Statistics have become an increasingly prominent part of sports culture, and hockey is no exception. From basic goals, assists and plus-minus to more advanced analytics like Corsi, Fenwick and PDO, how we measure the production and value of a player has changed dramatically over the last decade.
That’s all fine and good for National Hockey Leaguers and fantasy sports fans. But is the focus on numbers really necessary at the youth levels? Many in the game believe stats can lead young players to focus on the wrong things.
Sweden, considered a world leader in youth development, even eliminated stats and standings at the 13U level.
Dave Starman, a National Hockey League scout and USA Hockey-certified Level 4 coach in New York, believes stats and rankings at the youth levels can be a distraction. Known to the masses for his college hockey analysis and TV work around the World Junior Championship, Starman says stats matter “way too much” to players, coaches and parents. “Every parent wants to show everyone their kid is leading their league in scoring.”
“I tell parents all the time that when you compare your kid to other kids it’s the wrong comparison,” Starman continued. “Compare the kid you see this week to the kid you saw last week and watch for improvement. You can identify players whose skills and game you respect and try to emulate things in their game you want to be more proficient at, but saying ‘this kid has more points than me so I need to catch up’ at 14U and younger is absurd in my opinion.”
Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story
In our competitive, data-driven society, it seems only natural that stats and metrics made so popular among the pros would make their way to Peewees and Squirts. But the stats people rely on to compare players to one another typically don’t paint the full picture.
“There are guys playing defense in the NHL right now because some scout realized how good the kid was defending, killing plays, making a good outlet pass, showing good hockey IQ and leadership,” Starman said. “Where is the stat line for that in the league stats? We have the analytics that can show a lot, but the eyes can see through a lot of numbers. Some kids are playing against really good teams every weekend and their numbers might not be as good as another kid in another conference that is playing against less talented players.”
Starman added: “Rankings and stats don’t incorporate the process. It should be about long-term athlete development. If you do your job as a coach, and the player does theirs, that 10-point-a-year fourth defenseman could be a 25-point second defenseman once they get through the growing years.”
There’s also the issue of if the numbers being tallied in some rinks are even accurate.
“At the youth level, it’s skewed,” Starman said. “(For example), how many youth hockey officials give second assists?”
A Better Way to Measure
Stats aren’t all bad, according to Starman, who says they are an ‘indicator,’ and can show the degree of scoring proficiency a player has at the level the player is at.
However, individual skill development and team chemistry should be the goal. There aren’t always Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to assure us that’s happening.
“While stats are a good way for someone to identify the top five or six kids on any team, it doesn’t help someone to identify who the best prospects are for higher levels as they get older,” Starman said. “You could have a 45-point NCAA player who would not play anywhere near the role at the NHL level he played in college. There are a lot of things in a game that stats don’t measure.”
Starman believes there are some things worth keeping track of at the youth levels – “hidden stats” – that may not show up on a scoresheet but might be even more valuable.
Some examples include:
Starman believes that coaches can take the lead in prioritizing development over data.
“For every volunteer coach in the nation, can we as a group see below the surface, see what isn’t obvious, see the value that every player we have on our roster brings and be able to improve that player in games and practice?” asked Starman. “What stat shows how high the character of the players are and how good a teammate they are? Those two-dimensional qualities are extremely important.”