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Puck, player tracking being tested at Olympics

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Finland players looked at the numbers and laughed.

They couldn’t believe captain Lasse Kukkonen only had five sprints in a game and Petri Kontiola had a whopping 46.

Even better: They don’t even know what qualifies as a sprint.

“We were looking at the stats and average speeds and making fun of some guys,” forward Oskar Osala said. “How can you have 46 sprints in a game? It sounds like a ridiculous amount of sprints.”

At these Olympics, data on speed, acceleration, stopping, distance traveled, shift lengths and ice time is available to teams in what could be the next step for puck and player tracking across hockey, including the NHL. Referees even have whistles digitally connected to the clock so it stops immediately without the need for a timekeeper’s quick reaction that will always be a step slow.

Yeah, this feels like hockey’s future. The NHL has worked with technology companies and invested significant money to develop a system it can use. The Olympic men’s and women’s hockey tournaments are a valuable testing field that could speed up the process of getting it ready for use like it is in the NBA, Major League Baseball, Formula One and other sports.

“We’re still searching for the right thing, but technology is developing so fast,” International Ice Hockey Federation general secretary Horst Lichtner said. “We are still all looking for the right solution. Maybe it’s two years. It’ll be fast.”

Lichtner and Alain Zobrist, CEO of Omega Timing, which is doing the tracking in hockey and ski jumping thanks to a deal with the International Olympic Committee, said their organizations have been in contact with the NHL about the technology.

The system includes microchips in the back of jerseys that can be tracked and cameras high above the ice at the Gangneung and Kwandong hockey arenas track the movement of the puck.

It’s not quite Fox’s famous “glow puck” from the 1990s, but it’s similar to the testing the NHL did at 2015 All-Star weekend and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Omega gave the same combination of technology a run-through at the 2016 Youth Winter Olympics in Norway, and it was successful enough to try it with pros.

At the Olympics, a player’s speed is sometimes flashed up on arena video boards and all the data is sent to teams. Unlike the NHL, iPads and other electronic devices aren’t allowed on benches in international play, but if and when they are, the data could be available in real time for coaches and players to evaluate.

“We’re able to measure the data, process it and distribute in less than 100 milliseconds,” Zobrist said. “It might be a great tool for them to help their coaching.”

Player performance tracking is a touchy subject off the ice. Players have expressed concern that data on speed, distance traveled, shot velocity and other things could be used against them in coaching decisions and contract negotiations.

“It’s just all cons,” said former NHL defenseman James Wisniewski, who’s playing for the United States. “There’s nothing pros for a player for that at all. It’s not like you’re going to make more money, get a longer-term deal because you travel more distance or you don’t travel. All this is going to do is hurt you. Being a (NHL Players’ Association) rep for eight, nine years, I really have a hard time believing that the PA’s going to even let that go through. It’s all negative.”

Osala enjoys real-time data he gets as a golf fan and considers it a useful tool for athletes.

“I kind of understand how the pros approach their game and I think it’s pretty cool how you can develop your game after you made a deep analysis of your performance in a long span,” said Osala, who played three NHL games with the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes. “For me as a fan, it makes the game so much more interesting. Absolutely as a fan I would love to have the data in hockey.”

It would be fascinating to see how fast Connor McDavid skates, how quickly Vladimir Tarasenko releases the puck or how hard Zdeno Chara shoots from the point on the power play. But there are questions about how practical that information is. Lichtner called Formula One’s program the “ultimate data experience” because fans know everything, including the G-force on a driver, but said he doesn’t think that’s important in hockey.

“I don’t need to know the G-force of the contact between (Alex Ovechkin) and the other guy if he’s strong, but maybe some people would like it,” Lichtner said. “I can see a coach having a hundred pages more of information. He might love it, but what is the benefit for the fan?

“I’m asking my people always, ‘Why do we do it and what’s in it for promoting hockey better?’ Make it more complicated? It’s already fast and complicated enough. Can you explain the game better? Yes? Then we have a big benefit.”

During the U.S. game against Slovenia, Brian O’Neill’s maximum speed was posted on a scoreboard, visual evidence that this is a team that can fly. As much as Wisniewski doesn’t see any pluses, teammate Bobby Sanguinetti wondered if it the data can help players understand themselves better.

“It might even help with rest for us,” Sanguinetti said. “If you see a guy’s logging a lot of minutes and he’s traveling a lot of distance, I guess, from the chip, maybe that has some impact.”

Finland players joked around about Kukkonen’s five sprints, but Osala said he felt the veteran defenseman was one of the best on the ice.

Therein lies a potential problem.

“I think you need to have somebody looking at the data and somebody looking at the actual game,” Osala said. “You can’t just look at the numbers. There has to be a balance between them.”

That’s the common refrain among players and coaches about advanced stats right now, including Corsi and Fenwick, which measure shot attempts to convey some measure of possession. Once player and puck tracking is perfected and implemented, there could be specific stats on how much time the play was in each zone, similar to time of possession in football.

It seems like just a matter of time until the NHL will track and disperse that information, and Lichtner said the NHL and IIHF are on good terms and will share ideas. He said he doesn’t believe this system, which the IIHF only found out about three weeks before the Olympics and worked with Omega and jersey-maker Nike to implement, is the one that will ultimately be in place.

“The future is a mix of chip data and cameras,” Lichtner said. “But we have to try it.”

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.