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Book Review: Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract 2014

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Rob Vollman surprised me with a copy of a new book: Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract 2014. It features Iain Fyffe, Tom Awad, team essays, and the use of more analytics to probe questions by many hockey fans. This is a review of the book.

Last year, Rob Vollman of Hockey ProspectusBleacher ReportDobber Hockey, a lot of other sites and his own Hockey Abstract released Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract.  It was a compendium of the advanced statistics that have grown out of the online hockey community over the past few years.  Vollman utilized these concepts while answering common questions fans wonder to present what he hoped would be a "fun and informative book"  In my review, I agreed that he accomplished this goal and recommended the book. I didn't expect was a second book, so it was a surprise to see him email a copy of a 2014 version of his book.   What does one do for a sequel?   After reading Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract 2014, there was plenty to add and nearly all of it is worth your time reading.

Disclosure: I received a free PDF copy of the book directly from Vollman himself in early August.  He did specifically not ask for a review nor did I ask him for a copy.  It is true that I have been part of the Hockey Prospectus annuals along with Vollman, but we have not worked together directly on it.  I have since only contacted him to thank him for the book and to ask whether I can use a picture of the cover in this post.  He said I could and sent some pictures, one of which I used.   (As an aside, like for those who write about video games online, let me point out that this is a disclosure.  It's how you state things like relationships with the subject for your reader's sake.  This kind of ethical transparency allows your audience - who you should not insult, by the way - to know where you stand so you're not just giving something or someone attention in exchange for favors, bribes, friendship, etc.)

Now that disclosure is out of the way, the two biggest additions to the book are right on the front cover: Iain Fyffe and Tom Awad.  If you're a hockey historian, have followed hockey analytics for years, and/or have ESPN Insider, then you most likely know who they are. Fyffe and Awad have been a big part of Hockey Prospectus along with Vollman and both have contributed plenty to this book.   By bringing both on, Vollman's second book contains impressive sections that are almost worth the price of the book alone.  What's more is that they both adhere to the goal Vollman set out in his first book: to present deeper arguments with stats without being lecturing.

Fyffe, who you can check out at Hockey Historysis, provides an absolutely wonderful chapter on the Hockey Hall of Fame's standards.  The usual arguments about whether someone is Hall of Fame worthy relies on comparisons to other players in the Hall.  Fyffe figured out what I think is a good set of implicit standards for the Hall of Fame based on what they've decided. The result is the Inductinator, and he applies it for every subset of players not yet enshrined in Toronto based on who did get in.  It's based on what has been the apparent criteria as opposed what it should be, an important distinction Fyffe makes from the start.  From future players (it shouldn't surprise you that Martin Brodeur is a mortal lock) all the way to the 1929-1945 era of the NHL.  It leads off the book and sets the tone right away.  It's my second favorite chapter.   Fyffe has a later chapter on the value of enforcers, which is OK but his Hockey Hall of Fame chapter is his shining moment (period?) in the book.

My favorite follows it: Tom Awad on the subject of "shot quality."   Awad breaks down the larger subject into components and explains the effect of each one.  His use of graphs are used to bolster his reasoning and arguments, which are presented plainly.  After which, he uses the information to highlight what effect this would have on last year's teams based on expected results - with a special focus on Boston.  The conclusions are enlightening, especially to someone who's unfamiliar or haven't really delved into the subject in quite some time (e.g. me, though I wasn't totally surprised - it was a good refresher).  Awad has a following chapter on score effects, which is also similarly good in terms of presentation and reasoning.  However, I preferred the one on quality as that's a common concept bandied about as to why a team does well despite it's true impact.

After those chapters, the book heads into familiar territory with chapters on "What makes good players good," with individual chapters focusing on forwards, defensemen, and goaltenders.   However, it is not like last year's book that focused on top players.  Instead, it's identifying what's expected by tiers of players based on their ice time (first tier play the most, second tier behind them, etc.).  Each are handled by Awad as he breaks it down by multiple criteria from production to special teams to penalties.   It's a bit of a clumsy topic, but Awad clearly points out the main conclusions by highlighting the different on-ice results between those who play a lot and those who don't.

You may have noticed that I've discussed close to a third of the book and I didn't get to Vollman himself yet.  Vollman's writing is the meat of the book.  He's written an essay for all 30 teams with assessments including player charts and a list of twelve categories for ranking purposes.  The essays themselves are not particularly long but they did not seem incomplete.  Based on my reading, they were largely written after free agency settled so they are relevant today. The Devils essay is as good as a summary of how they are heading into the summer as I have read yet.  The player charts are usually a good welcome, but some were a little tricky to read when bubbles were close together, given how defensemen were italicized and the charts are in black-and-white. But that's a function of the chart itself.

Vollman also follows the tone of last year's Hockey Abstract with chapters focusing on questions fans commonly discuss.  This year's book does the same regarding who draws penalties, who's the best goal scorer, who's the best penalty killer, and who's the best power play play specialist. The latter is the most interesting as Vollman makes separate cases for a number of players, furthering the larger point is that it's a conversation as opposed to a definitive answer.   Vollman also has a section focusing goaltender analytics, something he admitted he glossed over in his first book.  So quality starts, home plate (think scoring chance) save percentage, and focusing on the shootout get their due.

The book concludes with a series of questions that aren't answered in depth to warrant a separate chapter. Here, Vollman goes over the value of zone entries and exits, passing estimates, Tom Awad's Delta stat, and why his own predictions from last season faltered.   I was glad Vollman did devote a few pages to entries and exits. I do believe it'll one of the next big steps towards realizing why some teams are more successful than others at possession. When Corey Sznajder, who's been tracking every single game from last season for exits and entries, releases his full results, it will be the catalyst for this topic.   Vollman's part on passing estimates was curious.  Ryan, who actually counted Devils passes at evens last season, actually criticized the estimates quite fairly earlier this summer. To Vollman's credit, he cited that very post (Vollman knows it since he commented on that very post.) and noted that stating that actual counting would supersede an estimate.   As a whole, I liked this section touching on topics that didn't warrant their own sections.   It's a proper way to close out the book.

Given the year in the title, I suspect Vollman plans to turn Hockey Abstract into an annual.  If so, then the team essays will continue to be a feature of the book.   The essays are good and Vollman clearly knows how to handle writing about 30 teams from a big-picture perspective without lacking too much detail.  However, the main draw of both Hockey Abstract are the chapters focusing on analytics and their usage.  If there were any disappointments I had (beyond minor things like tables being cut off in the PDF version), it was in the lack of material on concepts like zone starts and their effect on possession, quality of teammates, and quality of competition.  Perhaps they will be covered in 2015, assuming there will be one.  Vollman definitely gets around enough in the world of hockey writing so any new developments will also come.   And the additions of Fyffe and Awad took the book to another level, so others can be brought in to make future books just as deep.

Ultimately, I have to recommend Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract 2014 to any hockey fan interested in the game beyond what they see.  Vollman and company accomplish the original goal of presenting these concepts without being like a text book.  There's fantastic content right from the get-go and throughout the majority of the 307 pages.   Speaking as someone who's very familiar with advanced stats, it definitely does not bore those who are similarly familiar. It won't bore someone who's still picking all this up.  I recommend the PDF version over the print version, between the two.  Vollman, Awad, and Fyffe cite many websites for reference to where they got all of this information, which is fantastic for the reader who wants to know the sources.  A PDF allows someone to copy and paste the URL easily to find it, a printed book does not.  Regardless on which you choose, it's worth the read.  If the plan is to make it an annual, I'm confident Vollman will build on the next Hockey Abstract as 2014 built on top of the first one.

If you're interested in the book, you can find more details on where to get it at this page at Vollman's Hockey Abstract site. If you've read the book, then please share what you thought about it in the comments.  If you plan to read it or have any questions, those are welcome too. Thank you for reading.