Money Puck: Is Rob Vollman the NHL’s Bill James?


In 1977 a little known writer named Bill James penned a book called Baseball Abstract. Unbeknownst to James at the time, that book would lead to one of the greatest paradigm shifts in sports history.  His initial book and books after looked at baseball through an objective lens. This was a much different view from scouts and general managers during this era.  Quickly dismissed at first by mainstream baseball he continued to publish his thoughts and evaluations.

James used advanced statistics to formalize opinions on players instead of using more subjective scouting reports. Suddenly around the end of the 90’s after years of publishing and fighting the baseball establishment a few small market clubs began to take him seriously .  Why?  Because James’ statistics and player evaluations were coming out to be accurate.  Being right meant winning and winning cheap was even better.

Moneyball was now born and those objective ways that were once dismissed by hard-line baseball men  are now found in every clubhouse in Major League Baseball.   Oh yeah, and the Boston Red Sox hired James in 2003 and helped them win two World Series Championships as a member of their baseball operations team.

Rob Vollman

You might not yet have heard of Rob Vollman but chances are that you will and very quickly.  Vollman recently published hockey’s answer to Bill James’ abstract.  Titled Hockey AbstractVollman has authored a guide that will allow mainstream hockey to understand advanced statistics and how they apply to the game.

If the Sabermetrics explosion of baseball is any indicator, more and more NHL teams will be paying close attention to the mind of Rob Vollman. In addition to writing Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract, he is also co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus Guide, and a featured writer for ESPN Insider.

I had a chance this week to sit down with Rob for a fascinating few minutes and pick his brain about a number of hockey related topics:

I think everyone tends to romanticize about the “Moneyball”  story especially with the movie and book.  But what do you think really got the “Money Puck” or advanced stats analysis going in the NHL?

"“I’m really not sure, to be honest. I’ve seen the same pattern in other areas, however. The same thing happened to statistical analysis in politics around the same time, for example. I think hockey might just be part of a wider acceptance and adoption of statistical analysis, especially as technology has made it easier for data to be gathered, organized and accessed.”"

You might not be able to tell me this, but are NHL teams actively seeking you out for analysis and opinion?

"“Yes, but NHL teams have been approaching us in only in a very limited, careful and discrete fashion.”"

What NHL team (again, if you can answer this) do you feel is at the forefront of the “stats” movement, much like the Oakland Athletics were supposed to have been in Money Ball?

"“Dan MacKinnon {Director of Player Personnel} of the Pittsburgh Penguins speculated that between 6 and 12 teams have adopted analytics to any significant extent."

"In my own experience I know of at least six (other) teams that are public about having a statistical analyst on staff (Calgary, Edmonton, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Nashville, and Buffalo), one more that has done so privately, and two more that have worked privately with statistical analysts. That’s 9. There are probably more, but this certainly falls within MacKinnon’s defined range. I’m not sure anyone is anywhere near Oakland A’s territory, though.”"

 I’m going to ask you to put on your GM hat right now, if you were starting an expansion team, let’s call them the Markham Loons for fun, what are your top 5 statistical values you would look at for  in a player and for a goalie?

"“I would look first at usage-related statistics. That includes their average ice time (broken down by manpower situation), the zone where they start their shifts (offensive/defensive/neutral), their average level of competition, and of teammates. The usage information can be valuable in itself, but it’s most valuable placing the other statistics into context. One of our favorites, of course, is CORSI, which is just their plus/minus except that it’s based on the team’s attempted shots instead of their goals. Why? Because it’s a great proxy for puck possession."

"For goalies I would lean heavily on even-strength save percentage, but calculate it as a range. That is, rather than say “this goalie’s save percentage is .922” I’d instead calculate it in such a way that I’d say “with 95% confidence (for example) this goalie’s save percentage is between .914 and .930.”"

 So, again assuming you are an NHL GM,  would you build around Jonathan Toews or Sidney Crosby (Players with two of the top GVT last season) or someone different?    What does your starting 6 look like?

Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

"“Crosby and Toews are potentially two of the most valuable players around which to build a team, yes. If you want  a line-up of then I’d probably add Patrice Bergeron (or Claude Giroux) up front, and Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber on defense. This assumes I want to win now, otherwise I’d obviously choose someone younger than Chara on defense, like Erik Karlsson perhaps. Same thing goes for goalie, which would be Henrik Lundqvist in a win-now situation. Of course, now that I look at my starting five I’m wondering if I’d just wind up with a lot of guys on the injured reserve!”"

Should the NHL, in your opinion, add or replace existing awards with ones that reflect more value statistically? 


"“I think statistics are an important thing to add to the award voting process, but by no means something that should act as a basis. Still, it’s always confusing when someone who doesn’t even kill penalties gets a bunch of Selke votes as top defensive forward, or when someone without any defensive responsibilities whatsoever is up for the Hart trophy as the league’s most valuable player. And how did Ray Emery get a first-place Vezina vote?”"

NHL teams have historically been some of the most staunchly conservative organizations in the world  and very slow to change.  Baseball is steeped in tradition but has been progressive with inter-league play, the DH, etc.  In 5 years from now is your work mainstream accepted as Bill James has found in the MLB or will the NHL take longer to adopt an objective approach?

"“The NHL is passionate about the sport, but it’s also a business. As more and more developments in the field of hockey analytics find ways to improve the bottom line, adoption will continue to grow. Indeed, that’s how it was done in baseball. If hockey analytics doesn’t grow, it could very well be because we failed to show its relevance, not because of so-called stuffed-shirt traditionalists.”"

It remains to be seen if Rob Vollman follows in the legendary footsteps of Bill James and ends up working for an NHL franchise one day but he a very important person in the hockey world right now.

With the salary cap unstable and escalating player salaries, Vollman’s advanced stats become even more important.  This analysis can be the difference between your favorite team winning the Stanley Cup and picking in the lottery.

Money Puck has arrived.