Those who have read Hockey Prospectus for any amount of time likely understand the importance our authors put on possession results through possession metrics like Corsi and Fenwick. As Kent Wilson and Ryan Popilchak describe in Hockey Prospectus 2011-12:
"Hockey, like basketball, soccer, and football, is a possession game. The team that controls more of the play will generally have a greater chance of winning the game."
This statement is one that has been proven by several quality researchers. Vic Ferrari has taken previously recorded zone times and demonstrated how closely they correlate to Corsi. He then pointed out the significant relationship between Corsi and scoring chances, while JLikens at Objective NHL showed how much more importance outshooting has in relation to other variables.
While Corsi/possession isn't the only thing that matters, it certainly is the overwhelmingly most important factor that teams can control, as Gabe Desjardins has stated:
"Fenwick/Corsi and Luck account for around 3/4 of team winning percentage. What's the remainder? Goaltending talent - which Tom Awad estimates at about 5% - and special teams, along with a very small sliver that's due to shooting talent and the oft-mentioned 'shot quality.'"
Bringing It Back to Prospects
None of the above statements should be anything new for regular readers of Hockey Prospectus and scavengers of the hockey analytics world. I'm sure anytime someone wants to learn more about an NHL player, they mosey on over to behindthenet.ca to check a player's Corsi Rel, their Corsi Rel QoC, and their zone starts in relation to their Corsi, amongst other things. We can find answers about how NHL players are doing in the possession game through such a tremendous resource. However, what we cannot do is find that information beyond the NHL level.
When it comes to prospects, we are limited to data such as goals and points as the metrics we can use to evaluate players. Iain Fyffe has shown that you can find a fair amount of correlation between Junior and NHL scoring, especially when you take into account performance-altering factors such as age and team scoring, but the fact that we are missing some key pieces of information keeps us from taking pre-NHL objective analysis to the next level. For example, if Player A has great scoring numbers but is given a ton of offensive zone starts because his coach doesn't trust his defensive ability, that is an aspect of his game that you can't quantify pre-NHL, can in the NHL, and would be a significant negative for that player. Likewise, if a player's percentages go out of whack in a single season, for instance, from an abnormally high or low shooting percentage, his counting numbers would be altered but his possession game would show a different picture.
This problem is much more apparent on a case-by-case basis than on a population basis. Iain Fyffe's Projectinator has been able to do quite well without that information due to the fact that with a big enough sample over a long enough time frame such issues tend to get nullified. However, for a single playerwhich is what teams care about at the draft floorif a luck-based or context-based factor has influenced a player's numbers significantly, that could be a pressing issue to a team's decision-making if they want to put emphasis in the numbers. Further, even if we had Corsi numbers and other advanced stats in Major Junior, who knows how much of a difference it would make because coaching strategies and the shooting environment may differ. However, we know what works in the NHL, which brings us to my next point.
So we know what we want because we've seen what works in today's NHL but we can't seem to directly find it statistically in Major Junior (and other leagues). So how do we find it? This answer may surprise you
Without a way to objectively identify who the best possession players will be in the NHL, we should try scouting for possession. While we shouldn't discount the analytics part, without a reliable way to assess how much of a player's numbers are luck- and context-influenced, I would advise looking at counting numbers as a secondary option with the proper adjustments done. Scouting is subjective, of course, and there are plenty of issues with that aspect of it, but keeping in mind the issues in both fields, I think scouting will bring us a little closer to the truth on this front. However, both sides have their merits and can provide value while keeping their deficiencies in mind.
Like in all instances with scouting, the problem is in its extreme subjectivity. What makes a good possession player? Can you scout for possession? Before I give my take, I asked three high ranking NHL executives from three different teams about the subject, asking them first if they prioritize possession and then asking what they define as a possession player:
Team 1: "We consider puck possession ability to be the most important quality for our draftees, as that is how you control the game. Puck skills and hockey sense is what we prioritize, not only because they are key to controlling the game, but because things like skating and a player's body are much easier to develop."
Team 2: "We draft for possession. Those are the kinds of players we want. Players who can think the game, move the puck, control the puckthat's what we're looking to draft.
Team 3:"Right now, the NHL isn't a league where you can get more quality chances than the opponent with consistency. It's really just about getting the puck out of our zone and getting it into theirs. That's why we emphasize skating, work ethic, and a player's physical game. We want players who will backcheck hard, help get the puck out of our end, get it in deep the other way, win a battle, and get the puck on net. We want players who will help generate shots."
Seeing the difference between Teams 1 and 2, and Team 3, doesn't help with Ken Holland's non-illuminative answer from a recent SI column on what defines a possession player,
"Most of Detroit's scouting staff has been in place for more than a decade, and its sense of what constitutes effective possession play is intuitive rather than codified or numerically defined. "You just have a sense," Holland says. "The type of player you want, the type of situation you reference for your next game, you see it."
So not surprisingly, we are going to have to go on a bit of a limb when we scout for possession, just because there is not a perfect consensus as to what traits make a good possession player. This is not just based on my discussions with those three teams, but a general feeling from the industry. My approach and philosophy, which is reflected in my prospect rankings, is that for forwards puck skills and hockey sense are top priorities to control possession, with skating close behind, while for defensemen, puck-moving skills and hockey sense are at the top, with a defender's physical game being pretty important to his defensive-zone possession game.
Can I prove that my approach is right? Absolutely not, as it's just based on discussions I've had with those within the industry whose opinions I value the most and from my own knowledge of the game. However, I believe those all across the industry need to start approaching the draft and prospects as a whole by asking themselves, "What kind of possession player will Player X be?" Despite the fact the few teams I mentioned above scout for it, it is not an industry-wide opinion. Keeping aside the traditional shot at Brian Burke prioritizing truculence (which if you take a look at Toronto's forward corps doesn't reflect such a statement that much, but I digress), one team I polled for research for this column stated their priorities for drafting were leadership and character.
I wouldn't say it's a major market inefficiency that teams significantly devalue possession, seeing as it's quite hard to, as possession is the heart of the game and any attempt to get players who create positive goal differentials for your team will likely be players who do fine in the possession game. However, I think the next step in the hockey prospect world is the direction and language on this issue. Targeting players directly for those skills, relaying the degree of a certain player's possession skills, and directly stating to a scouting staff what you are trying to accomplish.
And just because a team wants to be effective in the possession game, it doesn't mean that there's exactly one way to accomplish that goal. When I push the possession skill issue, I often hear that I would want every team to be built like Detroit, but that isn't what I'm trying to get at, as possession can be created in many different ways.
One would think just stating that I think every team's priority should be to get players who keep the puck out of their defensive zone and in the offensive zone as much as possible would be elementary, but it really isn't based on some of the discussions I've had with people in the industry. That's why the prospect industry needs a bit of a philosophy change. The landscape has started to change as Gabe Desjardins showed last September:
"As the NHL has become more competitive, the role of chance [in shooting] has become more pronounced."
And as that has happened, possession has become a proxy for goal-scoring as goal-scoring has become more about generating chances than relying on finishers. With that shift in the NHL landscape, it is appropriate that on the scouting front we acknowledge that possession is what makes today's NHL, and carry it over into our scouting reports, our analysis, and ultimately our decisions and ranking process.
There are indeed several teams who are already doing this, but I don't think it's universal yet, and there isn't an exact formula or process of how to obtain the best possession players. However, very convincing studies have now shown what wins in hockey, based on what skills persist over a long-term sample.
With that information in hand, it would be foolish not to adapt. In scouting, we're used to differing opinions, but this is not a case of opinions. This is fact.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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