Out of curiosity, I asked Adam Oates a few weeks ago where he stood on advanced hockey statistics.
“I’d call myself a dabbler,” he replied. “I’m aware of them.”
“Like every stat, they’re probably pretty skewed. Stats are always ammo for a coach when he wants to say something or an agent when he wants to say something or a GM when he wants to say something.”
Don’t expect to find Oates poring over charts of Corsi and Fenwick numbers for his team and its opponents. But without necessarily being an adherent to the specific metrics espoused by the #fancystats army, Oates clearly looks at the game with more advanced eyes than a lot of NHL coaches.
After Wednesday’s practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, Oates delved into some numbers discussion you don’t often hear from bench bosses. The discussion started with Oates trying to shed some light on what he believes is his club’s improved performance over its last seven games, despite a 2-4-1 mark in those contests.
“I think we’re way better than we were the first couple of games,” said Oates. “Way better. Not that I’m a stat guy, but sometimes you need them to show the players what’s going on.
“I mean, [the Maple Leafs] had three [scoring] chances after two periods [Tuesday] night, including power plays. You can’t play much better. You can’t. We attempted 60 shots on net to their 28. So you’re doing so many good things.
“Since that New Jersey game [on Jan. 25], we haven’t had – to me – a flat game. We haven’t. We’ve had [flat] moments in a game, but we haven’t had a flat game. Before that, it seemed very flat.”
Discussing the number of shots taken isn't earth-shattering. We've all heard coaches refer to those on occasion. Oates was asked again on Wednesday whether he subscribes at all to hockey’s compendium of advanced stats.
“We know them all,” he replied. “And I’m sure there are people who can find stats we won’t like too, and we know those as well. Sometimes the statistics are skewed and sometimes you’ve just got to be careful how you use them.”
A bit later in the discussion, Oates illustrated that in the process of watching video after each game, he and his staff break the game down into some interesting component parts, and some illuminating numbers can come from that process.
Poor shot selection and/or execution in the offensive zone can lead to fueling the other team’s breakout.
“Yeah, like getting shots through,” said Oates. “[Tuesday] night, one stat that we’ll talk about is that we missed eight times on the rush. That’s a turnover in the league now, it really is. The way teams protect their own end and come back, that’s a turnover. That’s eight turnovers. Can they be avoided? Sometimes, sometimes not. It’s the responsibility of players to hit the net.”
Today, Oates became the first NHL coach I can remember to talk about the number of rushes his team had with the puck in a specific game, a figure the #fancystats folks don’t track on a routine basis.
“We had 54 rushes in the game the other night against Toronto,” Oates revealed. “Fifty-four rushes where we had the puck on our tape and we didn’t have to dump it. To me, that means we’re doing such a good job in our own end and neutral zone that our players are getting time of possession with the puck. We need that when we can get it.”
Oates also noted the other day that Ovechkin had “30 touches” in a recent Washington game, and today he mentioned that Ovechkin was involved in 15 of the aforementioned 54 rushes against Toronto. You hear "touches" frequently used when discussing and analyzing football, but not so much with hockey.
One reporter wondered whether the Caps are tracking “touches” for players.
“We track them a lot,” Oates replied. “We track them a lot for a lot of guys. It shows you’re in the right spot. Because there are times where if you’re in the right spot, the puck will come to you. Rebounds, the angles, the way teams protect their own end and the neutral zone, the touches are important.”
Having those numbers handy helps Oates illustrate to his players that they are actually doing a lot of good things on the ice despite a 2-7-1 record to start the season. And hopefully it can lead to some better results, too.
“We’re a little snakebit scoring goals,” Oates admitted, “but when you get 50 rushes in a game, you should get something out of that if you put yourself in that position more often.”