Voices of the Game: Chris Watkins brings numbers and a critique to the NHL

Watkins talks about how his unique perspective can add to the game.

Voices of the Game is a bi-monthly column that highlights writers with interesting perspectives from around hockey and sports in general.

“Wait, who’s Chris Watkins?” I thought to myself, reading through his post for The Athletic entitled Outliers: Why the NHL still struggles to break the color barrier. And then I realized that he’s the Chris that used to write for us. He’s Raw Charge’s own @Yolo_Pinyato, who has written us three excellent and somewhat controversial editorials about hockey and its struggles with inclusion.

Clearly, it was time for another interview.

Chris published a post for The Athletic earlier this month, and I was immediately intrigued by his stated goal, as a Chicago-born, African-American fan of hockey, and as a numbers-cruncher, to contribute to coverage of the game:

My goal is to provide whatever support I can to open the doors for the first black Hart Trophy winner or the first female general manager in NHL history. It’s about time the sport was dragged into the 21st century, and I’ll be happy to kick up my Jordans and watch from the stands as it happens.

After growing up in Chicago, Chris graduated from Yale’s business school with an MBA, so it’s safe to say that he is a solid analytics writer. Recently, he presented on statistical breakdowns that move toward an answer to the question, “Is the goalie good or is it the defense in front of him?” at the 2017 Vancouver Hockey Analytics Conference; and on an interesting idea about how to put together lineups that break elite players at 2017’s Rochester Institute of Technology Hockey Analytics Conference (RITHAC). I stalked his slides for both of these events and asked him some questions about them, below.

Chris’s contributions to Raw Charge are already epic, and maybe express a different side of his personality.  The first piece that he wrote for us was immediately after the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup. This piece addressed the difficulty that some fans of the sport felt about the team going to the White House to meet the newly elected President, especially after a year in which MLB, NFL, and NBA clubs expressed their discomfort by boycotting the meeting.

This was a gently written editorial that pointed out that hockey itself has a cultural problem. This point is not discussed enough around the league — although with Willie O’Ree finally in the Hockey Hall of Fame, perhaps O’Ree has a platform to amplify a much-needed voice about inclusion in the game. In Chris’s words:

Hockey is for people with money and/or access to tons of cheaper local rinks. The NHL is also 93% white. I didn’t have any white friends with money that played hockey until I went to Yale, which is where you go to make white friends with money. As a lower income black guy, I assumed I was their first minority friend without money who played hockey. [....]

How can a sport purport to be a safe haven from the harsh realities off the ice and intrinsically support the oppression that fans and burgeoning players need saving from?

Chris’s most recent article for Raw Charge was playful, intended as his way to scout and praise black players in the NHL. He couched it as a Wakandan scouting report given by Shuri to her brother, T’Challa, in the hopes of building a Wakandan hockey team out of existing NHL talent. If you haven’t read it, it’s worth a look.

Will Chris be able to marry these two sides of his personality, numbers AND an inquiry into the ethnic issues of the NHL, for various publications (hire him full time, Athletic) going forward? Here’s hoping.

Voices of the Game: Katie Strang writes the stories that are hardest to tell

On to our interview.

Raw Charge: I’d like to slide this in while the news is fresh. What’s your reaction as a fellow non-white hockey fan to Willie O’Ree finally getting his props in the HHOF?

Watkins: I’m ecstatic. Honestly, this is the happiest I’ve been as a hockey fan in quite some time. It offers some measure of legitimacy to fans and players of color, that there is a future where they will be welcomed with open arms into the sport. I think most important is that Willie is alive and well to be able to enjoy the honor, and share in the celebration with his supporters, friends and family.

My biggest fear was that it would have taken his death to galvanize support for his entry, and that a posthumous induction would have been a slap in the face. Fingers crossed for good health for him until the ceremony.

I think the part that disappoints a me a bit is the fact that it sounds like it was mostly a grassroots effort of key NHL players of color, the Bruins franchise and the fans and supporters who were positively impacted by O’ree’s contribution. However, what I didn’t see was a groundswell of support from the biggest names in hockey, from leading media members or from the most prominent stars of the sport. I’m not sure if they didn’t have the time or the insight to realize how important Willie’s career has been but I think it’s emblematic of why it took so long for him to get elected in the first place.

Raw Charge: In your Athletic piece, you touched upon some of the themes you also wrote about here. First, that there is a socioeconomic and racial barrier to participation in a league, one that requires both access and money.

You go into that a bit when you talk about your participation in a basketball rec league. Do you mind elaborating to explain your thoughts?

Watkins: So, like many industries that struggle with increasing the diversity in their workforce and customer base, the NHL hasn’t reconciled that “open door” does not equal “welcome to all”. Hockey is inherently a resource intensive sport, both to play and watch, which naturally restricts the ability of certain populations to interact with the game. Basketball and soccer by comparison, are not, which means people all across the economic spectrum can grow up watching and playing the game.

As I said before, it cost maybe upwards of five times as much to sign up for hockey than it did for basketball, and the gap is even wider for soccer.

In situations like this, institutions like the NHL default to the fact that they don’t actively discriminate against anyone. However, looking at the demographics of the game, I view that as benign neglect. If you have a new store or restaurant and no one is walking in, you can’t say “well the doors are open to everyone so I’m not sure why we don’t have any customers.” You have to get out and market the hell out of that thing, which the NHL has been bad at, even with its core demographics.

Draymond Green is maybe the fourth-best player on the Golden State Warriors and has several national marketing campaigns. I haven’t seen Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews in a single commercial.

My proposal is that the NHL should offer discounted or free versions of its video game series to young girls and POC, maybe with someone like J.T. Brown leading the charge. Everyone may not have access to a rink or ice time, but most people have a game system in their house of some sorts and e-sports are growing like crazy. Kids can learn about the game and the great players, and really fall in love with the sport, and its probably more cost effective than the other initiatives that their doing.

Raw Charge: I hope someone enterprizing and interested in e-sports sees this and gets in touch with you. But now on to the other side of your brain, the statistical work.

I found your RITHAC slides great but only half the story, I felt I really missed out on hearing you interpret the slides. Your premise there was, “How do you beat Connor McDavid?” And the answer was, “Find players who do well at certain skill categories that can be used in combination to beat him,” and you had a lot of analytical breakdown of your numbers. Can you go into this a little more and explain, in layman’s terms, how you came up with the Skill Categories ideas and what use they are in coaching and aligning players?

Watkins: If I were to guess, over the course of my lifetime I’ve played maybe 5,000 hours of sports video games, so I think that’s where the idea stemmed from.

In the games themselves, they have a specific number to quantify how good someone is at shooting, or how fast they accelerate with the puck so it was a bit of an attempt to replicate that. I landed on seven categories that I thought best encompassed the totality of a hockey players skill set, although things like hockey IQ and work ethic are obviously a little harder to attach a number to.

Once I landed on the seven (Shooting, Passing, Skating, Physicality, Shot Creation, Transition Play, Two Way Play), I put together lists of the players I assumed to be the best at each of those areas. So for skating, I picked guys like Connor McDavid and Nathan Mackinnon and for two way play I picked Patrice Bergeron and Marc Eduoard Vlasic.

Once I put together the list of players at each skill set, I looked at what publicly available play by play stats they had in common. Skating for example, correlated really well with shots on the rush and penalties drawn. Then when I landed on a good set of stats, I tested it to see if the stats were repeatable year after year, which is a good indication they are actual skills and not random numbers.

Unsurprisingly, the defensive stats were not quite as good as the offensive ones, but overall, it lines pretty well in terms of the eye test for most key players.

Where this come into play for coaching and player acquisition: One of the things I’ve looked at is how different skill sets interact. For example, if I wanted to look at John Tavares’ potential fit with other teams, I could take his skill set and compare it to the 1C for the interested team and see how similar lines performed across the league.

Or conversely, if I wanted to look into what types of defensive pairings did best against Tavares over his career I could look that up as well. So its a fun exercise that lacks a bit in mathematical rigor but that was kind of the point.

Raw Charge: Your slides for Vancouver break down how the Sharks managed to beat the Blues in 2016. I found most interesting the way in which you parsed out that Brian Elliot was not actually a good goaltender -- he was just playing behind a good defense. And this, plus a lack of good competition the rest of the way, led to the Sharks’ appearance in the Final in 2016.

Have you applied your technique used with Elliot (looking up the shooting percentage of every team he faced times number of shots he faced etc.) to any teams in this year’s playoffs yet? And also please talk us through your thought process for this analytic idea too, and how useful you think it is for defining a team’s true weakness in playoffs.

Watkins: Yeah, so there wasn’t a Brian Elliot equivalent player this year that made me angry enough to dissect their season, but from a team perspective the Penguins have been in crosshairs for a while. The Caps finally beat them this year on the way to the cup, but if people remember last year’s series, the Caps dominated the Pens at 5v5 too but just lost the goaltending battle.

I’ve argued that the 2015-2017 Pens would have lost to every other cup winner this decade, and benefited from both injury luck and a pretty weak Eastern Conference (a.k.a. Stamkos missing the 2016 ECF). I would probably say that even the 2015 Lightning, 2013 Bruins, the 2011 Canucks were probably just as good or better than last years version of the Pens, just based on their underlying stats, and the quality of the teams they beat in route to the Cup.

Also, Vasilevksy should have played over Ben Bishop in 2015, so the Hawks thank Jon Cooper for our shiniest new cup.

Raw Charge: How dare you. But thank you for your time, and we’ll be watching what you do!

If you have an editorial comment regarding this article, you are welcome to formulate it as a fanpost, as long as it adheres to SBNation’s community guidelines for language and content.