Bruins could, for example, roll out a specific forecheck for a certain stage of the game against certain opponents.
However, to break down a 60-minute game into hundreds of events requires more video tracking and analysts to follow each sequence. Neither the NHL nor its teams currently use enough resources to gather the raw data.
“We can go through the play-by-play file and the files of NHL records of events in a game,’’ explained Schuckers, referring to the real-time data, supplied by off-ice officials, that the league currently tracks. “Take the beginning of a game. There’s a faceoff to start the game. About 40 seconds later, we have a shot, a shot by the team that won the faceoff.
“We know they won the faceoff. We know, 40 seconds later, they took a shot. What we don’t know is all those things that happened in between. Did they win the faceoff, go back into their zone, and organize the attack? Or did they immediately go into the offensive zone and pass it around for 30 seconds?
“Not knowing those pieces of information makes some of the in-game stuff hard to do.’’
It will take several years for analytics to gain relevancy in hockey. The NHL would have to install additional cameras in every rink to capture each event more thoroughly. Hockey-savvy statisticians would have to track every sequence.
Even if enough data is collected and analyzed to uncover trends, coaches must embrace the information, then convince their charges to carry out certain tasks on the ice. In its current state of infancy, analytics projects to be more helpful for management in player evaluation than for coaches, because of the sport’s speed.
“You might have six things that analytics tells you,’’ said Schuckers, repeating an anecdote he heard from Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren. “Four of them, you’re confident enough to take to the coach. The coach is confident enough to tell two of them to the player. If you’re lucky, the player will execute one of them.’’
Radio voice stays tuned in
On Sunday, the Bruins face the Ducks for the first time this season. It is the type of matchup - late in the season, a nonconference opponent, a team the Bruins haven’t played this year - that can be dangerous for a radio play-by-play man.
That’s why Dave Goucher, the lead Bruins voice for 98.5 The Sports Hub, spent approximately four hours last week to plan for the game.
“If you’re not prepared, I just think it would be a helpless feeling,’’ said Goucher, who is in his 12th season as the play-by-play voice. “The game moves so fast. If you don’t know who’s who like the back of your hand on both teams, you’re in big trouble. The game will get away from you real fast. That’s my version of chasing the game.’’
During a game, the scribblers in the press box can refer to the roster to catch an opponent’s name and statistics (hand raised high in the air). Goucher and Bob Beers can’t do that.
As soon as the puck goes from one player’s blade to another, Goucher has to get names and pronunciations right. Otherwise, it’s all over.
To make the job even harder, radio personnel are usually seated far away from the ice. At TD Garden, they’re on the ninth floor. In Dallas’s American Airlines Center, they’re so high that their radio booth could double as a pressurized flight cabin.
To prepare for an opposing team, Goucher will fill out a line chart - four lines of three forwards, three defense pairings, two goalies. By hand, Goucher crams that chart full of the information he gathers from reading clips, studying media guides, conducting interviews, and watching games. Goucher will usually watch two or three of that team’s recent games.
Given how much information is available online, Goucher finds himself in an editor’s position - picking and choosing the nuggets he believes listeners will most enjoy. Play-by-play voices, especially on the radio, are so busy describing what’s taking place, they often don’t have time to complement the action with the information. On average, Goucher estimates, he uses half of the information he has gathered.
“But you have to put the work in,’’ Goucher said. “You have to do it. You don’t know when you might need it. I learned a long time ago that preparation is the most vital part of doing this well.’’
Solid backing in Nashville
Given his skills and future compensation ($7 million annually starting next year), Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne should be getting 60-plus starts for each of the next few seasons. To spell Rinne, the Predators have a dependable No. 2 in Anders Lindback. In 14 games, Lindback is 3-8-0 with a 2.63 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage. The Predators selected Lindback with the 207th pick in the 2008 draft. The native of Gavle, Sweden, would have been picked higher, but in the fall of his draft year, Lindback suffered from an illness ultimately diagnosed as Still’s disease, an inflammatory condition that requires him to take a daily injection. “I watched one game,’’ recalled assistant GM Paul Fenton, who leaned on European scout Lucas Bergman. “I turned to Lucas and said, ‘We’re taking this kid at least in the second round.’ He was just awesome. Then he didn’t play again. Out of sight, out of mind, sometimes.’’ The 23-year-old Lindback will be a restricted free agent July 1. The 6-foot-6-inch, 203-pound Lindback could be a trade candidate if other clubs believe he can assume a starter’s workload.
Hamilton hitting his stride
Dougie Hamilton played in only 50 regular-season Ontario Hockey League games because of the World Junior Championships and a 10-game suspension for throwing an illegal shot to the head. Yet Hamilton, the Bruins’ most recent first-round pick, led all OHL defensemen in scoring with a 17-55-72 line. Cody Ceci, the No. 2 scorer (17-43-60), appeared in 14 more games than Hamilton. For all his offensive touch, Hamilton’s shutdown game is progressing as well. “He can do it both,’’ said Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney. “He can move it. But we’ve also asked him to take care defensively. He’s tuned that in as well. He’s got tremendous reach. He’s a great skater. He’s very fluid, so it’s tough to get around him. And there’s plenty of room for growth.’’ Adam Larsson, the first defenseman picked in the 2011 draft (No. 4 overall to New Jersey), transitioned directly to the NHL from the Swedish Elite League. The 6-3, 200-pound Larsson was more physically ready for the NHL than Hamilton. But long-term, Hamilton might develop into the better player. Hamilton and his Niagara IceDogs kicked off the OHL playoffs Thursday. Niagara is a contender for the Memorial Cup.
One hand or two?
Under former coach Ron Wilson, Toronto defensemen were encouraged to keep both hands on the stick. That way, they could be stronger on pucks and more forceful at swatting away opponents’ sticks. The Bruins coaches teach their defensemen to lead with their sticks with one hand and aim for the puck. With their other hand, they can lean on the puck carrier. For example, if a forward is trying to swing wide, the defensemen are taught to reach with their sticks with one hand, which gives them better reach. If the forward then tries to pass, the defensemen has a hand free to attempt to swat the puck away. In tight, the one-hand approach also works. “You use one hand with stick on puck, then push the puck,’’ Johnny Boychuk explained. “Then you can push him at the same time with your other hand.’’
The Bruins shipped Yury Alexandrov to the Islanders last Tuesday, 22 days after the trade deadline. The Bruins could do so because Alexandrov was a nonroster player and not eligible for either NHL or AHL play this season . . . Joe Cannata signed his two-year entry-level contract with Vancouver Wednesday. Cannata starred in goal at Merrimack for four seasons and was arguably the biggest reason for the program’s surge. The Wakefield native is the second Massachusetts goalie in the Vancouver system. Marblehead’s Cory Schneider is Roberto Luongo’s No. 2 with the Canucks . . . An underrated skill among elite scorers: puck protection. Look at players such as Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux, Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, and John Tavares. Opponents can’t scrape the puck off their blades. They also position their bodies effectively to shield the puck from defensemen . . . I carry a club and paint on cave walls, which might explain why I loved Monday’s six-man off-the-hop throwdown between the Rangers and Devils. These days, such viewpoints might be waning. But boy, did I get a kick out of Devils coach Peter DeBoer sending out the shock troops (Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen, Ryan Carter) for the opening faceoff, then seeing John Tortorella punch back with Brandon Prust, Mike Rupp, and Stu Bickel - with the latter, a defenseman, taking the draw. Didn’t care for Bickel’s late punches on Carter. But the other four, all legit heavyweights, did their business with respect and honesty. Which are two qualities that too many non-tough guys are missing.