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Hockey Abstract 2014: The Rosetta Stone of advanced hockey stats

FFH reviews Rob Vollman's new book Hockey Abstract 2014 as the wave of advanced stats in hockey continues to grow.

The cover of Hockey Abstract 2014 edition
The cover of Hockey Abstract 2014 edition

The world of advanced stats in hockey has changed dramatically. Gone are the days where advanced analytics are widely laughed at and gone (to work for NHL teams) are some of the pioneers who helped bring #FancyStats out of the dark ages.

The fight for awareness, not blind acceptance, continues.

Advanced stats have flaws and limitations - no reputable analyst claims otherwise - but awareness of these analytics and of an alternative way to view the sport we all love is something everyone should at least give a chance.

For those interested in why things happen on the ice and the process that leads to the end result, there is no better way to dive head-first into exploring this new frontier than Rob Vollman's new book: Hockey Abstract 2014.

Whether you consider yourself an expert or beginner in the world of advanced stats, Vollman's new book acts as a Rosetta Stone, of sorts, written in language that satiates the desires of stats nerds and novices alike.

Vollman was a founding writer for Hockey Prospectus and is best known for his player usage charts. He has contributed to ESPN as well as co-authoring three books: Hockey Prospectus 2010-2011Hockey Prospectus 2011-2012 and Hockey Prospectus 2012-2013, as well as writing the first incarnation of the Hockey Abstract series.

New to this year's version is the addition of noted advanced stats gurus Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe, who bring new perspectives to topics such as score effects, shot quality and the value of enforcers. Hockey Abstract 2014's broad appeal is not limited to just the authors.

What makes this book special is the crossover appeal it has with its various sections. Even the most anti-stats person can find enjoyment in Fyffe's Hall of Fame standards section which walks the reader through implicit patterns Hockey Hall of Fame voters have based on previous inductions. Each subsection (goaltenders, defensemen, forward, pre-expansion, post-expansion, pre-war, post-war) boils down all the math into a simple "Inductinator Score" with 100 being the baseline for Hall of Fame induction. Fyffe then uses those same numbers to projected potential future Hall of Famers. All the math is explained, but it is simplified enough to place in just a couple paragraphs while still explaining where and why the statistical emphasis lies in the chosen categories.

While the section clearly explains that it is attempting to show a reason for what has already happened, not what ought to happen, I do wonder if the same criteria used to meet the 100 Inductinator Score in the past will hold up in the future. The scores indicate that very few defensemen and goaltenders will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in the near future compared to forwards, which leads one to ponder the possibility of a new era emerging where standards for those positions are lowered.

For those who have been troubled by the debate quantity vs. quality in regards to possession stats, Awad delves into the controversial topic of shot quality and whether it even exists, and if it does, what impact it has. Both of those questions are vitally important to the discussion and Awad answers them both.

Awad tackles the topic of score effects, bring to light not only what metrics like Corsi Close or Fenwick Close mean, but the reason why analysts use them and find them more useful. This section doesn't just tell you what is logical, it gives the numbers to back up why it is logical.

When fans hear about things like regression models, t-tests or phrases like "regress to the mean," a wall of defense comes up with the words "HUMAN ELEMENT" graffitied on that wall in big bold letters. While the human element of advanced stats is not often explained correctly, Hockey Abstract 2014's "What Makes Good Players Good?" section explains how talent and ability mix with what is measured in advanced stats to explain how the final product came to be.

I am personally very pleased to see this section included in the book because I believe one of the biggest misconceptions about advanced stats lies in the belief that good players are indistinguishable from average players in advanced analytics. Awad walks the reader through a multitude of factors that show tendencies of what good players do to be good.

Hockey Abstract 2014 provides a ton of content from Vollman's revised look at analytics in goaltending to the value of enforcers in today's NHL to the ultra-popular Player Usage Charts and team essays for every team in the league (arguably worth the price of the book alone).

Much like last year's edition, the fun of advanced analytics comes into play as Vollman attempts to determine who the best goal scorers, penalty killers, penalty drawers and power play specialists are. There is a brief Q&A session near the end of the book as well as a full glossary and index for easy referencing.

The future is now in the world of advanced stats in hockey. Teams openly use them, journalists openly use them, players openly talk about them. Whether you are just dipping your toes in the water or are already swimming in the deep end, Hockey Abstract 2014 is a great resource and an enjoyable read.

It is important to keep abreast to these changes even if you have no interest in using them yourself. If you want a non-intimidating, non-judgmental way to learn more about your favorite sport, pick up a copy.

You can purchase Hockey Abstract 2014 as a book or PDF here.

Disclaimer: Five for Howling was provided a reviewer copy of the PDF edition by the author.