People on Twitter often ask us for some kind of resource that explains advanced statistics in hockey. From now on, Robert Vollman’s Hockey Abstract will be my go-to answer. Vollman. In 242 pages of crystal-clear prose, Vollman uses age-old debates like “who is the most undervalued player?” and “who is the best defensive forward?” to introduce statistical metrics like Fenwick and Goals Versus Threshold in a way that will make sense to any level of reader.
Free of bombast or antagonism that might put off casual fans, Vollman’s tone is always cheerful and conversational. The creator of the brilliant player usage charts you’ve seen on RMNB and Japers Rink, Vollman revisits and re-stokes classic barroom debates, in the process delivering both a primer on statistical analysis and a crash course on the habits of a highly successful hockey player. It’s a great read if you’re curious about player evaluation or if you just wanna have some extra ammo next time you’re talking hockey with some hardcore fans. And obviously, nerds will love this book.
But I think Hockey Abstract has some special value for Caps fans in particular. The book is packed with lists of guys you wish were on your team’s roster– containing bunches of Caps. Former Caps.
Critics of George McPhee might be of two minds when reading Hockey Abstract. First, it’ll be readily apparently that McPhee has done well signing undervalued players throughout his tenure. But pretty much all of those players have since left the team.
It begins with a coach, actually. Bruce Boudreau takes a heady spot among the top-20 best coaches of all time (based on an admittedly short career so far). Later, you’ll see names like “Danger” Dave Steckel (currently unsigned!), Boyd Gordon (who is no longer undervalued in Edmonton), and Wojtek Wolski (now raking in cash in the KHL). Each of those players has since left Washington, probably to the club’s detriment. Vollman uses several methods– the pros and cons of each are carefully measured– to identify them and others as some of the league’s hidden gems, an exercise familiar to some as Moneyball.
But Hockey Abstract isn’t strictly about so-called #fancystats (which most frequently involve such fancy calculations as addition and subtraction) or market inefficiencies. Vollman’s goals are practical, not academic, and his style is always approachable and engaging. I tore through the book in one cross-country flight, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Hockey Abstract delivers a few understated but provocative ideas that merit consideration. Vollman begins with a discussion of two factors used to evaluate how useful a certain statistic may be: how closely it correlates to winning, and how likely it is to persist from year to year. For example, high shooting percentage obviously leads to winning games, but it’s notoriously hard to maintain from year to year, which is why some call it a luck-driven stat. Luck can be controversial for some fans, but Vollman makes an even-handed case for calling it such here.
For example, overtime wins, we learn, are essentially a coin toss in the NHL, as teams seem incapable of maintaining their overtime win percentage from year to year. This reveals a flaw in league’s oft-maligned point system. Playing devil’s advocate, Vollman asks an interesting question: why doesn’t a team play for the tie every time, guarantee themselves 82 standings points in the process, and then hope for a couple spare “loser points” to make the playoffs? It’s a maddeningly plausible case, and enough fuel for the fire to burn down the league’s current standings formulation.
Vollman also critiques the league’s stat-collecting system, called RTSS, which tracks things like takeaways and blocks. RTSS is frustratingly inconsistent from rink to rink, and the stats themselves don’t seem to hold much value in identifying strong players. Instead, Vollman dons a mad scientist outfit and introduces the Passes stat to figure out who are the league’s best playmakers (ohai, Nick Backstrom). Passes are fascinating, and we already know that the Capitals track a similar stat, which they call Touches (and refuse to talk about with me for understandable reasons). It’d be great to see wider adoption and analysis of microevents like these– particularly in a publicly available database– you know, like baseball has been doing for the last 100 years.
I don’t want to make Hockey Abstract out to be a dry, academic treatise on market inefficiencies and mathematical formulae. It’s not. Actually, the most entertaining part of the book is a litany of the most uneven trades in history, a list in which Mike Milbury’s name appears often. Schadenfreude wasn’t a virtue I was looking for in Vollman’s book, and yet I found it anyway– along with a whole bunch of hockey smarts and enough talking points to dominate my next barroom hockey debate.
Hockey Abstract is a perfect read for anyone eager to learn about hockey statistics for the first time — or anyone who is just jonesing for some puck talk in the middle of August.
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