Playing Fast Not Loose: Evaluating team-level pace of play in ice hockey using spatio-temporal possession data

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Abstract: Pace of play is an important characteristic in hockey as well as other team sports. We provide the first comprehensive study of pace within the sport of hockey, focusing on how teams and players impact pace in different regions of the ice, and the resultant effect on other aspects of the game.

First we examined how pace of play varies across the surface of the rink, in different periods, at different manpower situations, between different professional leagues, and through time between seasons. Our analysis of pace by zone helps to explain some of the counter-intuitive results reported in prior studies. For instance, we show that the negative correlation between attacking speed and shots/goals is likely due to a large decline in attacking speed in the OZ.

We also studied how pace impacts the outcomes of various events. We found that pace is positively-correlated with both high-danger zone entries (e.g. odd-man rushes) and higher shot quality. However, we find that passes with failed receptions occur at higher speeds than successful receptions. These findings suggest that increased pace is beneficial, but perhaps only up to a certain extent. Higher pace can create breakdowns in defensive structure and lead to better scoring chances but can also lead to more turnovers.

Finally, we analyzed team and player-level pace in the NHL, highlighting the considerable variability in how teams and players attack and defend against pace. Taken together, our results demonstrate that measures of team-level pace derived from spatio-temporal data are informative metrics in hockey and should prove useful in other team sports.

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