Hockey Abstract -- A Book Review

Dilip Vishwanat

Since SLGT was rated so high in the F-word/60 stat last season, I thought I would try to class up this blog a bit with some review of literature -- of the hockey variety of course. Of course.

When I was first asked to contribute dataviz to St. Louis Game Time, one of the first things I started to do was learn about what is sometimes referred to as "advanced" hockey stats. These are the stats that accomplished analysts and writers are using to help explain team and individual performance and which players an organization might try to acquire in order to improve their team. There was one problem as I started to do my research. Even though there are many blog posts and articles written about the variety of stats and how they are used and how they can contribute to our understanding of hockey, there was no clear "authoritative" source. Rob Vollman has undertaken that monumental task and wrote what could be described as the authoritative source for hockey statistics, the Hockey Abstract.

Vollman started writing about hockey back in 2001 when he first co-authored an article for the Hockey Journal. Since then he went on to help start the site Hockey Prospectus, and has authored dozens of articles for ESPN Insider. He is most known for his development of the Player Usage Charts that he publishes through his website HockeyAbstract.com.

The book starts out simply enough taking a look at the superlatives: best player, best defensive player, best goalie, best playmaker, best coach, etc. He breaks down each of these bests and explains the method and stats he uses in a clear and concise manner. And the best part is, if you are just a casual fan of hockey stats, he doesn't bog you down with the technical aspects of the statistics he uses. So for those of you who just want to know who Vollman thinks are the best of the best, you can read the first half of the book, ignore the last half, and it is still money well spent. Seriously.

However, for those of you who do want to develop a better understanding of the mechanics behind his analysis, the latter half of the book covers the how and why of "advanced" hockey stats. He provides the history of how the stats developed and how they got their ridiculous name (PDO was named after someone's internet forum handle). He even introduces a new stat he developed called Passes. For those of you who follow St. Louis Blues prospects in other leagues (pay attention Tomorrows Blues) Vollman explains the process of how you can translate the stats from other leagues into numbers you can use to compare against NHL stats. Finally he finishes the book with a "Do-It-All" index of NHL players.

St. Louis Blues fans will be interested to see how Blues players rank on some of these listings. In fact, that was the first thing I looked for on each best-of list. I would scroll the list looking for "St. Louis" and "STL" to see where the players were ranked by Vollman. In some cases I was a bit frustrated that our players were not in the top. In other cases, I was very happy to see the Blue Note ranked high (for instance in some of the goalie lists).

As you read though the book it is important to keep Vollman's intent in mind. He is up front in his introduction that this isn't mean to be a definitive analysis of every team and every player, but rather a starting point for those who love to talk and read about hockey. He states very plainly:

One of the most common and recurring criticisms of statistical analysis in hockey is that it isn't
comprehensive and foolproof, which is why I want to establish upfront that none of these
answers are meant to be definitive. After all, in several cases this book will be the first serious
attempt to answer certain questions this way. Plus, I love hockey arguments-I want to refuel
the conversations, not end them!

This is exactly what the world of hockey analytics needs right now and this is exactly what Vollman provides. But he didn't just write this for data geeks like me, he wrote it for the typical hockey fan who loves the game and loves the debate over who is better and who is the best.

You can buy the book either as a PDF or a book-book through Amazon.com

Let the conversations begin!

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