The folks over at Hockey Prospectus (formerly Puck Prospectus) recently published their second annual season preview. I picked up the pdf version for $9.90; it can also be purchased in old fashioned book form for $19.95 (Cdn$20.95).
To assist you in digesting my review, a bit about my background as it relates to advanced hockey stats and my knowledge of Hockey Prospectus.
I started this blog a little over two years ago with a goal to write about sports with a statistical slant. Depending on the season I write about hockey, baseball, football, golf, tennis, and the occasional piece on fantasy strategy. The statistical slant comes and goes depending on my general level of curiosity towards the sports world.
My statistics based hockey writing is often derivative work based on the Player Contribution model developed by Alan Ryder. I have read a number of articles on Corsi, Fenwick, quality of competition and similar advanced stats, though I confess the overall discussion never quite clicked for me.
I became aware of Hockey Prospectus soon after it appeared as a child of the Baseball Prospectus family. I have read the Baseball Prospectus Annual for several years as part of my fantasy baseball draft preparations. A couple of years ago, I added the Football Outsiders Annual and KUBIAK spreadsheet to my annual fantasy football draft preparations.
While the folks at Hockey Prospectus aren’t the only ones trying to gain new insight into the game of hockey, they are arguably the best organized in terms of sharing their work with the masses.
With the above background in place, I wanted and expected several keys things out of my read of the Hockey Prospectus Annual:
- A review of every team, including insights on last year and what to expect this year;
- Statistical information on every player on each team with enough 2011-2012 projected stats to help shape my fantasy hockey draft strategy *;
- Background information on the various advanced hockey statistics to enhance my understanding and comfort with them;
- A few interesting articles containing new research; and
- A book that was written with a healthy dose of humour (a hallmark of the Baseball Prospectus).
* I do not play nearly as much fantasy sports as this post is indicating. One baseball league, two football leagues and one hockey league. In truth, I do not like fantasy hockey but joined a league last year to keep in touch with some old friends. I do not draft any Oilers or any Flames so I can freely cheer for the Oilers and avoid cheering for the Flames. Just as hockey is behind on the statistical revolution, it would seem many fantasy hockey players lack the sophistication of those that have played fantasy baseball and football for years, small sample sizes be damned.
Overall, I was really impressed with the book. Though it is only year two for the annual review, it already contains many of the elements that have made the Baseball Prospectus so popular. It had the humour that I was looking for which is essential to getting through a 489 book containing a lot of statistical language that was fairly new to me.
For me, the biggest strength of the book was the four to five page team reviews for each NHL team. In many cases, I thought the insight was better than what I typically have found in the Baseball Prospectus books. The Anaheim Ducks, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers review were three of my favourites. Not to spoil your read, but the Flyers review did a great job of helping me understand the likely implications of the major moves made during this past offseason.
After each team review was a review of every player who suited up for the team last year, indicating their 2011-2012 team to assist in identifying players who had changed address over the offseason. Each player was presented through a table looking back at the past three years of performance and a projection for the upcoming season. A small commentary accompanied each table.
I found that the commentaries were insightful, often using stats to quickly paint a picture of the players’ past and future. For example, the commentary might reference a usual drop in shooting percentage to indicate a rebound year was possible.
It did seem to me that the commentaries sometimes contradicted the player table. I do not fault the commentary writers for this and found the player tables were the one weakness in the book. In addition to a listing of the season, team and player’s age, each table contained twelve statistics: games played, goals, assists, points, +/-, average ice time at even strength, power play and shorthanded, plus four stats tied into Hockey Prospectus’ GVT (“Goals Versus Threshold”) analysis.
The three average ice time figures were strange given they were rarely, if ever, discussed in the book. Instead, the authors could have put in zone start information which was often used to characterize how a player was used.
The four GVT columns could have been reduced to a single total, or a listing of offensive and defensive GVT. I would have preferred the GVT information be in a table in the team overview, painting a picture of the offensive and defensive contributors for each team.
While I understand GVT to be the most significant output of Hockey Prospectus thus far, they did not need to allocate GVT a third of the table. I found it interesting that the player commentaries almost never referenced GVT numbers. As a result, I did not finish the book with a very good grasp of GVT despite the essay introduction on the topic at the start of the book.
With the newly created space in the player table, I would have put in Corsi numbers, quality of competition, shots and shooting percentage. These items were often referenced in the book and I think the player tables would have sung if they data presented were different. As presented, I really could not gain insight into each player’s performance, nor could I identify trends to assist me with my fantasy hockey preparations.
Despite the weakness above, the book still met my third goal of better understanding the various advanced stats being used in hockey. I finished the book with a much, much better appreciation for the importance of puck possession and the implications of zone starts and quality of competition on a player’s counting stats. There was also some good stuff on in game strategy and player usage.
Wrapping up my review of the book, it also satisfied my desire to read a few articles on recent work. Topics included Winnipeg’s hockey history, Corsi revisited, advanced faceoff metrics and goaltender quality starts. The written portion of the book ends with an overview of the top 100 prospects in hockey. I wish I had seen a couple more Edmonton Oilers on that list, but it was still an interesting read.
Given that hockey is about 30 years behind baseball in terms of advanced statistical analysis, the biggest challenge for the writers is the fact they are speaking a language that is unfamiliar to many who will read the book. Advanced stats only work when the numbers convey meaning and tell a story. On this critical point, the book scores.
Overall, I strongly recommend this book for all fans of hockey. Even if you have no interest in advanced stats, the team overviews are an easy and interesting read. If you are interested in better understanding hockey, this book is an essential read.