It is not uncommon, when debating the merits of players or teams, that a hockey blogger might hear the cliched refrain that they need to "Watch the games!"
Well, there is a one-man task force who, with spreadsheets open, has undertaken a project in which he is aiming to watch every single game of the 2013-2014 NHL season.
Every. Single. Game.
That's 1,230 in total to cover the regular season.
The man is Corey Sznajder, a soft-spoken 23-year-old Salisbury University grad who lives in Annapolis, Maryland and has been charting zone entries and zone exits throughout the NHL.
"I love big projects," he said. No kidding.
At the 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I met Eric Tulsky, who presented research on the value of controlled zone entries (short answer: about twice as valuable to enter with control of the puck rather than dumping it in) and Sznajder had charted a couple hundred games that were included in that study.
Sznajder said that he had seen Tulsky writing about zone entries on the Broadstreet Hockey blog and, during the NHL lockout in 2012-2013, Sznajder started charting games. Watching the games when no new ones were even being played.
Born in Virginia and living in Maryland, Sznajder grew up around the Washington Capitals, but his hockey interests gravitated further south and his analysis has been focused on the Carolina Hurricanes, writing at Shutdown Line, a Hurricanes blog, where he goes in-depth in his analysis. This project is a deeper dive, however.
What is Sznajder charting? Whether a team enters the zone under control of the puck or if it is dumped in and that is done for approximately 150 even-strength zone entries per game. As Sznajder says, "There is also an 'X' category, for broken plays, like a puck deflecting off a player in the neutral zone that suddenly turns into a scoring chance." That's a very small percentage, but Sznajder admits they drive him crazy.
These micro events are valuable to interpreting strengths and weaknesses of players. Who is gaining the zone under control? Who is driving puck possession? This is how to find out, with measured results.
There's another aspect to the work that Sznajder is doing that may be even more intriguing to me and that is something that he adopted part-way through the project, tracking which defencemen were targeted, and how they fared, for attempted zone entries.
The expectation from people involved in advanced stats, is that Sznajder's work would help uncover some mysteries of the game, that it might help indicate why a player has excellent possession numbers and he has shared some partial-season data to whet the appetite and let online analysts dig into it a bit because, as Sznajder admits, he hasn't had the time to do deep analysis while tracking all these games.
While he may not have been able to dig deep, Sznajder has seen a ton of hockey -- more than 800 games so far. When pressed a little, he shares a few insights that he's picked up.
One of the surprises he has found is that there is a team that is a great possession team, the San Jose Sharks, that isn't particularly strong in the neutral zone. That's somewhat unexpected.
With the understanding that carrying the puck in carries more puck possession value than dumping the puck in, it also seems a little incongruous to have a team like the Los Angeles Kings -- no strangers to dumping and chasing the puck -- as the league's best puck possession team, to say nothing of Stanley Cup champs.
As Sznajder noted, though, "The Kings make it nearly impossible (for the opposition) to enter the zone under control."
This is precisely why I'm interested to see the individual defence data. The player that closes the defensive gap in the neutral zone better than others can drive possession numbers, yet might not get a whole lot of acclaim for that skill. Conversely, there may be players getting recognition (and big contracts) yet have trouble defending at their blueline.
"It's really hard to carry the puck in on a regular basis," Sznajder said. "Virtually every team traps in the neutral zone. Maybe five or six teams have a carry-in rate over 50%, but good teams dump where they can retrieve it and the retrieving player has options."
When asked about any specific players that might have exceeded his expectations from when he began the project, Sznajder didn't hesitate.
"Tyler Seguin is incredible when it comes to making plays at the blueline, especially when it comes to making passes. I was tracking a Blues-Stars game and noticed that Blues tried to stand him up at the blueline and he managed to dodge the pressure, and get it to (Jamie) Benn a couple of times to create scoring chances."
I shared a story with Corey from the night before meeting Tulsky at the 2013 Sloan Conference about how I watched the Bruins game (vs. Ottawa) that night with a real focus on who was entering the zone with control -- knowing this data can change how one watches a game -- and said that I came away even more impressed with Patrice Bergeron than I was already. He drove everything that the Bruins were doing in that particular game.
Sznajder picked right up and noted that Bergeron is a zone-entry ace that, when tracking zone entries in the 2013 playoffs, "Bergeron was incredible, especially in the Cup Final."
Said Sznajder, "The Bruins don't get much credit for their skill -- it's always about their toughness -- but Bergeron and Brad Marchand are two of the better players at generating zone entries under control. They have such a reputation as a defensive line, but the puck is never in their zone."
This is a daunting task that Sznajder has undertaken though. When asked about whether he would get help to do it in the future, he responded, "I want to, but want to keep it consistent."
Speaking of the future, now that he's found his groove, Sznajder does expect to keep doing this data project moving forward, with some new wrinkles, including full-season entry defence, dump-in and retrieval stats, scoring chances and how those chances are created. He's also looking at power play tendencies, how shot attempts are created and setup locations, but acknowledges that tracking puck movement on such a large scale can be difficult. That might be one for digital tracking technology to handle in the not-too-distant future.
This stuff is gold. Measurable data on team tendencies can be used to further inform (ie. in addition to) team tactics that are already being covered by video and advance scouting. Knowing which players are driving the bus, and which ones are passengers, will help for roster construction.
In the summer of hockey analytics, with more and more hires joining NHL front offices, Sznajder will worry about any potential opportunities that may come later. "A couple teams have been in contact to find out more about what I'm doing," he said. "But I'm trying not to think about that so much. I have a commitment to get this project done."
As someone who watches a ton of games, Sznajder has naturally heard a lot of announcing teams. His favourites? "I'm a big homer on that. Fox Sports Carolina's John Forslund. I like both TSN crews. I'm not sucking up to TSN either. Cuthbert, Miller, Ferraro especially, Mike Johnson are all good."
When taking on this mountain of games, Sznajder has also had some fun tracking other parts of the game, including Pierre McGuire name-drops and arena music. It's one way to break up the tediousness of the chore.
It may be lots of fun to watch hockey but, still, it's a lot of games.
When everything is running smoothly, Sznajder can get through a game in about 90 minutes and a standard day means completing six games. That's nine hours of game-charting, so Sznajder has been treating this project like a full-time job. "The donation site certainly helped so that I could do it on a full-time basis. For a while I was doing it secretly, doing Hurricanes and Canucks games. Then something came up in late January and, once I got that squared away, I started tracking the whole league."
When word got out about Sznajder taking on this challenge, the online hockey community started suggesting he use some crowd funding. "I'm pretty humbled by the response to the fund raising page," Sznajder said. It's an indication how hungry people are for the data he's tracking.
"I'm hoping to have them ready by the time the season starts," Sznajder said. "I wanted to be done by now, but tracking over 1000 games in six months is a grueling task. It's more work than I thought."
However, asked if he has any regrets about what he's doing, Sznajder isn't going to complain. "Not really. I enjoy watching hockey a lot and learning about the game and I'm learning more things every day. It's been a pretty fun ride so far."
If you'd like to help fund Corey's efforts, and have access to full data when the project is completed, click here. He can followed on Twitter here.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.