How Serious Are The Pittsburgh Penguins About Analytics?


January 16, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Fans enter the gates to watch the Pittsburgh Penguins intrasquad scrimmage at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced the latest addition to their hockey operations staff, vice president Jason Karmanos.

According to the Penguins, the 40-year-old Karmanos will be in charge of integrating more advanced analytics into the team’s methods. Pittsburgh had been working primarily with an outside company in that realm, but now it seems new general manager Jim Rutherford wants to bring most, if not all, of the number crunching in house.

For many Penguins fans, this is a welcome change. Although Pittsburgh ran away with its second consecutive division title this year, it was decidedly average in possession stats like Corsi (total shot attempts) and Fenwick (total attempts minus blocked shots) for the second season in a row after being excellent in that area in 2011-12.

While the blame for the Penguins’ degrading play can be spread among management, coaches and players, Rutherford said in his introductory press conference that the organization had fallen behind some of the NHL’s elite in terms of employing analytics, which may have amplified their puck possession downturn:

"When you’re using those analytics, there are things that analytics are going to point out to you that your hockey people don’t see. So I take those points, whether it’s good or bad with a player, and then I go back and start questioning the hockey people — are we not seeing this? The analytics aren’t always right, and we’re not always right. It’s a great sounding board, really."

Let’s be clear. While the term “analytics” can be used as a shorthand for possession stats, it includes other information, like where players start the majority of their shifts (offensive zone, defensive zone, neutral zone), how successful players and teams are at carrying the puck across the opposing blue line as opposed to dumping it in, the quality of competition a player typically faces, and how well certain tandems and trios of players perform when together and apart.

There’s a lot out there to analyze, with intellectually-curious hockey executives just starting to pick up on the groundswell of information that grows by the day. The fact that the Penguins are admitting they can do better in that area is reason for optimism.

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Unfortunately, as teams in other sports have discovered, merely catching up with the information age isn’t enough. You have to stay at least slightly ahead of the wave in order to derive real value from new-age methods.

On the other hand, the Penguins have shown an ability to outperform some of their underlying metrics in part because of the elite-level offensive talent they employ. Without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin propping the team up, they may have been forced to reevaulate their procedures a lot earlier. However, their return on investment regarding analytics may be greater than typical because of Nos. 87 and 71.

The Pens only need to look west to see how a melding of fresh thinking and raw ability can lead to outstanding results. Both the Kings and the Blackhawks have been near the forefront of hockey’s analytical revolution, helping them get more out of rosters loaded with some of the sport’s finest players.

A combination of old and new has pushed Chicago and Los Angeles to superb results during the regular season and the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Penguins have been making noise about modernizing their evaulation techniques to match the league’s most innovative teams, but their eventual actions in that area will speak louder than their recent words.