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Review: Hockey Abstract 2014

Fans of the advanced stats community for hockey have seen a lot of resources “go dark” this summer as people like Tyler Dellow, Cam Charron, and Darryl Metcalf have taken jobs with NHL organizations, but there are still resources out there for the fan interested in using these tools to understand the game.

One of the most interesting over the past few years have been the Player Usage Charts pioneered by Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract, and much like last year, he’s collected his work from the previous season to make it one easily accessible reference. Unlike last year, though, Vollman has been joined by two co-authors, Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe,

If those names sound familiar, there’s a reason. Awad is the inventor of the GVT stat (Goals Versus Threshold), which attempts to provide something like baseball’s VORP rankings for players, while Fyffe is a hockey fan and historian who has spent the last several years exploring the strange and wonderful history of this game over at his own site, Hockey Historysis.

The book is essentially divided into two halves. In one, Vollman, Awad, and Fyffe spend time asking questions (What seems to be the “Standards” for making it into the Hall of Fame? What are we talking about when we try to determine shot quality? What makes a good player, well, good?), then walk readers through stats and analysis as they search for answers not just in the current NHL, but previous eras all the way back to the founding of the NHL.

This year also features some expanded analysis of goaltending, which was something the previous volume was a bit light on. One of the first major areas they break down is “Quality Starts” for goaltenders over the past three seasons – and it’s interesting to see where Sergei Bobrovsky shows up versus, say, Steve Mason. (For the record, Bob is at 11th overall with 60.8% QS, just behind Jimmy Howard and Jaroslav Halak, while Mason appears on the second page of the chart at 40th overall, with a 49.2%)

There;s also some neat work looking at the quality of shots that goalies face, including tracking what they call “Home Plate Save Percentage” that goes something like this:

If you draw lines from the goal posts to the two defensive zone faceoff dots, and then straight up to the top of the faceoff circles, a straight line connecting them both will create a zone where the most dangerous shots generally occur.

There’s a breakdown of shots faced both inside and outside that “Home Plate”, and while I won’t spoil where Bob lands on this one, how about the fact that he’s faced about 1500 “HP” shots in the years measured, and stopped 1300 of them? (1302, if we’re being exact.) . Vollman even takes a crack at adapting the Player Usage Chart model to goalies, looking at the shooting percentage of opponents vs. the average distance of shots, and makes a compelling case for who some of the best goalies in the league are based on these metrics. (Who comes in at the top? Good and bad news there – while it is a Metro division netminder, I’m afraid that the honors go to Henrik Lundqvist.)

One weakness, though, is that these numbers don’t show the impact of a player changing teams. I’d love to know how much Bob’s move from Philly to Columbus changed his home plate numbers, for example, or if his shot distances changed.

The second half of the book deals with team by team analysis and breakdowns, comparisons, and rankings. One thing that leapt out at me when going over the book for this review was a year by year progression chart of Corsi ratings for each team, which then ranks them by the overall average. Columbus doesn’t look too great overall right now, at an average of of 48.3, but when you consider that they made a leap from a 46.3 in 2012-2013 to a 50.9 rating in 2013-2014, it shows a dramatic change that will hopefully continue to pay major dividends on the ice as the club continues to develop under head coach Todd Richards and his assistants.

In the specific breakdowns for the Jackets, Vollman has some good things to say about the arrival of Scott Hartnell, and I have to admit to getting a laugh out of his grumbling suggestion that the coaching staff keeps Jack Johnson on the top pairing just to annoy the advanced stats crowd.

He still sees some weaknesses for the team (in particular the shootout), but identifies quite a few strengths, and predicts they’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot in the Metro once again.

I appreciate advanced stats, though I admit I’m not the hardest number cruncher out there, and found Hockey Abstract to be a valuable resource last year. This year’s edition looks equally promising, and I suspect that a lot of fans will find the work that the authors have put in to be interesting and useful. I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in using it as a “foot in the door” or a chance to peek into some of the attempts to create better ways to understand the game at every position.

You can order the book from Amazon, or grab an electronic copy through Payloadz in your choice of format.

Disclosure: The Cannon was provided a review copy by Mr. Vollman, who has also produced a guest post and several player usage charts for us over the past several seasons.