August is arguably the most dead month for hockey. All the big-ticket UFAs are signed (except Jaromir Jagr) and preseason games are a month away. Phil Kessel is eating hot dogs out of the Stanley Cup and our own Golden Knights are out in hockey’s no-mans-land helping to sell the game.
However, there is little that could get you right back in the hockey mindset as the latest edition of Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract.
Vollman, a writer for both ESPN Insider and NHL.com, is a pioneering member of the analytics community who has a keen eye for novel ways to interpret the on-ice product while still being humble about the field’s present limitations.
In the book, one can find team-by-team breakdowns, that highlight the strengths and weakness of team’s defensive depth, shutdown lines and shootout abilities, just to name a few, as well as a host of essays by other big names in the field of fancy stats, like Matt Cane and Tom Awad. These essays use the data to answer some pretty fun questions like “How Much Cap Space Would a Team Like the 1984-85 Oilers Need Today?” and “Why Does Washington Always Lose in the Playoffs?”
Beyond that, there are several pages dedicated to predicting injuries as well as a deep dive into No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier. Ever wanted to know who the best hitter was in the league? How about what makes a power play successful? Does the notion of seeing why some rebuilds fail do anything for you? Vollman has you covered.
One of the key elements of the book—as well as one of Vollman’s own creations—are the player-usage charts, which allow you at a quick glance to see a player’s ability to drive play, whether or not he was sheltered, and his quality of competition all in one handy graphic. Hockey Abstract 2017 has these for all 31 teams, and there is a lot we can learn from Vegas’ chart.
For example, although Colin Miller may have excellent possession numbers, that may be due to weak competition and friendly zone starts. Cody Eakin, on the other hand, is Miller’s opposite in every facet. The chart also shows James Neal and Jonathan Marchessault as wise candidates for the top line and their veteran defensemen selections as black holes in the possession universe. For an idea of what these look like, you can check them out on Vollman’s website here.
Vollman eventually concludes, “Vegas could have built a contender, but seemed focused on semi-tanking,” which lines up with a lot of what we have been saying here at Knights On Ice. He also offers up that Gerard Gallant’s presence behind the bench may be worth an additional five points in the standings.
I shall stop there, as it would not be right to give away too much of Mr. Vollman’s secret sauce, but suffice it to say that this volume is an integral part of any self-respecting hockey fan’s collection.
If there is one downside to the tome, it is that it is not particularly eye-catching, opting for straight-forward presentation of data and research over slick design, although there are a few illustrations courtesy of Josh Smith. The book is not quite as cold as a spreadsheet, but not too far removed either. Fortunately, Vollman does spice things up with a little humor from time to time, and besides, if you are looking for something flashy, chances are you would not have clicked on this post.