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Catching up: The increasing pace of team adoption of hockey analytics

A few years ago, having any analytics effort at all was enough to give a team an edge. That's no longer the case.

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Somehow even this guy ends up on my list
Somehow even this guy ends up on my list

It used to be big news every time a hockey team mentioned a stat that isn't in the box score, but that's not really the case any more. It's still news, mind you -- there are definitely teams that haven't bought into the analytics craze -- but at this point the majority of the teams are involved to some degree.

In other words, we've moved from an era where dabbling in analytics could be enough to get a big edge and into one where not using them leaves you behind the field.

Of course, I wouldn't be much of a stat guy if I made claims like that without any evidence. So indulge me in a brief list:

I'd guess there are a few publicly-known examples that I've missed here, and there are probably several more teams that have kept their use of analytics a secret. At this point, running a team without analytics support puts you in the minority -- and also puts you at a competitive disadvantage.

But that's not why I'm writing this piece. What's caught my attention is how quickly innovation in the stat community is being adopted by teams nowadays.

Not just adopting; adopting rapidly

As of a few months ago, my perception was that teams were almost all well behind the times. My understanding was that a team that absorbed the basic work by Vic Ferrari and JLikens on shot differential and shot quality (circa 2009) would be among the leaders in the field. As people have brought it to my attention each time a team mentions zone entry work, that perception has changed.

The zone entry project is now two years old. A year and a half ago it gave the first clues to how important the neutral zone might be, and less than eight months ago I presented a paper on zone entries at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. It's been around long enough that we can see there's value in it, but there are still important aspects of the data where we don't yet have an unambiguous answer. Given my perception that most teams were grudgingly deliberate about pursuing analytics, I would have guessed we'd be at least a couple years away from seeing teams go down this road.

But in just the last few months, we've heard Dallas say "how you get the puck into the other team's zone is a big deal in today's game" and seen that Washington tracks zone entries (links are in bullet points above). Nashville's GM has talked about the zone entries of their acquisitions and their coach has emphasized improved entries. And Minnesota has changed their system to try to improve their zone entries and is seeing dividends already.

That's four teams that have publicly acknowledged a focus that seems likely to have been shaped by a relatively recent trend in analytics, and it's quite possible that others have done the same without any public fanfare. We've entered an era where getting an edge means not just dabbling in analytics a little, but being right at the forefront of the latest innovations.

I don't think it'll be long before teams shift to trying to get ahead of the blogosphere and develop unique proprietary methods of understanding and quantifying the game.

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