Picture an NHL coach. Windbreaker with a team logo at the morning skate, business attire at the game. Frantically scribbling notes on a card or whiteboard, less concerned with a player’s “underlying numbers” than with “grit and jam.” Eschewing analytics for “their gut” during key decisions.
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan fits some of these stereotypes — especially the jacket with a logo at practice — but the two-time Stanley Cup winner is also fascinated by advanced stats and analytics.
Well, to a point.
“I’m not going to lie: I’m a skeptic. I ask a million questions of our internal analytics department. I know I’m a thorn in their side,” Sullivan told ESPN recently.
The amount of information available to coaching staffs has grown exponentially, thanks to advancements in scouting, data mining and analysis. The trick, Sullivan said, is figuring out which sources are accurate and which statistics are most relevant to a coaching staff’s decision-making process.
“The analytics world is tracking so much information at all times. I always liken it to a squirrel gathering nuts,” Sullivan said. “If we’re going to track information, we need to learn something from it, so we can react to it. If we’re just tracking information for the sake of tracking information, then let’s not waste our time. So I’d like to cut the fat off the meat, so to speak. Let’s figure out what’s relevant.”
Helping the Penguins and other NHL teams trim the fat, as it were: The SAP-NHL Coaching Insights app.
It was launched for the iPad in 2019 and has saved more than a few trees. Teams have used its updated stats and clean interface instead of printing out reams of game sheets. The NHL, Apple and SAP collaborated with assistant coaches, video coaches and analytics departments to determine what relevant information they needed, and how best to deliver it. The first version of the app tracked more than 140 stats in real time during games.
When the pandemic hit last year, the NHL’s digital business development team took the opportunity to further innovate the Coaching Insights app. It held workshops with all 31 teams, gathering feedback on the first season of its implementation, and hearing what team staffs would want in version 2.0.
“It was the early days of the pandemic. Coaches weren’t used to Zoom. We saw a lot of pets and a lot of kids,” said Chris Foster, senior director for digital business development with the NHL. “In previous sessions, we only had the assistant coaches and video coaches participate. Now we had head coaches and folks from player development, goaltending coaches, too. Having that access was special. A unique opportunity.”
The innovations have worked for Sullivan and his staff this season.
“We’ve utilized this app in a number of different ways,” Sullivan said. “We’ve been a coaching staff that has really tried to embrace technology. It’s something that we’re constantly looking for: What’s the next competitive advantage that we can gain? There’s so much parity in this league. So many teams, so many good players. If we can utilize technology to enhance the learning process, then we’re going to utilize every aspect of it.”
Here are a few of the ways the Penguins are using this technology to gain an edge over opponents, before, during and after games.
The NHL Coaching Insights app added a head-to-head faceoff matchup planner this season, which enables coaches to see a detailed comparison of individual players in the dot. And when we say detailed, we mean detailed. Coaches have the ability to sort through faceoff stats for the game, a series, or the season to understand how two players match up. They can use the stats to figure out if a left- or right-handed player would work best in a situation. They can use the app to determine whether there’s an advantage to having the faceoff in the left or right circle.
Most importantly, they can access this information in the time between an icing call and the next faceoff, which is challenging using the old methods — a coach in the rafters trying to relay numbers to the bench while arena speakers are vibrating with Darude’s “Sandstorm.”
“There are still staffs that will track faceoffs that way. This [app] betters that,” said Brant Berglund, senior director of coaching and general manager applications for the NHL.
For Sullivan, the faceoff portion of the app has been a game-changer.
“It was a difficult challenge to have access to that information. And you need that access when you’re behind the bench and you have to make those decisions before the referee puts his arm up, and then doesn’t allow you to put another guy on the ice,” he said.
Sullivan likes how the app tracks faceoffs during the game; by the third period, the coach feels he has a considerable sample on draws, which helps his decisions on key faceoffs.
But like we said: He’s still an NHL coach. Wears the suit behind the bench. Trusts his “gut” more than the numbers, sometimes.
“Coaches are always going to have a coach’s instinct that’s going to help them make those decisions. I’m never one that’s going to abandon that instinct. In my experiences, that’s some of what separates the really good coaches from others,” he said. “Sometimes, the information can help reinforce what your gut is telling you. Other times, it may help you scrutinize that decision a little bit more, if the stats don’t align with it.”
Of course, it’s easy for Sullivan to go with his gut if his gut is telling him that Sidney Crosby is an option. The Penguins’ captain has a 52.7% faceoff winning percentage in 16 NHL seasons, and he’s winning 54.2% of them this season.
“If the statistics suggest a certain center iceman should go on the ice in a certain circumstance, I might still go with Crosby, even if he’s having a tough night,” Sullivan said.
“Sometimes, numbers don’t matter when it comes to this guy.”
Time on ice
Like many coaches, Sullivan is cognizant of how much skating his players are doing during the game.
“We’re trying to win the game right in front of us, but we also understand that we need to manage the workloads of our players,” he said. “Managing that workload on a period-by-period basis is an important part of that, so we can sustain a high level of performance and put players in a position to be successful.”
As they say, there’s an app for that. The Coaching Insights app tracks players’ ice time and rest time. It also utilizes the NHL’s wearable player-tracking technology to do much more than that. The app tracks the distance a player skates during a game and their average speed, which can be broken down into 10-second segments through a data visualization option. Theoretically, this allows coaches to see how long or short a shift should be to maximize effectiveness.
The app allows coaches to set time-on-ice thresholds for players, and tracks whether they’re over their workload. It’s also predictive: “From the moment the game starts, from their first shift, it’s projecting what that time on ice is going to be for the game,” Foster said.
When it comes to time on ice, Sullivan reiterated his general mantra for advanced stats: Tell me what’s relevant.
“Time on ice gives you a rudimentary look at workload. But there’s different kinds of time on ice. Is it power-play minutes, when the guy is on the half wall and there’s not a lot of confrontation and belligerence? That’s a different kind of workload, right? Even though the time on ice is the same as, say, trench warfare when the guys are all leaning on each other and it’s much more taxing,” he said.
That’s why he’s excited about the possibilities for the Coaching Insight app’s tracking of speed and distances, which could inform him on the quality of those minutes. Sullivan said the Penguins have traded notes with Australian rules football teams who use technology to track the distances their players travel in a game. They make substitution decisions based on that data during the game.
“I could envision a day when we’re looking at heart rates and maybe even distances traveled on the ice as it relates to when a player’s performance starts to be comprised, and that helps you manage workload,” he said. “I would envision that becoming the next evolution of stat tracking. It’s the next step forward.”
Follow a busy NHL game night on social media, and you’re bound to see someone post one of those flow charts from a site like Natural Stat Trick that chronicles the momentum shifts in a game. There’s really nothing more humbling for a defeated team than being able to pinpoint the exact moment — usually an opponent’s goal — where its shot attempts plateaued while its rival’s continued to climb.
The Coaching Insights app has a version of this called “Game Pulse.” It’s an in-game timeline graph that allows coaches to track various swings in momentum through the plotting of customizable team shooting stats.
“There are things that are similar to this out there, but they don’t have the dynamic nature — the ability to tap on a period or on even-strength — or eventually the zone time we’ll have,” Berglund said. “A coach could feel very poorly about the last five minutes of a period, but something like this could show them how it went and get peace of mind before they walk in the locker room and talk to the players.”
Andy Saucier, the Penguins’ insightful video coach, likes to follow the Game Pulse as he’s watching a future opponent in a scouting session.
“As you’re watching the game, you’re looking at the chart and looking for those dips. You can see when they’re coming on that chart. And then you can use it to see why a team didn’t have momentum. Why the shots stopped coming. It could be something systematically, or it could just be that a player made a mistake,” he said.
This is one aspect of the app that’ll be greatly improved when the NHL gets its puck tracking up and running. The league pulled its “smart pucks” from use in games this season due to a manufacturing error that caused it not to slide on the ice properly. The NHL hopes to reintroduce it soon, and when it does, the “Game Pulse” function of the app can begin to incorporate zone time into its charts.
“It’s gotta be right. We’ve got to test it,” Foster said of the pucks. “It’s such an important part of the game. Testing is going well, but we don’t have an accurate timeline. We’re hoping for the playoffs.”
Saucier is waiting for that innovation, too.
“I think a little more data would be helpful. Right now, we have it set to shot attempts. They tell you something, but they don’t tell you everything. It helps that you can narrow it down to things like home plate shots,” he said.
One of the better customization options on the app is in setting a team’s “home plate” for shot attempts. Essentially, it’s where a team considers its high-danger chances to come from. The app allows for several home plate shapes, from the posts to dots to circle tops. If a team puts a premium on shots around the net, it can adjust for that. If a team focuses on shots generated by defensemen, the home plate can be expanded.
The other toys
The revamped Coaching Insights app has other immersive features. Coaches can review any game during the season. There’s additional stat filtering and customization available. Then there’s the Virtual Replay option, which allows coaches to watch replays that display on-ice players as little dots and the puck as an animation graphic. Each game would be available to view in real time or as a replay with this “tactical view” visualization.
It’s an option Berglund says he loves, because it strips away everything from a replay, down to its essentials.
“Coaches always notice stuff you’re not supposed to care about when watching video,” he said. “There was a coach who saw a player wearing a pair of white skates, the coach didn’t like it, and it was referenced way too frequently at moments that didn’t matter.”
But the Virtual Replay takes away the fans in the stands, the ads on the boards and, of course, the color of the skates. It helps coaches focus on what’s important. Because, frankly, they’re busy people.
“I always describe coaches as the deli counter,” said Berglund, who was a video coach with the Boston Bruins before joining the NHL. “The door opens and it’s like, ‘OK, who’s next?’ They just want to watch last night’s game, and they can’t. Anything you can do to expedite their lives, they’re grateful for it.”
Sullivan is grateful for the technology that’s available. He’s even more excited about what’s to come. But the Penguins’ coach believes there’s a fourth pillar missing in hockey’s data revolution. It has advancements in sports science, technology and analytics. What it doesn’t have, he believes, is proper context.
“I don’t think we’re there yet with our sport. And our sport might be the most difficult to track. Our game is a game of instincts. It’s invasive, by nature. There are a lot of moving parts. It’s not like baseball, where you either hit the ball or you don’t. There are so many reads. There’s so much subjectivity in tracking each statistic, in and of itself,” he said.
Stats such as scoring chances, Sullivan said.
“A scoring chance for you might not be a scoring chance for me. What’s the criteria? I know when we’re talking about expected goals and things of that nature, they’re using shot location to try and figure out which scoring chances are better than others. But I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said.
The operative word for Sullivan is “yet.” The Coaching Insight app, and its many innovations, has the coach encouraged that it’s just a matter of time before that context is added to the mix.
“I think we’re on the right track,” Sullivan said. “I’m excited to see the next generation of this app. Where do they take it next?”