Sabre Noise Spotlight: Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract


Confession time, Sabre Noise readers: I’m not much of a stats guy.  Sure, I will refer to some of the more accessible statistics – goals, assists, points, plus/minus, goals against average, save percentage, etc. – in order to provide a frame of reference that allows you and I to be on the same page, but that’s about it.  I have never actively researched a player’s Corsi rating, or a team’s Fenwick number, or even a team’s player usage charts.  I prefer to discuss the game of hockey based on what I saw when I watched a game, not what data I read days, weeks, or even months after that game took place.

All of which is why, dear readers, I am the perfect candidate to write a book review of Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract, a copy of which I was given following my post, The Buffalo Sabres Could Be The Worst Team In The NHL In The 2013-2014 Seasonthanks to the author himself, Rob Vollman.  After all, Mr. Vollman’s book is only going to be considered a success if it can appeal to die hard stat-heads AND the average hockey fan who is mildly curious, albeit skeptically, about statistical analytics.  I was nothing if not skeptically curious about statistical analysis last week, so when Mr. Vollman contacted me via Twitter and offered to allow me to review his book, I jumped at the chance to see why so many fans of stat-based discussion were big on this book.

Here’s what I found out.

Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract was written with the intention of giving hockey its very own version of Bill James’ Baseball Abstract, which was immortalized in the book (and subsequent movie) Moneyball.  Given the fact that James’ annual publication transformed the sport of major league baseball, this is quite an ambitious goal, but Vollman is up to the task, mostly because he is smart enough to ground the majority of his statistics-based discussions in topics that every hockey fan can get excited about.  In other words, instead of just droning on and on about the research and methodology of statistical analysis and how it pertains to hockey, Vollman allows his reader to learn about concepts such as Corsi ratings, Fenwick numbers, and Player Usage Charts by first posing down-to-earth questions such as, who is the best player in hockey today?  Who is the best playmaker?  Who is the best goalie?  And perhaps the most discussed chapter in the entire book, who will finish first next year?  Ask any of those questions while you’re out at the sports bar and you’re sure to get all sorts of heated debates, which is why I feel it was damn-near genius of Vollman to begin the book by dedicating a chapter to each of those questions.  Providing proof that statistical analysis can give us definitive answers to the sorts of questions all hockey fans ask ourselves everyday truly is the easiest way to get the average fan feeling comfortable about these concepts, and clearly Vollman understood that.

In addition to using popular questions as a means to illustrate the value of statistical analysis in hockey, Vollman’s personal style of writing makes it easy to digest the concepts he’s feeding you.  You can tell he was clearly aiming for reaching the “average” hockey fan when he sat down to write this book, as he manages to successfully blend occasionally mind-numbing barrages of statistics with his personal views and sense of humor.  The example that sticks out to me the most is, during his chapter on who is the best coach, Vollman closed his observation that Chicago Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville recently passed St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock as the best active coach today by noting, “Clearly, moustaches are important.”   Doses of humor and human-sounding observations routinely keep the book from being simply just a collection of tables, charts, and numbers ad infinitum, which again proves my point that Vollman has written a book that is meant to be, and for the most part truly is, accessible to every fan of hockey.

The only true area of improvement I would suggest for future versions of this book, and it has nothing to do with the subject matter or the author himself, is that a book such as this almost needs to be converted into an e-book that you would read on a tablet.  Trust me: as an English teacher, I am a fan of the old-fashioned, “I want to actually hold the book and turn the pages” approach to reading.   I am never a fan of using a tablet to read, which is how I had to read this copy since I was given a pdf version of it.  However, the more I read, the more I found myself thinking, “Man, I wish there were links or videos embedded in this book!”  Links to other chapters would have been especially nice, since there are numerous times early on in the book in which Vollman references a measurementin passing, saying that he will dedicate more to that stat in a later chapter.  I appreciate what he is trying to do – namely, keep the explanations from being so overwhelming that it becomes impossible to see the real-life applications of the methodology – but I cannot imagine trying to read this book without being able to skip back and forth pretty quickly.  (At least with the pdf form I could use the “Go To” page feature to jump ahead, then return to my current position.)  Like I said, this is not a complaint, just a way to improve the reading experience.

Is this book well-written and accessible?  Yes.  Does it succeed in showing you how and why statistical analysis can and should be used in hockey?  Yes.  Is this book for everyone?   Eh. . . at the end of the day, accessible or no, the book is still about stats, which either interests you, or it doesn’t.  I’ll be the first person to admit: if I had not been prepping for a book review, this is the sort of book I would have read small chunks at a time.  It is fascinating to see how statistics can be used to actually prove (for the most part) arguments such as who is the best goaltender playing today, and the player usage charts were extremely eye-opening.  (If the Buffalo Sabres are not using player usage charts yet, they are only hurting themselves, as these are very beneficial tools on which every NHL team should rely.)   This book is a wonderful resource, but it’s the sort of book I would pull off the shelf only when I needed it.  If you read it straight through you’ll start seeing the world of hockey in terms of tables and colored bubbles, instead of the human game that it is.   After all, statistics can only exist because of the players who play the game, which is why sometimes it’s more fun to rely on your gut instincts when it comes to discussing these hot topics.  At the very least, Vollman’s book provides us with another way to view the game, and a great resource to consult once terms such as Corsi and Fenwick become almost as common as +/- and GAA.

Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract can be purchased in hardcover form at Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/Rob-Vollmans-Hockey-Abstract-Vollman/dp/1490493034 or in PDF form at http://store.payloadz.com/details/1778598-ebooks-sports-rob-vollmans-hockey-abstract.html.

Tags: Featured NHL Popular Rob Vollman

  • Kevin

    Excellent report. I will have to purchase the book. Does it come out in any other form? Like Kindle Readers?

    • http://SabreNoise.com/ Richard Spalding

      Those are the only two forms I know of, but your Kindle should be able to handle a PDF, right? I know my Nook does (but I haven’t used it in over a year!).

  • Tim Bayer

    Thanks for the review. It’s a book that’s been on my radar and hope to purchase and read soon. My only problem is you seem to perpetuate a “us vs. them” mentality between people who use statistics and people who “just watch the games”. When, in reality, nobody just watches the games. The game of hockey comes down to who has the bigger number on the scoreboard at the end of it, so therefore it is a “numbers” game, even if that term doesn’t appeal to you. All hockey fans love watching hockey, obviously. It’s about determining which statistics (be it goals, Corsi, blocked shots, hits, etc.) are important and relevant to predicting a team’s future success, and which ones aren’t. There has been a lot of important work lately by many people smarter than me (including Vollman) figuring this stuff out. Obviously, there is still much work to be done. There are many intangibles which we don’t, at the moment, have any way of measuring. For example, I don’t believe fighting has any impact on a team’s success, while others (like Don Cherry) do. There’s data that shows teams are actually more likely to give up the next goal after they “win” a fight then score one. But nevertheless, guys like Cherry will argue until they die that fighting is important. It’s important to question these “gut instincts” as well as the numbers instead of throwing away things that don’t fit your personal beliefs. Anyway, I’m just sick of the “us vs. them” mentality that creeps in to these kinds of discussions, when we should be trying to build on what we know with hard evidence. Kudos to Vollman for his work towards achieving that goal.

    • http://SabreNoise.com/ Richard Spalding

      Thanks for the read! I see your point, so I thank you for explaining it! I’m not trying to perpetuate any “us vs. them” stance simply because I’m not confrontational. I have no problems with people who really dig in and analyze statistics. Personally, though, I’m not a believer in statistical analysis, simply because a lot of these statistics come after the fact and only prove what we already knew. Using statistics to tell me that Sidney Crosby is probably the best player in the NHL is entirely unnecessary; it’s simply a mathematical way of showing me what I already knew. Likewsie with a player usage chart that shows me that the Sedin twins are strategically used in mostly offensive situations against lesser talent. Just looking at Vancouver’s playoffs success showed me that. The Oakland As became known for “revolutionizing” baseball with this sort of approach – but the As have not won a championship with Billy Beane at the helm, and failed to make the playoffs a number of times. Statistical analysis was needed to prove Wayne Gretzky was the Great one, or that his Oilers would win a bunch of championships. I enjoyed Vollman’s book and appreciate his work greatly. It’s just that not everyone wants to study numbers; many people just want to enjoy the game. Looking at numbers dehumanizes the activity for some people, so like it or not, not everyone is going to enjoy reading this book. Sorry for the lengthy response, but thank you for pointing out what you noticed in my review!

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