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Is Hockey Turning to 'The Matrix'

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As NHL teams begin to accept the increase in data analytics, it would be wise for everyone to realize it is still a game played by people.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When I think of NHL numbers, Wayne Gretzky immediately comes to mind as he's the NHL's All-Time leading scorer with 894 goals, 1,963 assists, and 2,857 points.

If things continue at their recent pace, the next generation of hockey fans will be more excited to recall the CORSI rating for Justin Williams.

This offseason, statistical analysis was the big story, not free agency signings or trade acquisitions.

More news was made shutting down ExtraSkater.com than that of Sidney Crosby's ghostly performance in the playoffs that was attributed to a wrist injury.

Twitter was a dumpster fire full of hot takes when Toronto Maple Leafs hired Kyle Dubas as an assistant GM and then went out and got Cam Charron, Darryl Metcalf (ExtraSkater.com) and Rob Pettapiece to help bring the Leafs to the 21st century. It wasn't any better when the Edmonton Oilers hired blogger Tyler Dellow, Pittsburgh Penguins hired Jason Karmanos, New Jersey Devils hired former professional poker player Sunny Mehta, and Eric Tulsky was hired by an unknown team.

It must be a dream for some of these gentlemen to get the call to help create reports that could enable a hockey team to win the Stanley Cup.

A great story and one that I'd no doubt jump at the opportunity but I've long held the opinion, hockey is a diverse game that is difficult to analyze because of the complex need to mix superior individual talent within a team environment. It would be wise on everyone's part to cool their Winnipeg Jets for just a minute during this boon of statistical advancement.

Advanced stats are not THE definitive source to provide an analysis on a player or team. Unfortunately, some of the writing and analysis that has taken place in the last few years, you'd think numbers were the only way to analyze the game.

The belief is so aggressive, I'm waiting for someone to compare Sidney Crosby to Neo, the character played by Keanu Reeves in the movie, The Matrix.

The Oracle doesn't lie.... for some that would be an Oracle database.

Stats don't take into account the human element of the game. Players are not robots, nagging injuries do happen, personal issues exist but are rarely made public and other off-the-ice distractions can and will occur.

Then there's the hockey element that dictates how the game is played by a team because of tradition, a new coach, or a change in system.

There's the game itself. A fast-moving sport that has constant action by various players all responsible to play their role to score or prevent a goal.

Because of this constant flow throughout the game and some of those elements above, it is impossible to 100% accurately track and analyze a player's or team's performance by using analytics.

Have you see anyone write a report on how a left-winger was assigned to play the 1-3-1 at home losing by a goal in the third period might differ in his deployment in the first or second period?

Zone entry analysis is a recent trend in the NHL that is great in the prism of an overall number but lacking the statistical support to explain why players made the decision to carry a puck or dump it in. It takes information outsiders just don't have available. There's also that little thing called role players.

What a coach wants from their first line center is going to be different than the fourth line center. The top center is going to be asked to be creative in order to get a goal. The fourth line center's role is to limit the possession time in the defensive zone by winning faceoffs, getting the puck out, and when in possession of the puck, dump it in and chase or fall back depending on the game situation.

When Sidney Crosby is wracking up a minus, is it because he's like a bug to a fluorescent light staring at the puck in the defensive zone skating too close to his net failing to realize his area in the middle of the ice has been vacated?

Sometimes Crosby might get a minus because he's on the ice and his goaltender gave up a bad goal, or a defensemen has a brutal turnover or one of his wingers fails to clear the zone. In the basic stat of plus/minus, they are all the same but a team's ability to assign value to zone placement will be quite important in the future.

Then there's my favorite line of 'keep your head up and stick on the ice'.

Far too often, guys have their stick blade above their hip. This isn't lacrosse, so passing the puck and handling the frozen rubber biscut is best done while on the ice. Wouldn't it be great to see how often a player fails to accept a pass because he was too slow reacting to it because of poor fundamentals?

Another aspect of the game that doesn't show up on the stat sheet is how the neutral zone pressure is designed. Do players correctly angle their skating lane to force the puck carrier into a bad shot or pass? Good neutral zone teams are not better because they've created a new system. Rather, they are better because they place value in above average NHL skating speed and demand their players be aggressive in their puck pursuit.

These are just a few things that show what the difference is between winning and losing. No puck-head number cruncher (I'm one) has been able to address these and many other fine elements in the game.

The good teams will understand the true value analytics have in the game and will work tirelessly to closely align the analytics team members with traditional evaluation methods from management, scouts, and coaches. If you take input provided by a scout trained to watch a player's habits on and off the ice, then merge with the data, it could provide details of a player who hasn't been able to put up eye-popping numbers because of a variety of reasons that are out of their control or conversely expose a problem on your team that might be better to unload at a perceived value versus your own internal data.

Finally, when watching the game, try to enjoy it as a sport played by people and don't view it as if you're Neo.