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Vollman’s Hockey Abstract 2015 Update: Spanning Hockey Analytics with Easy Prose

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(Scott Grau/Icon Sportswire)

In short, this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive analysis in its own right, but rather one that can be combined with the traditional analysis available from mainstream journalists and websites elsewhere…in the end, the judgements made in the following pages shouldn’t be perceived as gospel, but simply as an analysis of the high-level items of the greatest importance, ultimately serving as an informed interpretation of data at a certain point in time.

No matter your comfort level with analytics or your position regarding any of the specific stats discussed, Hockey Abstract 2015 Update is a highly-relevant contribution to the on-going, ever-changing advanced stats discussion in hockey. Written by ESPN Insider Rob Vollman, the 172-page text contains more than 150 pages of new analysis. The digital-only volume is the third installment in Vollman’s Hockey Abstract series.

Why online-only this year?

That’s the good news that Vollman begins with–Hockey Abstract has been picked up by ECW Press, which will allow future Abstracts to be purchased by fans in bookstores everywhere. Unfortunately, the realities of the printing process made it impossible to produce a print copy this season. For most fans, the availability of the digital “update,” priced at $7.50 USD, is a completely acceptable alternative for this season.

What can buyers expect for their investment?

 

Huge Scope

For those new to analytics, the 2015 Update offers an exhaustive scan scan of the field of advanced stats hockey thought. Fans will find paragraphs that touch on:

  • Luck-Neutral Standings – eliminating the effects of shootouts (which appear to be random), etc… to see where teams deserve to land in the standings
  • Goaltending Analytics – for example, home plate save percentage
  • Passing Data – with an explanation of a proxy passing measure and a nod to passing data guru Ryan Stimson
  • The Do-it-all Index – a detailed look at the players who are best able to play in any role throughout a game
  • Hall of Fame Inductinator – a lengthy discussion of how the Hockey Hall of Fame inducts new members and many predictions on who (and when) new members will join
  • Drawing Penalties – a celebration of Nazem Kadri’s elite penalty-drawing skill set

Touching on everything from team-level standings to goalie metrics, passing data, and HOF predictions, there’s something here for every type of advanced stats fan. Each section is brief, supported and of great value for a fancy stats newcomer.

 

Real Talk

Early in the volume, Vollman writes:

I’ve often described the analysis of hockey without statistics as akin to watching a game with one hand over your eye. Likewise, conducting team-level analysis using only hockey analytics would be like simply covering the other eye instead. Use both eyes!

While the advice here is excellent, special attention to Vollman’s tone and delivery is key. His greatest skill as an author is his ability to speak plainly while discussing complicated hockey stats, including a lighthearted literary style that draws the reader in as if they were having a casual conversation. In his discussion of New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider on pgs. 101-102, Vollman quips;

The only real mystery is Cory Schneider, for whom New Jersey simply refuses to score. He must be really stingy about picking up the bar tab on the road or something.

Again, for a newcomer to the modern stats scene, a line like this is enough to set the mind at ease. Though the stats discussed through the Abstract are robust, Vollman is still a hockey fan with funny opinions on the players. In this sense, Vollman makes use of “both eyes” by fusing together stats (New Jersey really doesn’t offer Schneider goal support) with the type of typical bar chatter you expect when sharing a drink with friends while watching a hockey game. It’s a tricky balance and Vollman has struck that balance well.

 

The Shoutouts

Tucked into the latter portion of the Hockey Abstract 2015 Update, Vollman carries out a service for the analytics community and the new minds that are fueling the stats revolution. As an ESPN Insider, an accomplished writer, a conference speaker, and a well-known radio voice, Vollman now possesses the ability to shine light on new work in a powerful way. Between pages 138-147, Vollman name drops many of the current top people in analytics production, ensuring that some of the brightest minds receive the recognition they deserve.

In the section, Vollman highlights;

  • Tom Awad – Hockey Prospectus – delta Corsi
  • Domenic Galamini – Usage-adjusted possession rates and Hero charts
  • Stephen Burtch – dCrorsi
  • garik16 – predicting the future
  • Matt Cane – building off of Tom Tango’s work to develop score-adjusted weighted shots
  • Ryan Stimson – the Passing Project
  • Sam Ventura (formerly of War-on-Ice) and DTMAboutHeart – adjusted save percentage
  • Josh Weissbock and Cam Lawrence – PCS (Prospect Cohort Success)
  • DTMAboutHeart – draft probability tool
  • Emmanuel Perry – Similary Scores and Bombay Scores
  • Benjamin Wendorf – historical graphs at Hockey-Graphs
  • Craig Tabita – Net shots post faceoff
  • Thomas Crawshaw – cap hit of injured players

This list is a who’s who of advanced stats thinkers today (with many missing characters, of course). For someone uninitiated but interested in diving into the world of underlying hockey stats, Vollman’s breakdown of each thinker is very valuable. For the writers themselves, this shoutout from Vollman is important for increasing their profiles and the visibility of their work.

 

Team Checklists and Player Usage Charts

For the majority of the Abstract, Vollman focuses on developing and then applying team-level analyses. Between pages 5 – 21, Vollman breaks down each of the follow factors in evaluating team performance; puck possession, the shootout, goaltending, penalty kill, powerplay, scoring line, shutdown line, forward depth, top pairing, second pairing, defensive depth, coaching, and prospects (listed in order of importance to team success). Vollman provides a checklist for each of the NHL’s 30 teams, giving his thoughts on how each club fares in each metric.

It’s ambitious, full of points of possible contention, and rich in sources of debate. And that’s always welcome.

Vollman’s player usage charts – a key feature in team analyses – do face some serious questions. Vollman plots players per team using zone starts as the x-axis and quality of competition as the y-axis. Like this:

blackhawks

The concern with the charts is that both axes have questions about their utility. In Eric Tulsky’s piece at NHLNumbers.com, he wrote that, “(q)uality of competition is very similar to shot quality: it plays a huge role in individual shifts/shots, but over the course of a season the differences across teams and players are small enough that it can usually be neglected.” This sheds concern on evaluating a team’s players based on this measure.

Similarly, Micah Blake McCurdy has recently uncovered that about 57% of shifts during a game occur “on-the-fly.”

For Vollman’s charts, this is another challenge. Plotting players based on their offensive zone starts accounts for quite a small percentage of their actual time-on-ice during a game.


In the end, Vollman’s 2015 Update is well worth the investment. As a guide for current thought in analytics and a source of great references to the best hockey thinkers out there, the Abstract is a must for hockey fans. Sure, there are questions about the utility of the prominent player usage charts. But, as Vollman says, “the following pages shouldn’t be perceived as gospel, but simply as an analysis of the high-level items of the greatest importance, ultimately serving as an informed interpretation of data at a certain point in time.”

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