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STAT SHOT: The ideal any-fan’s guide to hockey analytics

No matter how you feel about stats’ impact on the game, there’s something here for you.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Islanders - Game Four
Just preparing to dominate some home plate action.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In the last decade’s overall movement toward more informative, sometimes much more complex hockey statistics than the old G-A-PTS and GAA-W-L, a lot of information useful to any fan has been obscured by needless wars between traditionalists and the new wave of analysts.

One stats purveyor who has consistently risen above that fray to simply make new stats more usable and approachable to the average fan is Rob Vollman. The same is largely true of his co-writers Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe,

And that carries through “Stat Shot: The Ultimate Guide to Hockey Analytics” by Vollman et al from Hockey Abstract.

As a consumer but not a producer of “advanced” stats, I don’t know enough about hockey analytics to judge the claim of “ultimate” guide. But as an avid hockey fan who has one foot in the old-timer’s camp and one foot in the camp of Give Me The Best Info, Period, I can attest to how accesibaly, thoughtfully, and usefully put together this guide is.

A simple plea: If you are the type who is nostalgic for the old days of sport when you didn’t know any better than what your own eyes told you to augment what appears on the back of a player card, but aware enough of the value of new stats to offer new insights into the game, then this is indeed an ultimate guide.

Overall, the book does a great job of explaining the thinking, testing and confidence in myriad measures, some you’ll surely have heard of and some that are probably new to you. Individually, its chapters offers interesting insights on a range of topics from the value of shot-blocking, faceoffs and hits, to ranking goalies and evaluating junior prospects, defensive forwards and concepts of team building in a salary cap age.

So, if you dismiss analytics because its proponents routinely dismiss hits and shot blocks, this is a volume for you. It doesn’t refute those dismissals, but it does take an honest look at where the true value lies and where the exaggerated value begins.

Of interest, though the book was finalized before the Shea Weber-P.K. Subban trade, its analysis of the Weber-era Nashville blueline goes a long way to explaining why analytics people were so shocked that Montreal made that trade.

In the same chapter, there’s an excellent distillation of a concept that predates analytics, but which is only backed up by the book’s research: In the area of top forward vs. a top defenseman (think: Denis Savard for Chris Chelios), the better value is almost always in the defenseman:

“the absence of a typical top-pairing option could cost a team 26 goals over an entire season, farm more than the 10 goals when missing a top-line forward. Since both types of players are essentially paid the same, there’s a real opportunity for teams to improve by building out from the blueline.”

But since this is an Islanders site, some Isles-focused topics or mentions in the book include:

  • A variety of measures have both Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss in that second tier of goalies just below the game’s handful of super elite goalies. (e.g. before having a career year with the Isles, Greiss was already up with Cory Schneider and Braden Holtby in excelling against shots from the prime “home plate” area in the slot.)
  • An in-depth exploration of the Thomas Vanek-Matt Moulson trade, both with the current information and with hindsight. Neither has done well in the aftermath — though Vanek at least excelled next to John Tavares and Kyle Okposo — but this book spends several pages exploring how these are two very different players, and how there are good arguments for and against the trade.
  • A pretty straight-forward “Projectinator” model for evaluating junior prospects, which if followed would do better than many teams have done using a lot more resources. (e.g. insightful projections ranging from the John Tavares level to Chris Campoli). (An aside to any Blues fans reading this: Their model put 2006 #1 pick Erik Johnson at...the bottom of the first round. Ouch.)
  • The same model, applied to the 2004 draft, also ranked offseason signing Andrew Ladd really well as Rob Schremp...and Cam Barker. Alright, it’s not perfect, but the explanations behind it are highly informative.

Anyway, the range of topics covered is wide, and the book is suitable for perusing any chapter in any order. As I close this review I notice the back cover features praise from voices as diverse as Bob McKenzie (an open-minded old schooler), Damien Cox (notorious curmudgeon) and progressive analytics adherents like Craig Custance of ESPN, Jeff Marek of Sportsnet, and Jim Nill of the Dallas Stars (and formerly, the Red Wings).

So maybe don’t take my word for it? Take theirs.