NHL tests puck and player tracking in regular-season games

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — On one screen live video was showing how many feet per second Erik Karlsson was skating. On another was a video-game-like visualization of the game on the ice below between Vegas and San Jose. Nearby screens flashed prop bets – where the next goal would be scored from? would Max Pacioretty skate 3 miles tonight? – as odds were updated by the second.

In a hallway high up in T-Mobile Arena, virtual reality headsets provided a view of the game from the perspective of anyone from Marc-Andre Fleury to Joe Thornton to a fan in section 214.

The NHL this week tested puck and player tracking for the first time in regular-season games, an exciting step with plans to have it place across the league next season. The NHL will join and perhaps surpass the NFL with real-time tracking technology it hopes will have broad ramifications for teams, players and fans from Florida to Vancouver.

An overwhelming amount of data will soon be available for analytics, broadcasters and, yes, gamblers as expanded sports betting takes hold following last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision clearing the way.

”It’s going to change the game in a big way,” said Dave Lehanski, NHL senior vice president of business development. ”We’re going to go from tracking or capturing maybe about 350 events per game now – shot, pass, hit, save – to 10,000. That alone at the end of the day, you’re going to have a massive amount of new data that no one has ever seen before.”

Microchips were added to player shoulder pads and fitted inside specially designed pucks for two Vegas Golden Knights home games this week, against the New York Rangers and the San Jose Sharks. Fourteen antennas in the rafters and four more at the suite level tracked movement through radio frequencies and relayed the data to suite 46, where league and Players’ Association executives and representatives from 20 teams and various technology firms, betting companies and TV rights holders were watching along with a handful of reporters.

Tracking was tested at previous All-Star games and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. The latest tests refined the logistics of using the technology in meaningful games, and also showed how the real-time statistics can be used on broadcasts, in betting applications and in creating virtual reality and augmented reality simulations.

”Technology gives us a chance to bring our fans closer to the game, gives them a chance to look at the game from different perspectives,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said as the Golden Knights battled the Sharks. ”And the opportunity is unlimited in an era where technology is developing at a record pace.”

Fans will get their first real taste of the tracking system at All-Star Weekend on Jan. 25-26 in San Jose when NBC in the U.S. and Rogers in Canada will have access to the data to use on their broadcasts. If all goes according to plan, the full range of puck and player tracking will be in place to begin next season.

The NHL and NHLPA have been discussing puck and player tracking for several years, and millions of dollars have been invested in the project. Player concerns over tracking data being used against them have been quelled enough that they agreed to wear the microchips.

”I do think the potential positives far outweigh any negatives,” said Mathieu Schneider, a retired defenseman and special assistant to the NHLPA executive director. ”It’s incumbent upon us to make sure we’re doing not only for the current guys what we can but for future guys. … I think the timing’s right.”

The NHL owns the data but must share it with the union. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the sides are on the same page and will talk about it more for the next collective bargaining agreement. One of the conditions is that teams are not allowed to use player tracking data in salary arbitration.

”Who knows what’s going to happen with it?” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. ”I think people like to see different stats, and the NHL’s probably trying to give fans a little bit of something like that. Maybe it affects some guys, maybe it doesn’t. Hopefully it only enhances players and their skills and how they play the game.”

The NHL will join the NFL as the only major North American sports leagues with players wearing tracking technology. The NBA and Major League Baseball use sophisticated systems that can include radar and cameras.

Jogmo World Corp. and the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany developed this particular system in conjunction with the NHL over the past three years. It has taken that long just to get it right; the rubber used to make pucks originally didn’t work with the sensors. The system tracks a puck 2,000 times per second and players 200 times per second.

”Overall, hockey’s the most challenging sport that you can think of because the highest mechanics, the highest speed, the highest impact,” Jogmo founder and CEO Martin Bachmayer said. ”We had to change the puck recipe, the puck mixture to make that work. That was super difficult.”

The NHL won’t say how much, but the new pucks are considerably more expensive than the frozen rubber varieties used over the past 100-plus years of hockey and any fans who went home with a puck from one of the games unknowingly got a piece of history and a valuable souvenir. How referees handle them and how equipment managers deal with the microchips on the shoulder pads were major elements of the testing this week, and adjustments will be made based on feedback from players and officials before next season.

Starting next season, broadcasters will be able to flash up-to-the-second data during games, and at some point fans will be able to customize puck and player tracking stats as they watch online. The goal is to try to attract new viewers and give hardcore fans more to sink their teeth into.

”The casuals will use it as a way to understand just how fast (hockey is),” NHL chief administrative officer Steve McArdle said. ”All the things that they have heard about hockey will come to life through data right in real time. The avids, if they want to go super deep on the analytics that are going to be derived out of this thing, it’s a rabbit hole that you could go as deep as you want to go.”

It could also change the way the game itself is played. Teams already have their own proprietary data, and the influx of standardized numbers and information with pinpoint accuracy down to the inch will make analytics even more advanced.

”They want to have more information, so that really provides us with an opportunity to really make the clubs better and smarter,” NHL chief revenue officer Keith Wachtel said.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Buzzer: Vasilevskiy endures 58 shots, still wins; Hellebuyck gets first shutout

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Three stars

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

Vasilevskiy will still be stopping pucks when he goes to sleep tonight.

The Washington Capitals fired 58 shots in the direction of the young Russian superstar netminder. He stopped 54, which was enough (and more than should have been required) in a 5-4 overtime win.

Vasilevskiy is well on his way to winning the Vezina this season, and Wednesday was just another brilliant performance in what’s been a season full of them.

2. Loui Eriksson, Vancouver Canucks

To be fair, Bo Horvat, Tanner Pearson or Alex Edler could be here, too. But Eriksson’s the one with the four-point night. The other three each had three-point nights, so let’s give it to Loui.

The Canucks had a 5-0 lead in the third period before the Ottawa Senators scored four unanswered to claw their way back into the game. Eriksson provided an assist on Horvat’s 6-4 goal and then scored the 7-4 marker to put the game out of reach.

Eriksson’s season isn’t much to write home about, but he had a solid night on Wednesday.

3. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

A Vezina runner up last season, Hellebuyck’s season hasn’t mirrored that this time around. He’s been solid lately, despite a tough start to the year, and getting his first shutout of the season is a monkey off his back.

Resting Hellebuyck is something the Jets are doing in the last couple of weeks here. He didn’t play Monday and won’t play against the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday, either, with the Jets electing to save him for a pivotal matchup against the Nashville Predators in Winnipeg on Saturday night.

Highlights of the night

This passing is unfair:

One-hopper to perfection:

Pretty tip on this one:

Don’t give Victor Hedman all day:

Factoids

Scores

Maple Leafs 4, Sabres 2
Lightning 5, Capitals 4 (OT)
Canucks 7, Senators 4
Jets 3, Ducks 0


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jets’ Hellebuyck earns first shutout of the season vs. Ducks

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The Winnipeg Jets have fallen victim of the bad-team bug a few times this season.

They lost twice to the Ottawa Senators inside one week earlier this year, twice to the Colorado Avalanche in the same time frame and once to the Arizona Coyotes, who weren’t quite yet on the run they’re now in February.

So coming into this road trip late in the season, where they’d play the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks in two of the three games, there was a reason to be worried they’d get caught in the trap.

The good news for the team is that hasn’t been the case this time out. They beat Los Angeles on Monday and put together a 3-0 win against the Ducks on NBCSN on Wednesday Night Hockey for their fourth straight win after a 29-save shutout from Connor Hellebuyck, his first of the season.

Winnipeg is now three points up on the second-place Nashville Predators with a game in hand and a big meeting with their rivals on Saturday back in Winnipeg — a game that could decide the division if Winnipeg can get the win.

First, however, they’ll have to play the streaking Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night in Sin City. For the most part, they didn’t expend too much energy in their Wednesday win, so there should still be some gas left in the tank.

Hellebuyck’s is unlikely to start against Vegas, with the Jets looking like they’ll rest their No. 1 for Saturday’s pivotal big game against the Predators, but he had a relatively easy night. Laurent Brossoit, Winnipeg’s’ exceptional backup, should get the call.

Winnipeg’s defense has been decimated down the stretch, with no Dustin Byfuglien, no Josh Morrissey and now no Nathan Beaulieu, a trade deadline acquisition that was thrust into a top-pairing role. Beaulieu missed the game because of an undisclosed injury, making an already thin blue line that much thinner.

Given all their injuries on the back end, the shutout performance by the team is remarkable, even against the Ducks. Winnipeg is slated to get Big Buff and Morrissey back in time for the playoffs, which is critical if they’re to make a deep run once again.

Kyle Connor has a goal and an assist for the second straight game for the Jets. The sophomore has 12 points in his past 14 games.

The Ducks, who came into the game winners of six of their past night, seemed more interested in pestering the Jets rather than playing hockey against them. They didn’t give up six first period goals this time around, or lose 9-3. So that was an improvement over their last meeting.

Like many nights this season, this wasn’t Anaheim’s. If nothing else, the loss helps their lottery chances. All the winning they’ve been doing lately hasn’t helped, however.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Canucks’ Pettersson sets franchise rookie record for points

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Elias Pettersson has been a revelation in Vancouver this season, a source of hope for long-suffering Canucks fans who haven’t had much to cheer about in recent years.

Petterson notched an assist on Markus Granlund‘s second-period goal and that moved him past the great Pavel Bure for the team’s rookie points record with his 61st point in what will likely end in a Calder-winning season for the young rookie.

Pettersson added another assist later in the period. He’ll surely extend that record before seasons’ end. He’s currently on 27 goals and 63 points in 63 games. He’d likely be closer to 80 at this point if not for an ugly hit early on in the season and another injury right after the New Year.

Pettersson is the player the Canucks are going to build around at the moment, and they have some solid young talent already around him with the likes of Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and others.

Vancouver could be a scary team in a few years, and Pettersson will be leading that charge.

For now, they have one of the NHL’s brightest young players who should bring back a shiny piece of hardware to British Columbia come June.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Lightning survive barrage, strike down Capitals in overtime

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It was going to take a Herculean effort from the Washington Capitals to somehow beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second half of a back to back. And man, did they ever deliver one.

But even that wasn’t enough to beat the insanely good Lightning, who recovered from 56 shots against in regulation and a game-tying goal with 57 seconds left in the third period to find a way to their sixth straight win.

The game-winner came courtesy of a Victor Hedman deke. It was pretty.

Tampa is now just five wins away from matching the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most victories in the regular season at 62. Given that the Lightning at 18-2-0 in their past 20 games, it’s completely acceptable to believe they can do this. With the Presidents’ Trophy already sewn up, the Lightning have eight games now to find five wins — six if they want the record all to themselves.

I’d bet the house on it. Both matching it and surpassing it.

It was a heartbreaking loss for the Capitals, who still managed to pick up a point to increase their lead in the Metropolitan Division to three points on the New York Islanders.

That Herculean effort included a total of 58 shots fired at Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was his usual, totally unfair self in this one. In typical Vasilevskiy fashion, he made easy saves look easy and hard saves look much the same. And he set a franchise record doing it, with his 54 saves the most in a game, surpassing the 48 Ben Bishop made back in 2014.

The game was also a clinic in why special teams matter so much.

When you’re given six power-play opportunities against the far-and-away best team in the NHL — on the second half of a back to back to boot — you need to take advantage.

The Capitals couldn’t, going just 1-for-6 in the game while the Lightning were a perfect 3-for-3, typical of the team with the best man-advantage in the league.

Nikita Kucherov scored twice in the game and Steven Stamkos had a goal while adding assists on each of Kucherov’s markers, which both came on the power play.

After taking a 1-0 lead in the first period, the Lightning scored three unanswered before Carl Hagelin stopped the bleeding. That goal was quickly followed up by T.J. Oshie‘s 22nd of the season to tie the game back up.

The deadlock lasted all of 1:21 thanks to a passing play that was equal parts filthy and beautiful.

The Capitals rested Braden Holtby in their Tuesday win against the Devils. Holtby’s effort could have been better after allowing five goals on 28 shots.

Another seven-game series between these two would be good fun.

More things Tampa did tonight:


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck