The Golden Knights boasted three first-round draft picks in the 2017 NHL Draft.
But it was a second-rounder, Nicolas Hague, who enjoyed the most-acclaimed season among all Vegas prospects, as he took home the CHL Defenceman of the Year Award.
Hague’s trophy-winning campaign was powered by a howitzer shot. His 35 goals marked the first time since 2000 that an OHL blueliner had broken the 30-goal barrier.
During June’s development camp, I caught up with the 6’6” defender. He revealed the NHL team that his junior team, the Mississauga Steelheads, used as an analytics benchmark. He touched on which proprietary advanced stat meant the most to him, in terms of evaluating his own play. The 19-year-old also offered his thoughts on player tracking.
At the same time, I also had the pleasure of speaking with Jeremy Crowe
, Coordinator of Hockey Analytics for the Steelheads. Crowe revealed that Hague was almost as effective a set-up man as he was a scorer last year. He had encouraging comments about Hague’s mobility, seen as the big man’s primary weakness. Crowe also shared a boots-to-the-ground example of how the Mississauga coaching staff uses analytics.
Both Hague and Crowe paint a fascinating portrait of how analytics are applied at a practical level at the CHL level and how a younger generation is embracing such stats.
HockeyBuzz: I know your coaching staff used analytics a lot. How did they use it?
Nic Hague: We talked about it a ton. Almost to a point where it started getting a little repetitive. It was little bit in individual meetings. But most of the time when we used it, it was like in a team video meeting session.
We knew, based on successful teams in the NHL, where their numbers were for like Corsi or whatever. We knew what a successful number, what a winning team, we knew what their numbers were. We always set a bar for ourselves.
HB: What was your bar this year? Or the team that you compared yourselves to?
NH: The numbers I forgot. There were a lot of big numbers in there. Kind of gets confusing.
We tried to model it, as close as possible, to an NHL team. A lot of times, we compared ourselves to the LA Kings, when they won the Cup. Because our head coach, he worked in LA for a while. That was what he was familiar with.
He'd always be on us about making sure our possession numbers were up there. The turnovers, positive-negative touches for all the players on the ice. That's something we kind of relied on, went back to a lot when things weren't working. Or if things were working, we'd check it out and see why they were working.
HB: How did analytics affect you individually?
NH: The big thing I always focused on was my positive-negative touches. We had guys every game who keep track of it for every player. To sum it up, a positive touch would be after you let go of the puck, what happens to it? Is it a shot on net? A goal, an assist, zone entry -- things that will help your team win a game.
On the other side of that, negative touches. After you touch the puck, is it a turnover? Is it a goal against? Whatever it may be. You turn it over at the blueline. Things that will affect your team negatively.
You always want to make sure you have positive touches when the game is over. That was kind of a good gauge for me this year that I went over with a lot of my coaches. As a player, you can kind of tell whether you have a good game or a bad game. This kind of puts an exclamation point on all that.
Sometimes, you might really think you had a good game, but it really wasn't as good as you thought. Or sometimes, you might think you didn't play that well. But you had really good numbers.
It's not to say your numbers [decide] if you had a good game or a bad game, but it's another gauge. You always want to stay positive.
HB: Your positive touch numbers, were they good this year?
NH: Most games, I'd say they were good. But there are obviously times when, more so at the start of the year, when I wouldn't be in the positive.
That would be a situation when my coach would call me in. Ask me how I played. Normally, I'm pretty self-aware. But he'd go over my game with me. Go over video. Say these were your positive/negative touches. You were a negative this game. It gives me kind of a benchmark. I know that I need to be better.
HB: Did you improve in this area from last year?
NH: It's not so much your positive/negative touches on a season.
HB: It's more night to night?
NH: Yeah. I couldn't tell you how the season went. But night to night, game to game, you could kind of gauge, know how you did.
It's not even something you go over after every game. If you feel like you're struggling, you want to ask to look over it. Or sometimes, the coach would go over it with me. But it's good for a guy like me who went back to juniors last year, I want to be pushed. I want to be challenged.
My coaching staff did a great job of pushing me to that next level, making sure I wasn't falling into old habits. That I was coming in everyday, doing the right things, making sure I did everything I could to make the jump up.
HB: Was there ever a situation where the coach asked if you thought you had a good game, you were like yeah, and he was like, you were -15 in touches?
NH: No. (laughs) Like I said, I'm pretty self aware.
For whatever reason, every time, my coach would ask, "How do you think you played?" I always [thought] negative, like, "Oh, do you not think that I played well?" (laughs)
But a lot of times, I thought I had a really good game, he'd come back and say, Yeah, I thought the same thing.
HB: Is everybody in the room aware of stats like Corsi?
NH: It was something for me that I had never been exposed to until I started playing under James Richmond and his coaching staff. A big guy who kept track of all the stats is Mike Doyle. He's our assistant GM, working side by side with JR all season long. He was kind of the guy who went over all the analytics.
You kind of hear about it watching NHL games sometimes. But before I came to the OHL and started playing for Mississauga, I have never really been exposed to that kind of thing. At first, it's pretty new. Sometimes, kind of hard to grasp. Things you do on ice, translates to some number that is good or bad or average. It definitely makes it a lot more interesting to see where your numbers are. It makes it easier to see what areas of the game the team is struggling in, what you need to work on.
HB: Do you have a greater appreciation of analytics now?
NH: It's kind of the way the game is going. You hear about it a lot more. I can definitely see -- when our team was struggling and we'd go over our numbers -- they weren't where we [wanted them to be]. It's definitely translates well to the real game.
I don't think you can rely completely on the numbers. A lot of it is, you just got to go out and play. But it's definitely cool to see how it translates. See how you match up.
For me, trying to match ourselves with the LA Kings. It's cool to see when they won the Cup, how they were playing, what their numbers looked like and what our numbers look like.
HB: One of your stats that I do know, last year, you used your wrist shot 65% of the time, slap shot 30%. Is this an indication of your preference for the wrister? Or were you taking what was given to you?
NH: It's about timing. The game is moving quick. You don't always have time to take a slapshot.
But that makes a lot of sense to me. A lot of times on the blueline or on the rush, the gaps close quickly, guys have good sticks, guys are trying to get in the lanes. A lot of the times, you have to make a quick move. A lot of times, it's just a little wrister.
I'm not surprised by that at all.
HB: So you prefer to boom it?
NH: I love shooting the puck. (laughs) It's a big part of my game. Definitely if I have time, I'm going to try to wind up.
HB: On a related note, do you have any thoughts about player tracking and making that information public?
NH: I guess it should be up to the player? In terms of making it public.
Within the organization, we track ourselves a ton. Like we wear heartrate monitors on the ice, in the gym. We do all the tests. We're always kind of comparing ourselves to each other.
HB: Would you care if your information was out in public?
NH: No. I personally wouldn't. But some guys are different when it comes to that sort of thing. It's an interesting question for sure.
HB: I wonder because that's the league you're entering. You're younger, but that's the future of the league. So I wonder what the junior kids think about it?
NH: I definitely think it's going that way. You see it with the analytics. The technology evolving in the game is crazy.
Even if you watch an NHL game, they show Connor McDavid's skating up the ice. He's going like 40 km per hour. It's cool to see that.
I think as a fan -- for a guy like me this year, who watched a ton of NHL games -- they show a guy like McDavid who's flying up the ice, they're tracking his speed -- that's cool.
As a fan of the game, that's the kind of stuff you want to see. It's interesting to see where it'll end up in a couple years.
HockeyBuzz: How, if at all, did analytics affect Hague's breakout campaign this year?
Jeremy Crowe: Analytics had less to do with how he played and more to do with how our strategies were adjusted throughout the year on a team-level. With Hague specifically, though, I think a lot of his breakout just was him taking the massive role he was given and owning it.
For context, last year, Hague was paired with our over-age defenseman Stefan LeBlanc on the 1A unit (with the 1B unit being Red Wings prospect Vili Saarijarvi and Kings prospect Jacob Moverare). This year, Stefan and Vili graduated to the pros, so a lot more was placed on the shoulders of Nic and Jacob. Unfortunately, Jacob was hurt during World Juniors, and that ended his season, which put even more onto Hague. We really leaned on him a lot after that, as he played upwards of 30 minutes a night for most of the back half of the season, on the top unit, top powerplay, top penalty kill. He played big minutes with almost every one of our other defenders, too, so he had to adapt to playing left side, right side, playing with 16 year olds, 19 year olds, etc. He did everything for us.
Hague was a dominant shooter - as you would expect for a defenseman who scored 35 times. He averaged almost 10 shots attempts per game - tops on the team, even beating out his sharpshooting forward teammate and Panthers first round pick Owen Tippett.
Hague was also second to Tippett in terms of total shot contributions per game, so he's not only a volume shooter, but he can thread passes through as well. No one on the team had a higher number of successful stretch passes that lead directly to a shot, for example. For all the power of his slapshot/one-timer, he still relied primarily on his wrist shot, with about 65% of his attempts coming off of wristers, and 30% coming from slapshots/one-timers. I will speak to that a bit more later.
Despite his massive icetime, Hague was still very strong in both Corsi and goals, posting above-50% marks in both, and was in the upper echelon in terms of those percentages relative to his teammates. When Hague was on the ice, things were usually tilted in our favour. This speaks strongly of his ability to handle talented players, as he was used almost exclusively against top-six competition nightly.
In my opinion, even if you're skeptical of how junior performance like this will translate when moved to the pros, these are still positive signs and something you want to look for in your prospects.
HB: Being part of a younger generation, is Nic more familiar with analytics in general, things like Corsi, zone entries, etc.? How about his teammates? Or do some of these younger players still have a resistance to such stats?
JC: Since I interacted almost exclusively with the coaching staff this season, I can't really say with any confidence how individual players feel about advanced stats.
But speaking of the organization, while this was my first year working directly with the coaching staff, it was definitely not the first year they had been using detailed data tracking. From what I experienced, the coaching staff and management are extremely open to the use of data, and encouraged me to speak my mind if I noticed anything that I felt could help out the team.
My impression was that if it could help the team do well on the ice, then they were open to hearing about it and exploring it.
HB: Generally, do you think there is more receptiveness to analytics and tracking and things of that nature from the younger generation?
JC: I would say yes, if only because a lot of kids are now growing up in an era where more advanced statistical information is so publicly available and accepted, so when they reach the higher levels of junior hockey, they're at least familiar with the ideas, even if they don't necessarily follow them religiously.
We've seen NHL players discuss looking at sites like Corsica and Natural Stat Trick, and it wouldn't surprise me if a bunch of CHL kids are looking up their stats on Prospect-Stats.com, or even at the higher levels, checking out their team's in-house numbers.
HB: Can you tell me more about what you track and how it’s applied on the team level?
JC: We track about 25 different things for every game. The basics, like time on ice, Corsi and scoring chances (using our own definitions, of course), entries, exits, and then a bunch more stuff that I don't want to really get in to. We generally have at least two people tracking most of our games, and I will often track a game live and then on tape after to get some more data.
As for how we used it throughout the season... one example I guess is that we had data on one opposing team which showed them as having a tendency to break up entries on one side of the ice far more often than the other, largely thanks to one particularly aggressive defenseman on that team. Video confirmed the data, so there were a couple of set plays drawn up by the coaches to help counteract it.
HB: Do you have analytics for Nic's skating? By that measure, how did that improve this year? If you don't have analytics for it or can't share, I'd also love to hear your visual/technical take on how his skating improved.
JC: Unfortunately, we don't really have any metrics to measure skating ability. From what I have seen in watching him for three seasons now, it's night and day watching him play now vs when he broke into the league. He's capable of rushing up ice as an attacker, he is more adept at staying with opposing attackers, and using his size and reach. He's also very smart about staying within his game, knowing what his strengths are and not trying to overexert himself every shift. His footspeed, edge-work, and maneuvering down low has improved tremendously, but will need to continue to grow to make a large impact in the pro game.
HB: What needs to improve about his mobility to be NHL-caliber?
JC: With Nic being such a big body, it's my opinion that refs tend to be a little harder on calling obstruction penalties against him, just because of the large size differential he has with most opponents.
While I have seen considerable improvement in Nic's mobility in the dzone, especially with regards to gap control on entries, and tight battles with shifty forwards, continuing to improve his first few steps quickness would help cut down on the clutching and grabbing penalties that are called against him.
HB: What about his shooting skills might translate to a higher level?
JC: He has a super heavy shot that will serve him well as a pro, as he generates a lot of rebounds and down low blocked shots which lead to open pucks. The key will be to station teammates in areas that will be in the "blast radius" of his shots - just off to the sides of the net, or in the high slot, to pick up the loose pucks that will slam off the goalie's pads or opposition shinpads.
Hague also has a very accurate wristshot, capable of picking corners with ease. He's smart with his wrister, looking to step in from the blueline in order to get it off from more dangerous scoring areas.
But another quality Nic has with his wrister is to float it in from the point, looking for tips from teammates. He had 53 shot assists this season which were the result of his shots being tipped by a teammate. To put that in perspective, that accounted for just over 25% of our team total of tipped shot assists. While his role with our team led to him being the "go-to" for any shot from the back end, he was quite a high-volume shooter in his draft year as well, so it's not just circumstantial, and it's something that should translate well to a pro game, especially on a power play.
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