Hockey isn’t nearly as much of a statistics-driven league as football, basketball, or especially baseball are. Stats are obviously recorded and available, but the stats aren’t nearly as sophisticated as they are for other sports. That’s partly because hockey just isn’t as popular as other sports, but there is a bigger problem – hockey isn’t a game of direct matchups. In baseball you can look at how a pitcher will perform against a given batter, how a batter will perform in a certain circumstance, and so on. In basketball you can look at how well a player will match up against the player most likely to guard them. Also, basketball players score so much more than hockey players, so their scoring efficiency stats are much more significant. Football is all about matchups, so it is made for statistical analysis. Hockey is very much a team sport, and players aren’t defended by just one player, and don’t play against the same players every time they are on the ice. It makes it hard to find stats in hockey that are particularly meaningful.
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t use stats to help understand a hockey game, though. That’s obviously far from the case. You just have to be particularly selective about what you use and how you use them. Here are five useful stats for understanding hockey and separating winners from losers.
First goal percentage – Teams that score the first goal in games win about two-thirds of games. It would be really easy to handicap if we could reliably predict in advance who was going to score first in a given game. We can’t obviously, but we can look at whether a team has a tendency to score first or not. If one team in a game has scored first regularly, while another has shown a real tendency to start slow then you could have spotted a good edge in the game. Teams that often give up the first goal are just making it too hard for themselves to win games.
Power play percentage – This stat usually gets talked about in the same breath as penalty killing. Both factors are significant, but I think that power play is a much more valuable as an assessment tool. A team’s power play percentage is a good insight into their character because it shows how good they are at taking advantage of opportunities that are presented to them. Teams that have a strong power play percentage are disciplined, work well together, and have the patience to set up a play and wait until the timing is right. Those are the same characteristics that a team needs to win. Teams that are strong on the power play are typically kind to bettors, and vice versa.
Save percentage – The most common statistic people use to assess goaltenders is their goals against average – the number of goals they allow per game. The save percentage is much more meaningful, though. The save percentage tends to fluctuate less during the season, and you can use it to get a better sense of how a goalie is likely to perform if there are far more shots than usual in a game, or far fewer. I like to look at the save percentage of the goalie over the entire season, and then look at the same stat over the last five games and last 10 games. By comparing the three statistics you can spot goalies entering a streak or slump, and you can often see a problem coming for a team before it is obvious to the general public.
Shootout percentage – If a game features well matched teams then there is a chance that it is going to be tied at the end of play and will have to be decided by a shootout. Some teams are particularly good at shootouts, and others struggle. A team’s ability to perform in the shootout could make all the difference in the handicapping of a game.
Home/road goals – One of my favorite simple ways to assess a team’s strength and character is to look at the number of goals per game they average at home compared to what they average on the road. Unlike football or baseball the setting doesn’t really matter in a hockey game – the rink is the same surface, and ice is ice for the most part. In football or baseball we have to worry about the type of playing surface, the layout of the field, whether it is indoors or outside, and so on. Because hockey is more consistent it is easier to isolate the actual impact of playing on the road, and how teams respond to that without worrying about other factors that could be having an impact – like when a dome team has to travel to cold weather stadiums, for example. If a team is able to score at about the same rate over the long term on the road as at home then they are a tough, well coached team with good discipline – the type I like to bet against. If they can’t handle the pressure of performing on the road, though, then I might want to bet against them instead.