Hockey Prospectus 11/12: The New Normal


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(Full disclosure: A few weeks ago, Timo Seppa asked me if I was interested in reviewing the latest iteration of Hockey Prospectus’ annual for the Nations’ audience. I accepted a free PDF copy of the book for review purposes, with no other compensation offered. I’m not trying to make myself out as particularly noble, though. Had Timo offered me a giant vat of cash in exchange, I’m fairly certain that I would have accepted it – RC)

When does the revolutionary assimilate into the mainstream? That’s the question that I’ve been asking myself over the last few years as the statistical analysis movement occurring in hockey blogging circles has become increasingly accepted by the game’s insider cohort. We’ve gotten a few signs this summer that the pace of acceptance is quickening, with Calgary’s hiring of Chris Snow and the amusing series of deflections Doug WIlson felt compelled to resort to when he was interviewed by Fear the Fin amongst them.

That noted, most season previews still are infused by a sense of the traditional, so a book like Hockey Prospectus’ 11/12 annual that grounds itself in the modern approach is operating in a space that remains somewhat uncluttered. This year’s edition, nearly 500 pages in length, is HP’s third attempt to create a season preview imbued with the modern sensibilites of the hockeysphere.

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In general terms, it manages that trick fairly well. Tom Awad opens the book with a brief explainer of GVT and VUKOTA, which act as the two primary tools of performance measurement that HP has chosen to employ. As someone that uses shot and scoring chance based metrics, I’m still not entirely on board with the way GVT, to my mind, overvalues goaltender performance to a slight degree while struggling to account for the true value of defensive defencemen, although fairness compels me to note that Awad’s up front about those shortcomings as well. GVT isn’t a bad shorthand measure, though, and as with virtually every other advanced stat, it’s likely still in the Alpha stage of development.

The core of the book is the solidly written and extremely thorough set of team profiles, with using a compliation of individual player GVT values to arrive at a team value and ranking. The previews have been written by a group of the usual suspects, including our own Kent Wilson amd Jonathan Willis, and as mentioned, they leave nothing unexamined. Rob Vollman’s utter demolition of the Ducks might be worth the price alone.

The primary value, at least to me, of this approach is that the teams are assessed in a consistent manner. Anyone with a bit of hockey sense can watch their own team’s games and assess player value more or less accurately. What virtually no one is capable of is watching every team’s games with that same focus. This is really the strength of advanced metrics, of course, since it can account for a great deal of context or circumstance or plain old luck, and then normailze results across teams. In my view, using these metrics gives HP a leg up on your average preview for that reason alone.

My only quibble about the profiles is a formatting one, in that players that were traded or moved on via free agency in the summer are still listed under their old clubs. I know there are deadline issues for physical products that have to exist out there in meatspace, but seeing Robyn Regher and Daymond Langkow listed in Calgary’s profile seemed off. Maybe it’s just my sense of doom without them around 😉

Beyond the team profiles lie a series of essays, ranging from a nostalgic take on Winnipeg’s return to the bigs by Iain Fyffe to a discussion of what might be the next thing in hockey metrics, as Gabe Desjardins reviews his passing chart experiment from last season. Again, the content is solidly written, but for those that are regular readers around these parts, there’s nothing particularly surprising.

Maybe, though, that’s what really struck me upon completeing the book. It seems to me that the advanced numbers that HP uses and that we use are at the point where even some of hockey’s willfully innumerate have begun to accept that maybe, just maybe, using a more modern approach to player assessment could have its merits.

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With that in mind, HP’s tone throughout the book is very matter-of-fact, and correctly so. There isn’t any hand wringing or apologia for the fact that they’re increasingly comfortable with their status as early adopters of advanced metrics. The entire tone of the book is that the numbers they’re using and the approach they’re taking will be the new normal in very short order, and that those that are inclined to open-mindedness are welcome to come along for the journey as those metrics move into the heart of hockey analysis.

I don’t doubt that for those looking for stories about grit, heart and leadership in their annuals, this book will leave them wanting, and there are still plenty of places for people of that mind to get their fix, but if you have an interest in where the new forms of analysis are headed, Hockey Prospectus’ 11/12 is a worthy starting point.

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