How use of analytics is part of Colorado Avalanche's secret sauce: 'Numbers are unemotional'

Corey Masisak, The Denver Post on

Published in Hockey

The Avalanche just overpowered the Winnipeg Jets in a Stanley Cup Playoffs series with a tenacious forecheck, a terrifying combination of skill and will in front of the net and … statistical analysis?

Colorado has assembled a roster deep enough to win the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons. The Avs have arguably the best core of world-class talent in the NHL, backed by a second wave of terrific players and an improved collection of depth after fortuitous work before the trade deadline.

But a significant part of the franchise’s secret sauce is how it has used analytics, with information flowing smoothly from the front office to the coaching staff to the players, to directly impact how the team plays on the ice.

“I think it’s super useful for us,” said defenseman Jack Johnson, an 18-year NHL veteran who admitted he had little desire to understand or use analytics earlier in his career. “They break it down and simplify it. They pretty much tell you, ‘Hey, we’re struggling on breakouts’ or ‘We’re giving up too many odd-man rushes.’ I think it puts it into a perspective for the players that takes away any opinion or emotion because numbers are unemotional.

“… It just puts the numbers in front of the players’ faces. You can’t really argue with the way they present it to us.”

Q: Did how the Avs use analytics help the club in its five-game rout of the Jets?

“Yes, absolutely,” Johnson said.

Q: Care to share any examples now that the series is over?

“No,” Johnson replied with a mischievous grin. “We knew there were certain things that they did well, and there were certain things that they struggled with. And we knew those were the things we were going to focus on and try to exploit.”

For the Avs, it’s not just the quality of information they receive from the four-person analytics staff, but how it gets communicated and circulated throughout the organization that helps maximize the franchise’s success.

“It’s changed a lot”

Jared Bednar was hired on Aug. 25, 2016. Around the same time, the Avs also added Arik Parnass to head up an analytics department. It was a clear departure from the Patrick Roy era — a coach who at the time was among the most famous opponents of the burgeoning advanced information age.

Bednar, on the other hand, might be the most numbers-friendly head coach in the NHL.

He has used phrases like “goals saved above expected” on his weekly radio show and regularly cites other advanced statistics when he meets with media members.

The analytics team is now four people. It includes Parnass as the director, associate director Dawson Sprigings, hockey analyst David Wood and Jetson Ku as a data scientist.

“It’s changed a lot, even in just my time here,” Bednar said. “I like all of the information. You just have to make sure you’re presenting it in a way that the players can understand and grasp all of it.”

The war on analytics in the NHL is long over, even if some people around the sport still try to pick losing battles. Every club uses advanced statistics in some way, and the NHL’s implementation of a player and puck-tracking system with microchips has given teams a near-limitless amount of data to sift through.

Before the tracking system went live, how NHL clubs acquired that information was an arms race. Now, how the information is parsed through, circulated and harnessed to find advantages and improve aspects of player acquisition or how a team plays is critical.

This is where the Avs have excelled.

“It’s definitely two parts,” Bednar said. “Me getting the information from (the analytics staff), and it’s not just this big blob of information with all these numbers. I want it broken down in a certain way that makes sense. So the evolution of that for us was they started giving me all the information, then I talked to them about how I want it broken down because this is how I like to present it. And then it just got cleaner and tighter as it went on.”

A key part of that process was Wood sitting in on meetings with the coaching staff and players. He got a first-hand look at how the coaches present the information to the players, how the players and coaches interact with the data and how the coaches use video clips to support it.

From the early days of fans creating and discussing advanced statistics on the internet to NHL teams using and developing new metrics, gaining acceptance was a hurdle. Then finding ways to communicate the information so that coaches, players and scouts would embrace it was another.

“There is so much information out there, but I think our guys do a great job of filtering through the noise and getting to what (Bednar) finds valuable,” Avalanche general manager Chris MacFarland said. “It allows (Bedar) to link it, whether it’s with video or a message, to our group.


“(Bednar) has embraced it, and all aspects of it. It’s a teaching tool. I think younger players, sometimes they want to know the why. When you try to put a concrete explanation on things, it’s another resource, not only for Jared but for the rest of our staff. They want it. The more information, the better.”

“It’s new to me”

The Avalanche uses analytics at all levels of the organization, but how Bednar and his staff use data with the players is the most obvious way to see how the club sees a return on the resources it invests.

As Johnson noted, the Avs use the information to identify the strengths and weaknesses of every opponent. That becomes more critical during the playoffs, but even the lighter lift involved for a random weeknight game in the regular season is important.

“Pretty much the whole pre-game meetings are based on the other team’s analytics,” said defenseman Sean Walker, who joined the club before the trade deadline after time with the Flyers and Kings. “It’s new to me. It’s not something that I paid attention to too much before, but it definitely gives you a strong idea of what the other team is trying to do. I think it’s helpful. It’s definitely interesting to see the analytics and how it plays out on the ice.

“(My previous teams) would talk about some stuff, like ‘they like to do this’ and I’m sure that was based off the analytics, but here they actually show you the numbers and the stats and where they place in the league.”

One of the key aspects of how Bednar and his staff help the players connect with and absorb the data is not the numbers themselves. Most players aren’t going to care if tonight’s opponent is creating X shots in the slot area on the power play per game, or Y shots from the right faceoff circle.

But tell them a team is fourth in the league in one category or 30th in another — and then supplement it with video clips — and the information hits home.

“We’re just trying to find a competitive advantage to what we’re doing,” Avs defenseman Devon Toews said. “Analytics gives you data, and our coaching staff does a good job of supporting it with video and the things that show you the eye test as well as the numbers. They do a good job of bringing both pieces to us and we’ve done a good job of implementing it in games.

“They do a good job of understanding, like this number is a bit of an outlier and they’re not seeing that when they watch the video. Others stick out and it’s very blatant and straightforward — this is the way they play and this is what they do and that’s why the numbers are like that. They do a good job of explaining all of that.”

Another integral part of how the Avs use analytics is in self-evaluation.

Bednar likes to break the regular season into 10-game segments. It gives his players mile markers during a long journey and can provide a little extra motivation if one segment is nearing a conclusion and hasn’t gone so well.

It also gives him and his coaching staff a chance for regularly scheduled wellness checks.

“We always have a big meeting about the analytic parts behind (each 10-game segment),” said Avs forward Ross Colton, who joined the team this past offseason from Tampa Bay. “I didn’t realize they looked that much into it. We never really did that kind of stuff in Tampa. Obviously, we talked about some things, but not like this.”

Wood delivers the pre-scouting information to Bednar, and the 10-game progress reports as well. The coaching staff digs into what the team did well in the previous 10 games, what it did poorly and where the changes are from the previous 10 or 20, for better or worse.

Then they find video clips to supplement the data, and the meeting is similar to the pregame ones, just with a more introspective focus.

“It is kind of cool to see the correlation between when we were having really good stretches — (Bednar) would read off the numbers we were always top-five, top-10 in those defensive categories,” Colton said. “I feel like we were pretty consistent in the top five with offensive numbers. There were times when our defensive play dipped, but we didn’t realize it was so drastic. We’d go from top-five to like 23 when we were on a losing skid. Once we tightened up those little things and knew what we needed to do, it was cool to see it work.”

Every player on the Avalanche receives the same team-based information, but some like to dig into the numbers a little further. Some seek out help during a personal slump. The numbers and video clips can be helpful. Others don’t want any part of knowing what their Corsi percentage or expected goals percentage was on a given night.

For the analytics staff, it’s all about sifting through the data to find what the coaching staff or the front office wants to help the evaluation process. For the coaches, it’s all about using the information to help the players see what is going well, what isn’t and what needs to change.

“We kind of try to stick to just the nuts and bolts of our team,” Bednar said. “You’re always fine-tuning details in your game like D-zone coverage, but when you can tie a number to it and say, ‘This is where we were when we were 7-3 and here’s where we are now when we’re going through a little something,’ it helps draw attention to that one particular area. Then you can dig in and fix it through practice, video, etc.

“They want to win and that information can then help them buy into what we’re trying to sell and get everyone on the same page.”


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