Like it or not, advanced analytics have become an important piece of the overall hockey analysis puzzle. Not only are advanced analytics here to stay, they’ll likely continue to grow and expand as new, real-time, three and four-dimensional data sets become available with the implementation of the NHL’s new puck and player tracking systems.
Enhanced data sources and improved data quality will provide exponentially greater resolution of what is happening on the ice. Because of that, it’s important to understand how the the Capitals’ new decision-makers (Peter Laviolette and staff) will potentially interface with and utilize these resources for the management of the team.
Over the last decade we’ve seen a wide range in the adoption and utilization of advanced metrics among NHL teams. So where does Peter Laviolette lie in the mix? We’ve previously taken an analytical look at Laviolette, but what about his use of next-gen metrics?
In this piece we will take a look at Laviolette’s perceived use, valuation and relationship with advanced analytics by reviewing his previous head coaching stints, and take a look at a few overarching assessments.
Advanced analytics primarily gained mainstream acceptance while Laviolette was with the Nashville Predators (2014-2020). From “The Great Corsi Craze of 2014” to the emergence of Expected Goals, Wins Above Replacement (WAR), and Standings Points Above Replacement (SPAR), Laviolette was at the helm with the Predators.
Laviolette likely utilized earlier variants of advanced metrics during his previous coaching stints with the Flyers, Hurricanes and even the Islanders. However, in 2012, while Laviolette was coaching the Philadelphia Flyers, he was asked whether he paid attention to advanced statistics like Corsi (shot attempts) and Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts).
“I’m unfamiliar with the Corsi and Fenwick statistical powers,” Laviolette said at the time.
This gives us a good idea of the general time frame for when Laviolette potentially began to utilize and embrace (or not embrace) advanced statistics, which ultimately coincides with his time with the Predators, so we will focus on that time period for this piece.
In an interview with Arpon Basu for NHL.com conducted during the Nashville Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, it was reported that Laviolette often referred to analytics when assessing a player, a line or a team.
“I think to ignore that information would be not wise on my part,” Laviolette said in 2017. “There’s a lot of information out there that can help guide you to how your team’s playing, how a player’s playing, how a line is playing, how a matchup works. There’s just a lot of information out there. I think you’re crazy not to use that information.”
His players at the time also seemed to echo Laviolette’s sentiments about the utilization of advanced metrics.
“He’s a pretty firm believer in that kind of stuff,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “Stats, I guess, you really can’t make up stats and you can read into them a lot. I mean, in Game 1 they don’t get a shot for 37 minutes, so I’m sure the stats said we should have won the game. But at the end of the day it’s who has the most goals, right?”
Defenseman P.K. Subban added that possession metrics were important to Laviolette.
“Puck possession, our three quarter ice game, our offensive zone time, he talks about it a lot,” P.K. Subban said. “Three quarter ice game is from our zone to their blue line, so controlling that in terms of making sure we get pucks behind their defense. The more we do that, the more we can drive offense, get in on the forecheck. But when we’re turning pucks over, the other team takes advantage of the three quarter ice game. So that’s kind of how he sees it.”
Laviolette added that advanced analytics was only a single piece of the overall assessment process, and that proper analysis includes a number of wide ranging inputs.
“I think it’s important,” Laviolette said. “There’s a lot of information that comes in from different ways, whether it’s numbers, whether it’s my eyeball, whether it’s the score of a game, whether it’s somebody’s X-factors that they bring to the table. All that stuff should be weighed and make decisions from there.”
These are all encouraging signs, but did he practice what he preached?
Additional Context And Perspective
It’s always challenging to accurately gauge what one says in a public interview and what is actual reality. So, to dig a little deeper, we asked for additional insight from the fine folks at “On The Forecheck”, an excellent resource for all things Nashville Predators. Brian Bastin, writer for the site, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.
First, I asked Bryan for his opinion of Laviolette’s general philosophy regarding advanced analytics.
Judging by the way the Predators performed under Laviolette the last 3-4 years, it’s difficult for me to imagine that he’s too heavily invested in analytics and optimizing offensive efficiency. The aforementioned article paints a far rosier picture of Laviolette “embracing” analytics during the Cup run, but reading between the lines, he didn’t do much more than eschew Corsi and Fenwick, and his players bragged about him “having his own numbers he used”. You can call defense what you want, but “not letting pucks behind you” is just another way to say the usual NHL coach cliche. At least in that article, PK Subban, of all people, seemed to have a much better grasp on the concept of shot quality.
I cannot imagine analytics – even those based on public data – played a large part in his game planning. Nashville bragged about “pushing the pace”, but, being quick to transition doesn’t translate – and the numbers prove that. Nashville has/had elite defensemen who can shoot the puck, so a lot of the offense flowed that way, but Nashville was in the bottom 10 at shot quality at 5 on 5 all three seasons between 2016-19 (expected goals/unblocked shot attempts – per Evolving-Hockey.com). They relied on great goaltending and shooting luck for a lot of success. Getting quick transitions and man advantages carrying the puck meant little when they were so quick to force a shot from the blueline more often than not.
All that being said, despite the above article, there’s just too much evidence to suggest that Laviolette and his staff were analytically-minded at all. I struggle to even call him a hesitant skeptic, because so much of his coaching style flies in the face of that.
I asked Bryan if he thought Laviolette utilized advanced stats to formulate and/or modify lines:
Laviolette made the right decision in keeping the Forsberg-Johansen-Arvidsson line together, as they performed the best both by standard metrics and analytics. Especially so with Ryan Johansen, who has completely lost the shooting/scoring threat reputation he had in Columbus – by all analytic standards, he’s played abysmally since joining Nashville. But his passing ability and vision for making high-danger passes in tight traffic is elite – so while a lot of criticism is earned, he’s better than most think, and Laviolette never strayed from featuring him as the team’s top-line center.
The pairings of Ellis-Josi and Ekholm-Subban also fit the analytics sniff test, and they succeeded at a high level in previous years (I don’t have to tell you how the former turned out this season). “you have to have a forward who hits a lot, draws a lot of penalties, and is among the NHL’s worst at defense AND offense”. And those puzzling decisions really eclipse the good decisions I mentioned above.
But after the first line and the top pair? His lineup decisions made no sense. Not by analytics, and not by conventional wisdom. So much of what he did on a game-to-game basis was firmly stuck in the old-school hockey mentality of “just shoot the puck and chances will present themselves.”
I was also interested in Bryan’s opinion on Laviolette’s level of interaction with the team’s data and analytics support staff.
Well, I know that Nashville is one of many NHL teams that employ SportLogIQ in some form or fashion, and they provide top-tier information. They had a superstar in Matt Pfeffer for several years, who came from Montreal, but left a couple years ago to work in soccer. He was a very talented mind in analytics, but I don’t know if any of that was taken into consideration by the staff.
I’m not very familiar with the current analytics staff (Matt Hamann and Dalton Linkus) – and I’m not sure if they are holdovers from the Laviolette era. But I can say this: one absolute fiasco happened, and was quickly exposed and mocked, and it’s a pretty damning indictment of the Laviolette-era hockey ops mentality. They tried to hire an analytics staff member – who was expected to work 40 hours a week, plus be available for game days and more, and made the position an internship. This is at least a top or second-level hockey ops staff job that they were trying to score for free. You can read more here:
Finally, I was interested to see if Laviolette favored any specific analytics.
I do appreciate that he values a fast and efficient transition game, but if you are using that and then throwing absolute garbage shots once you’re in the offensive-zone, it’s going to be for naught.
I will say this (so I’m not all doom and gloom) – Laviolette is phenomenal at taking new teams and having them perform to or above expectations in the first 3-4 seasons as head coach. I think he will help Washington as they re-tool after their most recent championship window, and I think they could contend. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that success rides primarily on Ovechkin continuing to be a lights-out shooter and getting pretty consistent goaltending.
One area in need of effective metrics are coaching assessment tools. Not to measure wins and and losses, but tools that evaluate a head coach’s methods and means. This would include evaluation metrics for a coach’s effectiveness in utilizing advanced statistics.
In the mean time, we can use other means of analysis to assess whether a coach is correctly utilizing data and information available. One potential method would be to look at the rate of line adjustments and variation when analytics may indicate a change is needed.
One curiosity of Laviolette’s season in Nashville is that he used a very flat profile of forward usage, with less variation between top and bottom lines than most coaches. pic.twitter.com/0EMSgrkqxC
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) January 7, 2020
Laviolette’s apparent relative hesitance to tweak lines may be an indication of less of a willingness to lean on analytics, as indicated by Bryan, or it could mean he found optimal configurations early in the season and stuck with it. It’s difficult to surmise.
So what does this mean for the Capitals? Like all new relationships, it’s assumed Laviolette will begin to develop relationships with the existing Capitals hockey analytics staff and any outsourced data and information suppliers/resources the Capitals utilize. Where it goes from there remains to be seen.
The Capitals advanced analytics team is excellent, albeit a bit of a black ops unit, as both Tim Barnes (Director) and HT Lenz (Manager) generally operate under the cloak of darkness. They are not made readily available to the public for questions, so procedures and processes are essentially unknown. How they will work with Laviolette’s team also remains to be seen. What can’t be argued about the Capitals analytics group is that they have a Stanley Cup on their resumes.
The evolution of hockey data and advanced statistics is occurring in parallel with the hockey community’s evolution and acceptance of next-gen metrics. The adoption rates and resultant comfort levels continue to improve among head coaches, and that will likely continue with Peter Laviolette and his staff. Like the analytics staff already in place, one thing that can’t be argued is Laviolette’s consistency in taking his teams to the Stanley Cup Finals, and even winning it all.
Laviolette may be somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to significant use of advanced analytics, but that could change with a new team, a new staff and additional experience now under his belt. How to optimally apply advanced analytics is a skill we are all still learning.
Stick taps to Bryan Bastin for his excellent insight for this piece.
By Jon Sorensen