In the world of professional baseball, advanced statistical analysis has become more mainstream than many fans could have imagined. In the hockey world however, stats gurus are still playing catch-up, and while they have made remarkable progress both in the mainstream and in front offices, there is still plenty to be done.
That’s why the work of Hockey Abstract’s Rob Vollman is so impressive. Through his usage of statistics and analysis, Vollman is helping to make numbers more accessible to the average fan, and his annual Hockey Abstract guide, on sale now, is a must-read for those looking to gain a deeper understanding of the game.
Because of his stature in the community and his ability to explain things using numbers, we tapped Rob for this week’s edition of Five Questions. You can follow him on Twitter at @robvollmanNHL, and you can purchase the 2014 edition of Hockey Abstract on Amazon.
In the description of your book on Amazon, you say that the coming statistical revolution in hockey is similar to the one that occurred in baseball. With teams snapping up stats gurus and internet writers discussing the concepts, do you feel that stats in this sport are approaching the same level of mainstream acceptance that they have in the baseball world?
Heavens, no. Baseball has about a 30 year head start on hockey, which has allowed it to:
• Establish what works and what doesn't (and to what extent),
• Figure out how best to express these concepts and/or tie them to traditional analysis, and to
• Build a proven track record of success.
Hockey has a way to go on all three fronts, but it will get there. And yes, the fact that they are starting to admit their use of non-traditional consultants is an obvious sign that things are heading in the right direction.
However, to my knowledge only two of these most recent hires, New Jersey's Sunny Mehta and Florida's Brian MacDonald, were both at the director level, and involved true outsiders (i.e. those without previous professional experience with a hockey organization). The other hires amount to more of dipping a toe in the ocean, as opposed to cannonballs into the deep end.
A lot of stats gurus are very high on the Blackhawks, and rightfully so. They’re a team that emphasizes possession heavily, and their defense is really good at suppressing shots. If you had to pick a team right now that’s the model of what a sabermetrics guru would design, would it be the Blackhawks, or would it be another team?
I would select whichever team was in the city where my interview was being published. :)
But seriously, yes, from top to bottom the Chicago Blackhawks are a great example of how a blind adherent to statistics would build a team. They're an excellent and well-disciplined possession team with a roster full of players capable of taking on tough minutes. The only deviation is investing big money long-term in a goaltender who is not proven to be among the league's elite.
There are a couple of players on the Blackhawks that I would like to focus on here, and one of them is Marian Hossa. When Hawks fans see him, they see a ton of goals and a willingness to backcheck aggressively. As a dispassionate observer, do you agree with that assessment, and what do the numbers tell you about his game?
Looking strictly at the numbers, a dispassionate statistician would currently describe Marian Hossa as an offensive-minded winger who remains strong (though non-physical) in his own end. He's a highly consistent top-six scorer with a track record of success on the top power play unit and the second penalty kill. Best of all, his possession numbers are truly exceptional, even relative to his outstanding teammates.
What else? He's well-disciplined, a proven post-season performer, and can even occasionally chip in on the shootout. The only real concern with Hossa is the inevitable decline that may soon affect the 35-year-old Slovakian.
Another player I’m interested to get your opinion on is Jonathan Toews. He won the Selke in 2013 as the league’s best defensive forward, but a lot of stats gurus tend to pick Patrice Bergeron or Anze Kopitar over Toews when it comes to defense. Do you think he’s overrated in that area?
Defensive play is notoriously difficult to achieve with analytics, which places Toews anywhere from great to elite, depending on an individual's interpretation of the available data.
To me, Toews is an almost incomparably effective possession-based player, and easily one of the league's top five faceoff men. That means his opponents simply don't have the puck when he's on the ice, and therefore don't pose much of a threat. In fact, being such a strong scoring threat in his own right reduces opposition scoring that much more. Add it up, and Selke case can always be made for Toews. Does it even matter if a stronger one can sometimes be made for Bergeron?
Last question, so I’ll go a bit broader here. The Blackhawks are the betting favorites to not only win the Central Division, but to win the Stanley Cup as well. Out of the teams in the Central, which one do you see giving the Hawks the biggest challenge, and which team do you see being the biggest surprise out of the group, similar to the Avalanche last year?
I certainly agree that Chicago is the Stanley Cup favourite, for sure. Based solely on hockey analytics, their greatest Central division threat appears to be the St. Louis Blues. This is a strong possession team that has been right on the brink of being elite for years, and may have finally achieved that distinction with the addition of the summer's best free agent, Paul Stastny, and some shrewd off-the-board European signings like Jori Lehtera, Joakim Lindstrom, and Peter Mueller. If the underrated goalie Brian Elliott is the real deal, then the only real concerns is their checking line and mediocre possession-based play on the blue line.
As for the surprise team, keep an eye on the Nashville Predators. This is a team that has gradually built a strong possession-based roster, assembled a young and skilled blue line, and selected potentially the perfect coach to bring it all together, Peter Laviolette. They traded away veterans at the deadline for star prospects like Calle Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg, have drafted very well for years, and somehow got Derek Roy, Mike Ribeiro, and Anton Volchenkov for barely over $3.0 million. If they can build an effective shutdown line, avoid blue line injuries, and have a bounceback season from Pekka Rinne, then watch out!