Turnovers Aren't Such a Bad Thing, the Battle of Interpretation

by Michael DeNicola

Monday, February 2nd, 2014 --

Interpretation is a very powerful word. More powerful than you probably realize (which is comically ironic, if you think about it). It exists in every facet of life, and is a part of all your traditional five senses. It's biological, it's philosophical, and it's mathematical. Interpretation is applicable to sports in a fascinating way, especially in today's era of performance metrics -- or otherwise known as "Advanced Stats". I prefer the former alias because it makes the method "sound less elitist," as Cam Charron from theScore.com once explained. [1]

Performance metrics exists to help the fan interpret what they're watching from an even more in-depth perspective. In the end, it's arbitrary because it's up to the fan's interpretation. Many enthusiasts would argue otherwise because ideally that's why the method exists.... to eliminate more human error. 

My stance on the whole "fancy stats" movement lies somewhere in the middle. It's a lot like politics in our United States; the two party system is a failure. Anyone who stubbornly subscribes to one side in the face of every issue is only exacerbating things and producing more division. 

If you're a hockey fan like me, you try to understand performance metrics and use them as a tool for interpretation. The sum of these metrics are never cut & dry. Instead, they're a portal to numerous potential circumstances. They are more relative than anything else, and it has always been that way even with traditional real-time scoring stats. 

My point is that statistics, whether being advanced or surface recordings, have two or more faces; it's up to us to distinguish which is which. More importantly, are we objective enough to accept more than what we see?

Here's an example: about a week ago I had stumbled across ExtraSkater.com, a webpage stocked with all the advanced hockey statistics that your heart desires. It's really a magnificent website. As I was taking a look at the Philadelphia Flyers standard total stats, I noticed Jakub Voracek is the lowest in our Hits For/Against differential at -44 (since then, his differential is -48). At first, I thought this information was a horrible reflection on Voracek because he relinquishes possession so much. By definition, a hit shall be awarded on any intentional contact between the puck carrier and the opposition which results in the puck carrier losing possession of the puck. If Voracek is getting outhit by such a wide margin, then, theoretically, he's turning the puck over at high volume.

There are many forms of turnovers, and traditionally a turnover is bad. You try NOT to turn the puck over, and in this instance Voracek's possession score is in the red. So, I took to Twitter...

My immediate interpretation was that Couturier and Voracek get bumped off the puck way too much. "They're turnover machines!" I said to myself. However, Collin Mehalick (an advanced stats aficionado, and contributor to BroadStreetHockey.com) enlightened me by pointing me towards Cam Charron's puck-possession article (made mention earlier). This piece allowed me to see the statistic in question from a positive angle.

To win hockey games, you must score goals. To score goals, you must possess the puck. The Hits For/Against differential is just another way to measure possession. In this breakdown, even though they're in the negatives, players like Couturier and Voracek possess the puck often. Possession is a good thing. 

Look at it this way, 'Giveaways' are a form of turnovers. Among the League's leaders in this stat, are names like: John Tavares, Taylor Hall, Phil Kessel, Ryan Getzlaf, Jordan Eberle, Jamie Benn. What do these players also have in common? They are their team's highest scoring forwards. Why? Because they're skilled possession players.

In hockey, keeping possession of the puck is incredibly difficult. I forget the exact number, but each team averages somewhere around 80 - 90 turnovers a game. Less than 1% of all turnovers lead to goals against. So, turnovers aren't necessarily a negative reflection of a player's skill or a team's ability to win hockey games. From my interpretation, a turnover count is only one of many measurements of possession. The more possession, the better. Sure, you can make an argument for an individual circumstance: one turnover led to a goal against our net; so, that turnover was horrible. Turnovers may not be the preferred science of possession. However, in the grander scheme of things, it's all about how they're interpreted. It's also extremely relative.

Taylor Hall leads all NHL forwards in giveaways (74), and he happens to be a part of the Edmonton Oilers organization. The Oilers are dead last in the Western Conference standings, but does that have anything to do with Hall's turnovers? Yes, maybe so. But perhaps, not really.

Phil Kessel and Jumbo Joe Thornton come in right behind Hall in giveaways; the Leafs and Sharks are currently in Playoff contention among their Division/Conference foes. Both Clubs rank in the tops of Goals-per-Game. Do you believe possession from their leading scorers has anything to do with that?

To get back to the Hits For/Against differential, do you know whose name exists at the bottom of that column? Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks' captain has been outhit 116 to 23, which scores him a whopping -93 differential. Remember, in order for a hit to be recorded, Toews had to lose possession of the puck 116 times.

Did you know Chicago averages the most goals-scored per game (3.42)? Why is that?


Is it coincidence that the Blackhawks have only TWO players who've scored positive differentials in Hits For/Against? No, probably not. They're a possession team, and it has led them to 1st Seed in the Central Division (to date). 

Interpret statistics any way you'd like. After all, they are there as lamps that shed light on the proverbial NHL performance highway. You cannot excuse performance metrics because of what you observe on the ice; just as you cannot excuse observations because of what someone's calculator computed. The answer is a civil, potent mixture of both methods.

Interpretation should guide every hockey fan. And every hockey fan should be open to interpretation.

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