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Stat Shot review: Vollman succeeds by turning analytics into sport

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With Stat Shot: The Ultiamte Guide to Hockey Analytics, authors Rob Vollman, Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe broaden the analytics discourse for everyone, without boring anyone.

ECW Press | Rob Vollman

In January of 2015, I wrote an open letter to those framing debate in hockey (bloggers, journalists, broadcasters, general managers, whoever) that discussed the need to turn hockey's most divisive debate -- that of analytics and their application -- into a discussion, one that veered away from the caricatures that made up the 'fancy stats nerds' and the 'out-of-touch, old-school fans.'

Since then, the discussion has come a long way. It's no longer a debate the focusses on the personality of the individual on the other side rather than their ideas -- or at least those debates are fewer. More teams are beginning to adopt analytics as a primary tool for evaluating players and making decisions, and the average fan is better educated on the underlying numbers than he or she was two years ago.

And no one person has done a better job of trying to push the analytics conversation into the mainstream than Rob Vollman, author of Stat Shot: The Ultimate Guide to Hockey Analytics -- the third instalment of its kind in the Hockey Abstract series.

While a preliminary knowledge of hockey analytics and some of its terms and namesakes is required (whether the authors insist otherwise or not, and they do, but the book's glossary may not be enough to compensate for a reader who is taking interest for the first time), what makes Stat Shot interesting is the authors' ability to put all of the central ideas and processes into plain language while also utilizing statistics to have fun. Rather than bog the reader down in endless minutia, Stat Shot turns the world of hockey analytics into a game inside the game, fashioning the stats to carve into ageless debates while still finding new insights.

Hockey is supposed to be fun, and the only way to bring the average reader into the analytics discussion is to show them that the underlying numbers are a tool, a toy that lets them experiment with their game. More than in previous editions of hockey abstract, Vollman and co. succeed in making the math captivating, exciting even.

Vollman starts by doing it using analytics as the central actor in a massive game of armchair GM, identifying the numbers he'd use -- and why he'd use them -- in order to protect player value, avoid bad contracts, target above-replacement level players for replacement-level money, and maximize use of the cap. Building your dream team has always been fun for the sports fan inside all of us, in hockey or otherwise, and Vollman explains how he'd go about trying to beat the system. Sprinkled within his discussion of his model, Vollman does a wonderful job taking a break -- just for the fun of it, really -- to look at the All-Cap Team, or identify some of the riskiest contracts in the NHL (one of which is former Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf).

Beyond Vollman's virtual game of NHL Tycoon, his colleague and friend Iain Fyffe turns the draft, hockey's ultimate game of chance, into a calculated simulation that starts by identifying each junior league's mean and ends by creating a projection based off of production, height, position and sample size that aims to create a side-by-side ranking to work as another tool to evaluate draft eligible players alongside other publicly available rankings from scouts that have been in the rink. Like Vollman, Fyffe sprinkles in some largely irrelevant but really interesting games, using his tools to do things like identify why the 1998 draft failed (spoiler: too many hulking but untalented players were selected).

And if you weren't already finding yourself somehow hooked on a book about numbers, the trio of authors then step in to provide an analytical dive into what actually makes a player good at the eye-test-first archetypes that all hockey fans love to talk about: the faceoff specialist, the shot-blocker, the hitter, and the puck-stopper. Along the way, they find the best of the best in the world at their unique job, tearing away biases that too many people fall prey to (including rink-to-rink variations based on the set of eyes that track stats like hitting in each arena) to tell you just exactly why Carey Price is so good but also why goalies like Cory Schneider stand out despite not having a winning pedigree, or measure the likes of Leafs enforcer Matt Martin's adjusted hitting rate against the rest of the NHL's physical presences.

The authors don't present analytics as a black-and-white game of absolutes either. Each conclude their discussions by turning their toys into a cooperative experience that understands that there's still more for everyone to learn and asks the more in-the-know readers to help them develop better tools or challenge them on the mistakes they may have made along the way.

Throughout, if you're just getting into the world of analytics for the first time, you'll find Vollman's latest release a fun read filled with thoughtful new ideas. If you're a self-taught analytics expert, who is familiar with the concepts, tables and graphs that adorn the pages, you'll find Stat Shot a worthwhile exploration of some pre-existing research as well as some new, intriguing ideas with paths that run forward even if incomplete.