At the 2014 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, there were some very bright minds discussing evolving uses of statistics and different strategies that can result; really, just from sharp minds discussing some interesting ideas. Then there was the Hockey Analytics panel. Okay, it wasnt necessarily that bad but this was my fifth year attending and every year my sense has been that the NHL lags so far behind baseball and basketball in its adoption of analytic concepts that it can become a frustrating exercise. This years Hockey Analytics panel included Calgary Flames president Brian Burke, Boston Bruins Assistant GM Don Sweeney, Washington Capitals Assistant GM Don Fishman, Merrimack College Head Coach Mark Dennehy and stats analyst Eric Tulsky. The panel was moderated by Dale Arnold, from NESN. Houston Rockets GM, and Conference Co-Chair, Daryl Morey noted that every NBA team has stats analysts. In the NHL, there are a few teams that have staff positions for someone in analytics. The Tampa Bay Lightning, for example, have Michael Peterson, who was at the conference, doing work as a statistical analyst and the New Jersey Devils recently had a job for a Director of Analytics posted on NHL.com. Its no coincidence that the Devils new ownership group, headed by Josh Harris, is also involved in the NBA, owning the Philadelphia 76ers, so they come from a world where analytics is simply a part of doing business. (As a complete aside, it blew me away that the Devils, who have traditionally guarded information like the CIA, would publicly announce intentions to hire a Director of Analytics, the kind of thing that most teams generally tend to keep secretive and under the radar.) Part of what made the Basketball and Baseball Analytics panels at Sloan successful is that they didnt waste time discussing whether there is value in analytics. For whatever reason, hockey panels at Sloan insist on having a counter voice, one loud voice belonging to Calgary Flames president Brian Burke, that this sport cant be helped by objective statistical analysis. On one hand, its good to have dissenting opinions so that every thought isnt lost in an echo chamber but, given the state of acceptance of hockey analytics, it could probably use a more positive approach at an analytics conference. Burke started to acknowledge, "Statistics have value; ignore at your peril," he said, before getting back on familiar ground, "But its an eyeballs business." Its understandable when anyone has been in the business for so long that they arent inclined to jump in at new methods of analysis, but Steven Burtch had a good take on the tendency to rely on eyeballs. Its been said more than a few times, that use of analytics doesnt guarantee anything, which is an odd standard to apply since not using analytics and sticking with eyeballs, hunches and gut instinct most certainly doesnt come with any guarantees of success either. The funny thing about using analytics is that, somehow -- likely through the famous scene with the scouts around the table in the movie Moneyball -- there persists the idea that anyone wants to use analytics without actually watching players play. At last years Sloan Conference, Tulskys paper on zone entries was a valuable insight into the game and he came up with the data by watching the games in minute detail, providing real analysis on numbers that werent provided elsewhere. All the game-watchers in the world couldnt tell you how much more important it is to carry the puck into the offensive zone rather than dumping it in and, by quantifying the results, Tulsky showed that, all things being equal, dumping the puck in should be a last resort. For what its worth, I watch games differently having seen that data. There were several instances in which it was clear that the panel wasnt really up to speed on hockey analytics. While moderator Dale Arnold had researched Tulskys work, and knew to ask about Score-Adjusted Fenwick rating, they also veered into a discussion based on the premise that advanced stats dont capture the essence of a player like Patrice Bergeron, which is crazy because advanced stats do a superior job to traditional stats in that respect. Hockey analytics LOVE Bergeron. Where the panel lost its way, in some respects, is that when Tulsky discussed how modern NHL analytics are based on shot attempts, because that offers more valuable statistical evidence, there was no follow-up. No one argued the point -- because what kind of footing would they be on if they dared? -- but it was left to hang out there until the panel moved to a new topic of conversation. Some of those topics: - Fishman marveled at the clutch performance of some players, referencing Alex Ovechkins ability to score in key moments and noted thats what analytics miss about Ovechkin is his desire to have the puck on his stick with the game on the line. I think its been established enough, throughout the sports world, that clutch might be a thing that exists, but is entirely unpredictable. Like character, this is the kind of thing that gets assigned to players after the fact. The funny thing is that I used analytics to defend Ovechkins performance this season and I might suggest that the reason analytics may not capture the essence of Alex Ovechkin is that the most basic of stats, goals, does a pretty bang-up job. How far down the list of the leagues leading goal-scorers would you have to get before you find one that didnt want the puck on his stick with the game on the line? 50? 100? - So while I take issue with Fishmans stance on measuring clutch performance, Fishman also cited the importance of using objective data, as opposed to teams using their own measures because those measures come with more inherent biases. Many NHL teams talk about tracking scoring chances, which is fine but, from my perspective, the concern in tracking scoring chances is 1) its correlation to Corsi and 2) at no point have I been under the impression that teams track scoring chances league-wide, which means covering only games involving their team. That kind of misses the point of analytics in many respects. While its useful to have more data on your own players, you also get to see them for 82 games and every practice, so there shouldnt be any grand surprises about the value of players that you see that often. Applying real value to data, in my opinion, has to involve measuring players league-wide so that there are some comparable baselines and insights that might help in player acquisition or determining contract value. Its one thing for the Bruins to say how their scoring chance data tells them just how valuable Patrice Bergeron is; its another to have any idea whether or not there are comparables elsewhere in the league. - There was some brief discussion of coaching analytics -- Michael Parkatti had done some work in this regard -- and its probably an area ripe for further exploration. Burke, speaking from the executive office as a GM or President tends to cut his coaches some slack, saying "The coach starts the game with the players we give them," which is true, but that doesnt mean that there isnt something to be gleaned about how a coach can affect a teams puck possession. Sweeney, who played 1223 regular season and playoff games for the Bruins and Stars, noted that players are visual learners and need to see examples that merge with analytical insight. This is the right approach, merging analytic findings with real-life, actionable solutions. Its one thing to know, due to analytics, that there is an area of concern; its another thing to have an idea how to fix the issue and express it clearly to those that can make changes. - Burke said if there was an analytics package that he believed would work, hed buy it in a second: "Were all looking for that edge." Burke and Toronto Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis, his protege, are in lockstep - as both have publicly stated they will pay for analytics if they see value. They just dont see it yet. This goes back to the standard to which some hold analytics. For someone who freely admits hes made mistakes -- a function of a long career of drafting, signing and trading players -- its incongruous that Burke wouldnt see the possibility of potentially limiting those mistakes. Its not about being 100% right on all transactions -- analytics isnt about guarantees -- but if analytics made you "right" 60% instead of 55% of the time, then wouldnt that be pretty useful? Strangely enough, the Maple Leafs (represented by VP and Assistant GM Claude Loiselle) were one of a half dozen or so teams with hockey operations people in attendance. While the Leafs have shown a general disdain for analytics, Loiselles presence at the conference raises the question of whether they could be willing to learn a little -- at least to have a better idea what it is that they are so readily dismissing. - Not surprisingly, Burke is really big on the character of players they draft. I dont dispute need for character, but do think its subjectively over-valued and often assigned retroactively. The guy whose team wins or that has a long career is determined to have high character. Its one thing to tell a colourful story about Trevor Linden that shows his character and another to base hockey decisions on that information. Basically, there are plenty of guys with high character that arent necessarily great hockey players. As Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow noted on the Baseball Analytics Panel, "There is no correlation between being a nice guy or a good person and being a good baseball player." Ive yet to see the evidence to suggest that hockey functions differently. - Perhaps more interesting than the official Hockey Analytics Panel was discussing some of these concepts with others in attendance. In addition to Tulsky and Peterson, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds GM Kyle Dubas, Hockey Prospectus Editor-in-Chief Timo Seppa, as well as Michael Schuckers, Brian Macdonald -- both of whom have presented at the conference previously -- were all there to discuss and debate issues. You could probably have a more enlightened panel with some of the people in that group. Probably the most interesting discussion to me involved the merits of swing players, those who could play both forward and defence. After attending the Baseball Analytics Panel, in which they discussed the possibility of teams shifting their best defenders around the field according to a hitters tendencies, Dubas, Tulsky and I talked about how it might apply in hockey terms. Most recently, players like Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Burns are prominent players that have played both forward and defence; Sergei Fedorov took some turns on the Red Wings blueline and Christoph Schubert had that flexibility with the Ottawa Senators. Going further back, Rick Chartraw did it for the Montreal Canadiens in the late 1970s and while Paul Reinhart and Phil Houseley were primarily defencemen, they both logged some time at forward, as did Red Kelly as far back as 1960, so its not like its new to have players who can fit into the lineup in different spots. Our discussion, however, focused more on the idea that a team might, under some circumstances, go with four forwards and one defenceman in standard 5-on-5 play. Certainly, when trailing by a goal, it could make sense for the Jets to slide Byfuglien back on defence to upgrade their overall attack. While we debated the possibilities of how it might work, and what it might take to convince, coaches, scouts, players and agents to look at players in a slightly different way, the ultimate conclusion was that there could be real value in such a player, perhaps more than would be expected. Somtimes, the player who cant fit full-time on defence gets lumped into a fourth-line forward role (like Chartraw and Schubert) but having a player that is strong enough to handle both responsibilities could be a real asset. Anyway, the weighing of pros and cons with some smart guys made for an interesting discussion. - While the NBAs use of SportVu Player Tracking appears to be the wave of the future, there appears to be little appetite for it in the NHL to this point. Tulsky suggested that the teams that get in on the technology first may have the opportunity to gain a competitive edge but the margins will get decidedly slimmer if the technology was to ever be carried league-wide, like it is in the NBA. Once everyone has the data, then the advantage goes to the best analyst. - Tulsky says its hard to come up with a hockey version of WAR right now, but its possible some day. As someone who uses statistics to generate my NHL Player Rankings, I accept Erics positon, because it surely can get better, but I still find it useful to have a catch-all number to at least provide ballpark value on players. Michael Schuckers, who has presented at the conference in previous years, developed his Total Hockey Rating (THoR) in an attempt to come up with this kind of value. ESPN Insider NHL Draft/Prospect Writer Corey Pronman weighed in, via Twitter, making a point with which I agree: In order to do a proper stats analysis of a "player", need to examine 9-13 micro stats. Knowing how to combine & weigh is a bit of a skill. So, even if there is room for improvement on the Sloan Sports Conference Hockey Analytics Panel, thats almost fitting for a sport that has been slow to come around on the use of advanced stats. As Tulsky has found, there is progress being made and its easy enough to see how the trend towards advanced stats tilted in other sports so that, eventually, it will be part of standard business in the NHL too. Some day it will be accepted that having more knowledge at your disposal is better than less. Some day. Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca
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. The judge sternly instructed the prosecutor to restrain himself and he apologized -- then went right back to trying to pick holes in the testimony of the double-amputee runner. It was a harsh day of cross-examination for Pistorius, challenged relentlessly about his account of the moments just before he killed Reeva Steenkamp, as well as circumstances related to several firearms charges against him, including the firing of a gun in a crowded restaurant.There were some golden moments, a number of surprises and some unforgettable magic across the sports world in 2014. Heres a look back at 10 memorable Canadian stories:GRAND SEASONEugenie Bouchard showed she had arrived on the womens tennis scene by reaching the semifinals at the Australian Open last January. The young Canadian star proved it was no fluke a few months later by making the final four at the French Open.Bouchard took it one step further at Wimbledon with a performance that really got the countrys attention.She dispatched three top-20 opponents en route to the final without dropping a set. Bouchards semifinal win over Simona Halep made her the first Canadian to reach a Grand Slam singles final in the modern era.Her effort on the hallowed All-England Club grass courts had tennis observers and non-sports fans talking from coast to coast. Bouchard eventually met her match in the final, dropping a 6-3, 6-0 decision to Petra Kvitova.Bouchard picked up her first WTA title last spring, cracked the top five in the world rankings in October and reached the season-ending WTA finals.Its hard to believe shes only 20. Imagine the possibilities when she hits her prime.Canadas Milos Raonic also continued his strong play on the mens tour in 2014.He reached the Wimbledon semifinals for the first time before falling to Roger Federer. Raonic rose as high as No. 6 in the world rankings and made his first appearance at the ATP World Tour Finals.GOLDEN GOALOne victory was a thorough beatdown while the other had fans biting their nails for what felt like hours.The Canadian mens hockey team shut out Sweden 3-0 in Sochi to win gold for the second straight Winter Olympics. The Canadian womens team also came through with a successful title defence in a game loaded with drama.The Americans nearly iced the victory when Kelli Stack fired the puck down the ice toward Canadas empty net. The puck hit the post, Canada regained possession and Marie-Philip Poulin scored the tying goal seconds later.Poulin added the winner in overtime to give Canada a 3-2 victory and its fourth straight Olympic womens hockey gold.RUGBY RUNIt was uncharted territory for the Canadian womens rugby team.Canada entered last summers Womens Rugby World Cup having never finished higher than fourth at the tournament. They left the event knowing that they truly belong among the sports elite. With Magali Harvey and captain Kelly Russell leading the way, the Canadians held off the host French side 18-16 in a hard-fought semifinal. Canada dropped a 21-9 decision to England in the championship game.Harvey was named International Rugby Board womens player of the year after the game. Russell was a finalist for the honour.HOOP DREAMSCanadian basketball made big strides over the last year on several fronts.The national womens team finished fifth at the world championships for its best result at the tournament in years. Andrew Wiggins of Vaughan, Ont., was selected with the first overall pick in the NBA draft — the second straight year that a Canadian went No. 1 — and the Toronto Raptors finally returned to the post-season.Canadas lone NBA team played in front of sellout crowds at Air Canada Centre with a few thousand more watching the first-round action outside on a big screen.The Ontario capital is still considered a hockey town, but for the younger generation of sports fans in the city the Raptors are becoming just as important.TITLE REIGNSFor a brief moment after their second straight Olympic bobsled victory, Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse tuned out the din at the Sanki Sliding Center and focused on each other.They were near the mountain road outside the finish area, away from the cheering fans, getting in line with othhers for the flowers presentation.ddddddddddddThey gave each other a knowing smile. All the hard work had paid off, all the sacrifice and effort was worthwhile, and they proved once again they were still the best duo in the world.Their victory was one of a number of successful individual and team title defences in Sochi. Other repeat winners included freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau in moguls and a remarkable performance by Brian McKeever, who won three gold medals in cross-country skiing for the second straight Paralympics. CAPITAL RETURNThe Ottawa Rough Riders folded in 1996 after a long run in the nations capital. The CFL returned to the city in 2002 but the Renegades lasted only four seasons.In 2014, it was the Redblacks turn and football fans in Ottawa welcomed the expansion team in a big way.The atmosphere was electric on July 18 for opening night at TD Place Stadium, the first of nine straight home sellouts. However, the excitement didnt translate into victories.Ottawa edged Toronto 18-17 in its home opener, but the Redblacks won only one more game the entire season and scored a league-low 278 points.FLYING HIGHIt was a one-two finish that provided one of the enduring images of the Sochi Olympics.Justine Dufour-Lapointe won gold and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe took silver in womens moguls at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. The sisters reached out to hold hands during the flower ceremony and peacefully gazed at each other.The snapshot from that moment made Canadians proud and generated international attention. Even tennis great Roger Federer weighed in.So cute, sport is great, he tweeted with a photo of the sisters on his verified Twitter feed.MONEY IN THE BANKSTiger-Cats kick returner Brandon Banks provided plenty of excitement in Hamiltons victory over Montreal in the CFL East final.He nearly topped himself in the Grey Cup.Banks returned two kicks for touchdowns and had a playoff-record 226 punt return yards in the Ticats win over the Alouettes. In the CFL championship game, Banks electrified the Vancouver crowd with a 90-yard runback with just 35 seconds left — a play that would have given Hamilton the lead over Calgary.However, a penalty flag negated his effort and the Ticats couldnt make it back to the end zone, dropping a 20-16 decision to the Stampeders.DROUGHT OVERGolfer Nick Taylor was a star amateur who couldnt seem to get on track at the pro level, spending five years labouring on lower-level tours.A September breakthrough at the Web.com Tour championship gave him PGA Tour status. He played like a seasoned professional two months later and earned his first PGA Tour victory in the process.Taylor overcame a four-shot deficit on the final day to win the Sanderson Farms Championship. The victory came with a hefty US$720,000 payday and a two-year Tour exemption.It also ended Canadas long victory drought.The last Canadian-born player to win a PGA Tour event was Mike Weir back in 2007. Calgarys Stephen Ames, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, last won in 2009.FAREWELL TO A LEGENDThe numbers are overwhelming.Jean Beliveau won the Stanley Cup 10 times with Montreal over his 20-year playing career and added seven more titles as an executive. Beliveau made 13 all-star game appearances, scored 507 goals and added 712 assists over 1,125 games.He was also one of the most respected captains in Canadiens history and was simply beloved in Quebec and around the country.Beliveau was 83 when he died on Dec. 2.His funeral at Mary Queen of the World cathedral attracted a whos who from the political and hockey world. Former and current players were joined by celebrities and fans alike, all who wanted to pay their respects to Le Gros Bill.———Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter. ' ' '