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Inside the NHL: Player and puck tracking usher in a new kind of numbers game

SAN JOSE – In baseball, all these numbers have become pretty mainstream. Think of how MLB's Statcast has changed how you watch and talk about the game. There's launch angle and exit velocity. Average pitch velocity and spin rate. Catch probability too.

It can be right there for you during the action. Perhaps not so much on television, although MLB Network's recap shows contain much of it. But it can certainly be on your mobile devices in real time.

Hockey is getting in the game in a similar way. The player and puck tracking initiatives that Commissioner Gary Bettman announced here Friday are going to open a whole new world of intriguing numbers to fans, both at home and in the arenas.

Speed of shots and players skating will be popular. So will distance of passes. Players will be wearing monitors embedded in their shoulder pads and chips will be in the pucks, with all data collected by antennas that will be installed in each NHL rink. NHL game statistics have long been done by crews of statisticians in the press box and vagaries are obvious from rink to rink. Things should be quite a bit more uniform now.

One of Bettman's key points was how more information of this kind could come into play for daily fantasy and betting as a whole. The NHL was the first sport to embrace Las Vegas – with incredible results last season – and is not shying away from the gambling and fantasy implications for the sport.

"The puck and player tracking system can track pucks at a rate of 2,000 times per second in real time with inch-level accuracy," was Bettman's description. Yikes.

The league tested the system during two Vegas games earlier this month and found that San Jose defenseman Brent Burns and Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault each skated more than 3 miles in a game, and Vegas forward William Karlsson skated a top speed of more than 20 mph.

And speeds over 20 mph were common when NBCSN showed them in the Fastest Skater competition during the Skills Challenge on Friday night.

NHLPA spokesman Mathieu Schneider said players have been in the loop on the developments and admits some had issues with the technology. Specifically, there was concern on how the data would be used but that there are "protections" in the agreement for the players. Translation: Teams can't use numbers against players in contract negotiations and arbitration cases.

Could the chip in the puck ultimately be used as an instant replay device to determine if a puck has crossed the line and a goal has been scored?

“I don’t think that is its first utilization,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “It’s a possible utilization at some point in time."

After Bettman's presentation, I went to a mobile "Innovation Lab" to see a demonstration of the new iPad that coaches should be getting on the bench soon. And these aren't waiting until next season. They will be arriving in the coming weeks, in addition to the devices that roll video for coaches to decide on making challenges.

This information will remain proprietary and teams will be able to customize it as they see fit, without the league having access to their data.

Coaches will now be able to see instant updates on the game that include the game sheets readily available online to fans and media in real time. But they will also get incredible breakdowns in areas like faceoffs by circle position, shot charts from the slot and outside of it, as well as shootout propensities for goalies and shooters by type of shot or deke.

The real breakthrough could be in live ice time. Coaches will be able to program a target total for each player and color coding will quickly show if a player is lagging behind the target or has moved past it when the coach doesn't realize. The guesswork will come out of the situation.

When are all these numbers too many? There seems to be no end to how much information people want. The bigger concern is putting more numbers in coaches' hands on the bench during games to further slog the decision-making process. But we're in an information age. Teams and fans want as much as they can get and the NHL is about to deliver.

Buffalo as host?

What about Buffalo as an All-Star host? It's been 41 years, since Richard Martin scored in the last two minutes of regulation to forge a tie and Gilbert Perreault scored in overtime to give the Wales Conference a 3-2 win over the Campbells on Jan. 24, 1978, in Memorial Auditorium.

The midseason classic hasn't been back to Buffalo since, having never been held in KeyBank Center. Now that the building is more than 20 years old, it pales in comparison to new facilities but it's still more than adequate. A bigger issue for Buffalo appears to be the tiny Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, because the NHL Fan Fair has become a huge attraction at the All-Star Game in conjunction with the events at the arena itself.

Buffalo's facility checks in at just over 110,000 square feet. Look at the disparity in convention floor space compared to the last four All-Star hosts: San Jose, 550,000 square feet; Tampa, 600,000; Los Angeles, 720,000; and Nashville, 1.2 million.

Daly was diplomatic about the point when asked by The News about it Friday but said he didn't think that would alone be a reason to discount Buffalo.

"I feel like in every city, including Buffalo, there would be sufficient space to host a Fan Fair event," Daly said. "It might not be the same in design but we've been pretty nimble in terms of designing a Fan Fair that kind of fits the environment we're in so I don't think that would be a mitigating factor going to any city."

Bottom line: Buffalo's best chance to host someday would be by holding a Fan Fair in a new downtown stadium/convention complex. It doesn't seem feasible the NHL would come to a city with such a small exhibition space. When you attend one of these events, they're massive. We don't remotely have that kind of space.

McDavid on leaking Oil(ers)

Edmonton's sacking of Peter Chiarelli means all three general managers who benefitted from the Great Tankathon of 2015 are now gone, as Chiarelli now joins Buffalo's Tim Murray and Arizona's Don Maloney on the sidelines. Chiarelli didn't go to Edmonton until a few days after the end of that infamous 2014-15 season, which was shepherded by former Oiler Craig MacTavish, but he got to draft Connor McDavid and try to retool the team.

And he failed miserably. He traded Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson and watched Hall become a Hart Trophy winner in New Jersey. He signed Milan Lucic to a six-year, $42-million contract and pretty much didn't put nearly enough talent around McDavid.

The end for Chiarelli came in the second intermission of Tuesday's home loss to Detroit, which entered the game with the league's worst record. He slunk out of Rogers Place unnoticed during the game, which saw a couple soft goals against Mikko Koskinen. The same guy who Chiarelli had signed to a three-year, $13.5 million extension the day before. If Chiarelli was on his last legs, why would Edmonton ownership and management allow him to make that deal?

A stone-faced McDavid wasn't happy to see reporters for the first time after the firing at All-Star Media Day and initially refused to talk about the situation at all.

McDavid relented on that point only a little, with some general comments on the team but nothing about the former GM.

"What I look forward to coming back from the break is trying our best to prove everyone wrong,” McDavid said. “There’s a sense of negativity with the media, with everyone around the team. We get to prove people wrong. We get to decide how we’re going to finish the second half. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

McDavid steered clear of feeling victimized by the former GM or responding to a Toronto Star column that said it was time for the Oilers to trade him for the good of the league.

"I’m here to be a part of the solution and that’s all I’ll say on that,” McDavid said.

Asked by a PostMedia reporter what positives the season hold, McDavid had a quick response about what people are missing regarding his team.

"For positives I would say we’re three points out of a playoff spot,” McDavid said. “I think that gets lost. I think that really is lost. A lot of changes, three points out."

Connor McDavid nips Jack Eichel to win NHL's Fastest Skater contest

Spicing up Skills

To spice up the Skills Challenge, this corner's suggestion would be to go from six events to maybe four. I'd keep Fastest Skater and Hardest Shot for sure. Same for Save Streak, which emphasizes the goalies and allows every player to participate in the shootout. Maybe Puck Control would be my fourth one. Dump the Passing Relay and Accuracy Shooting to leave some more time.

In place of those two events, I'd run a Young Stars Game of 3-on-3 for 20 minutes. Sure, there's expense of transporting another 20 or so players to the site but it would be great for the league to expose more first- and second-year players like the NBA has done at its showcase event. It's very hard for rookies here to make the actual game because rosters are so small.

But there should be a place in San Jose for the likes of Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Brady Tkachuk, Andreas Johnsson, Colin White, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph and others. And folks who come on Skills night would thus see some actual hockey too.

Ex-Sabres department

St. Louis' Ryan O'Reilly agreed with the notion that Islanders goaltending revelation Robin Lehner probably deserved to be at the game, given his 2.02 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. But it was tough to crack a Metro lineup featuring Henrik Lundqvist and Brayden Holtby.

Still, O'Reilly said he was thrilled to see Lehner have a breakthrough season even if it damaged the Blues' playoff push. Lehner has posted a pair of one-goal wins over St. Louis this month, making 59 saves on 63 shots over the two games.

"He played well against us twice and stole four points from us," O'Reilly said. "While that's tough for us, it's still outstanding to see. I got along with him very well in Buffalo. I really like him. It's amazing to see him overcome the hard things he's had to deal with off the ice and find his game again."

O'Reilly said there was plenty of chirping sent his way from Lehner when the Islanders and Blues met.

"A couple times he chirped me. Absolutely," O'Reilly said. "The second time we played he was on me about a goal I scored the first game where I kind of hit it off him into the net. Every time he would make a save, he'd call my shot a 'muffin' just to try to get in my head. It's all in good fun."

Mike Harrington: Lehner takes another big step in his personal battle with win over Sabres

Around the boards

• One of the coolest things we've seen at a Skills Challenge was U.S. women's Olympic star Kendall Coyne-Schofield taking her Fastest Skater lap in place of the injured Nathan MacKinnon. There were chants of "USA, USA" in the SAP Center crowd and a roaring standing ovation when she finished her electrifying lap.

Pretty amazing to see how women's hockey national team members in both the U.S. and Canada are receiving widespread notoriety now that the sport has been in the Olympics for 20 years and professional leagues are on both sides of the border. The sport is just going to keep growing.

• Leafs star Auston Matthews on watching the Capitals' 7-6 overtime loss to the Sharks: "Just watching some of the goals and highlights, it was a fun game to watch if you're a fan. Fun game to play in if you're a player. Probably miserable for the coaches."

• Speaking of the Leafs, they're 8-0 this year in games that come when they're on a two-game losing streak. Thursday's 6-3 win over the Capitals was the latest entry on that impressive log.

• The Caps gave up a hat trick to Toronto's Nazem Kadri in that game and that makes three straight games (Chicago's Jonathan Toews, San Jose's Tomas Hertl and Kadri) they've allowed one. It's actually four out of five because Nashville's Viktor Arvidsson lit them up for three goals in a 7-2 Predators win on Jan. 15. Crazy.

• The Pacific Division race is over as Calgary, San Jose and Vegas have combined to go 22-7-1 over the last 30 games. The Golden Knights hit the break in third place – with a 10-point lead over Vancouver. So what's left to play for is home-ice advantage in the playoffs. And it will be crucial among these three teams, whose combined home record is a stunning 50-13-12 thus far.

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