Wings' Blashill: Hockey analytics of limited use so far

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — In a room full of business people, many of whom own companies and supervise employees, Jeff Blashill talked about how he coaches.

Amid the usual good humor and socializing at the Red Wings’ annual lunch with the Detroit Economic Club Monday, Blashill discussed how the performance of his team is analyzed, grappling with a compressed schedule and how parents should handle their young, striving athletes.

“I think hockey is very different than baseball,” he said, when asked by a member of the audience in Motor City Casino what use the Red Wings make of advanced analytics. “And I think the NHL as a whole is trying to come up with measurables that are valuable, measurables that you can actually utilize to help you make decisions.

“Right now, I don’t think a lot of the analytics out there are really very deep. They’re really just different stats, in my mind. They’re not deeper stats. They’re not giving us a whole bunch more information, especially if they’re just taken as one.”

For instance, he said, raw Fenwick numbers can be misleading.

Injured Wings Vanek and Larkin out, Jurco in

Named for the blogger, Matt Fenwick, the analytical statistic is the sum of shots on goal and shots that miss the net. It is generally accepted as a stronger indicator of scoring chances than the Corsi stat, which includes blocked shots, and is also named for a blogger, Jim Corsi.

“If you talk lots about Fenwick, it matters what zone that player starts in a lot,” Blashill said. “And, if you don’t combine those two metrics together, you don’t get a whole lot out of it.

“What we’ve tried to do is create some internally. We’re not different from any other NHL team. We’re all trying to create internal measurables that we use in the decision making processes.”

As for handling personnel when the schedule is accelerated, which all NHL teams must do because of the World Cup of Hockey cutting into the start of the season, Blashill said it complicates judgements about the dueling requirements of practice and rest.

“It’s a challenge in this league, regardless of the schedule to get enough practice time weighed versus rest,” he said.

“You want to have the structure that practice allows and gives you. But you also need your guys ready to play when the puck drops. That’s the most important thing, the energy.

“We don’t get a chance to practice lots. That at times can hurt your structure.

“Now, the guys might like it better,” Blashill said, nodding to preference of almost all athletes to perform rather than practice. “I’m not sure.”

He said the Wings are mostly opting to practice on non-game days and making morning skates, the short “practice” on game days, optional.

“I believe in habits. I believe habits are established in practice. It makes it difficult at times,” Blashill said.

“But, also, you have to do a better job of using film to coach, as well.”

Observers have tied a coincidence of high-scoring games in recent weeks to defensive structures breaking down because of a lack of practice, opening up the ice for more offense.

When a member of the audience asked Blashill about the development of young athletes, Blashill came down heavily on the side of playing multiple sports. But he acknowledged that it is increasingly difficult in an era when children are asked to specialize in a sport at an early age, often to the extent of training for it all year.

“I can tell you it’s an extreme challenge to know what’s right, and it’s much different than when I grew up,” Blashill said. “The specialization at a young age puts pressure on young players to a degree that I don’t think is healthy. But you get caught in a bit of a conundrum. It’s a really tough spot we’ve got these kids into.

“I believe 100 percent in multiple sports for multiple reasons, but it’s harder to actually do when you’re a parent than it was years ago.”

Perhaps the funniest moment of several at the event occurred when a member of the audience asked Steve Ott if he had created any enemies around the league over the years with his style of play, which can be grating, bending towards quarrelsome.

As Ott, who had already established a humorous mood by joking about his age, began to answer, Henrik Zetterberg and Mike Green both raised their hands.

Of his general approach, Ott said, “You try to go after the kings, and leave the peasants alone.”