Analytics pose tough challenge for Hockey Canada

The Calgary Flames season are about to come to an end with the World Championships being a chance for players to build a case for World Cup inclusion.

While analytics gurus in the NHL can spend months poring over one team’s statistics, that luxury of time is rarely afforded to Misha Donskov.

The manager of analytics and video for Hockey Canada maintains a web portal and database for the national men’s team coaches, from the under-17s all the way up to this fall’s World Cup squad.

The goal is to help Canada’s coaches and general managers, who more often than not have their own club teams to worry about, get up to speed on their players’ skills and tendencies in a short time frame.

“The challenge for me is the fact that we’re not fortunate to work with the team over an entire hockey season,” said Donskov in a phone interview with The Canadian Press just hours after a conference call with Team Canada’s World Cup executive team. “The events that we enter are short-term events and those pose significant challenges in terms of player personnel, putting the right players together, the right mix of players together that can ultimately gel quickly, work together quickly, and be successful on and off the ice.”

Analytics in sports is about finding patterns and tendencies in a team. Puck possession, scoring opportunities beyond shot totals and other hidden strengths and weaknesses not readily apparent to players or coaches.

But that data is weakened when it’s over a shorter period of time because the sample size is smaller. Also, the data is skewed by different coaching philosophies and the on-ice chemistry of particular lines, defensive pairings or power-play units.

That presents Donskov and his team with a serious problem: front offices and coaches are often only retained for three to six months with international tournaments only lasting a few weeks. The players are coming from different teams — sometimes even different leagues — creating many variables in the data that Hockey Canada must rely on.

Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s vice-president of hockey operations and national teams, conceived of an analytics-based resource so that the nation’s various coaching staffs can hit the ground running and overcome that short window. Donskov, previously worked as an associate coach in the Ontario Hockey League with Ottawa and London, leads that project.

“It’s no secret that when we put together a team, we’re aiming for gold — each and every time,” said Salmond. “We view analytics as an important tool in our evaluation of players and teams both for the selection process, and in our evaluation of the competition.

“We are in a unique position where we’re bringing teams together for relatively short timeframes; arming our management groups and coaches with analytics is part of our process to provide them with every resource at their disposal to be successful.”

Launched last July, Hockey Canada’s web portal is accessible for coaches and front office staff and is built around three pillars of information.

The first is a database of video and analytics of major junior players in the Canadian Hockey League, designed to support teams for elite amateur tournaments like the world juniors. The second pillar focuses on NHL players, with an eye to helping the staff in charge of Team Canada at the Olympics and other major tournaments.

The third is geared toward coaches during the international tournaments themselves, with real-time data and video streaming into the portal so they can quickly understand their teams — and their opponents’ — strengths and weaknesses.

“We’re tracking, internally, everything that we do at each event that we enter with our Program of Excellence,” said Donskov, who will also act as an assistant coach at the world hockey championship this May. “We have a very integrated system and we are tracking every game, every event, with our programs. Not only tracking but measuring and that information is ultimately housed on our internal site.”

Although Donskov is responsible for the men’s teams analytics, the technology is used for Canada’s other hockey teams too, with James Emery managing the data for the country’s women’s and sledge teams.

There’s some debate about what statistics provide the most accurate assessment of a team’s play, but Hockey Canada’s preferences remain a closely guarded secret.

Donskov’s department is very thorough, however.

“There’s a significant amount of time spent on video, on analytics, on watching our opponents’ style of play, structure, player personnel, all that type of thing,” said Donskov. “It’s tracked, it’s measured and ultimately it’s uploaded to our site.”

Donskov is careful to not overemphasize the importance of the Program of Excellence web portal. He points to the work director of player personnel Ryan Jankowski and the input from coaches and managers as other invaluable resources.

“Analytics, for us, is another piece of the puzzle,” said Donskov. “It’s additional information for us, an additional resource for us to present to our manages and to our coaches and ultimately to help us develop players and win hockey games.”

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