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Book Review: Hockey Analytics, A Game-Changing Perspective

Yes, I voluntarily read a book about analytics. It was not exactly on purpose.

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Used with author’s permission

A few weeks ago when I went to order my copy of The Russian Five, I added in a copy of Behind the Bench because, obviously. Then, The Internet slid another book into my recommendations and I thought, maybe I should try and educate myself and not leave #fancystats analysis outside my jurisdiction. So, without doing more than looking at the cover, I bought Hockey Analytics, A Game-Changing Perspective.

I expected a masterclass in bubble charts and numbers and corgis and fenwicks and I didn’t get that - which is great because I probably would not have enjoyed that book. I did, however, enjoy this book.

What it boils down to, is presenting the potential power of spatial tracking in the NHL.

The authors are Steve Shea and Chris Baker, a mathematics professor and an NHL and NBA consulting analyst/software developer, respectively. Obviously, Shea and Baker bring a lot of data analysis power to the plate, so don’t worry stats fans - there are plenty of numbers in the book. Bonus: the forward was written by Craig Custance.

Spatial tracking is something that the NHL has mentioned implementing around 2020, but it’s no done deal. I suspect Shea and Baker have blueprints and secret programs ready to rollout the second the NHL gives the nod.

Think about it, the amount of manual labor and tech wizardry around analytics currently being done by fans/writers/etc. is amazing, but what if they could skip the hours (and hours and hours) spent tracking plays and inputting data and use that time to analyze it?

No Spoilers Here

I won’t go into details about what specific topics are covered in the book, because that’s why there is a book. I will say they do a nice job of blowing up some conventional ideas about current offense and defense strategies and what kinds of mistakes hurt the most. They have enough data to build a solid case for what works, what doesn’t, and which circumstances produce the best scoring chances.

If there’s one thing Wings fans have learned the past few years, it’s how a badly positioned player can ruin your life. Shea and Baker take it to the next level demonstrating, with data, what happens when positioning goes wrong and what can be done to prevent catastrophe.

Some things I really liked

A great thing about the book is its use of real-life examples. Every point they have to make, they walk you through a scenario that happened in an actual game to demonstrate. It’s a lot easier to follow along when you can look at dots on a diagram and say “that’s Abdelkader and he’s sending the puck up to Tatar in the neutral zone”, rather than reading “Player A passes to Player B and *snore*”.

You don’t just get one diagram per example, either. They really are careful to walk you through step by step with how the play develops using multiple (and simple) diagrams, so if visualization isn’t your strong suit, you’ll be able to follow along. You won’t go too many pages between diagrams, because who likes big blocks of text when we don’t even want to read long tweets?

This is not a dry book, they do an excellent job of educating while entertaining. There is also no obvious bias in terms of teams represented, if there is data for them, they’re there. Many of the quotes will have you either rolling your eyes, laughing, or both.

Blash is in it, I know you were worried.

Lastly, the flow of chapters makes a lot of sense as they cover a lot of ground and still tie everything together. I read this in 10-15 minute increments on the train to/from work, and I’d recommend reading this in short bursts rather than one sitting. I think that’s optimal for absorbing the content, but you do you.

One thing I didn’t like

My primary complaint, is how heavily external references are leaned upon.

Shea and Baker both know a lot about basketball, because while they started in hockey, basketball had a wealth of data available and the NHL wasn’t there yet. Their basketball knowledge shapes their perspective, and is frequently used in the book to provide examples of how implementing a different brand of analytics can help secure buy-in from players, coaches, and management.

Soccer and football make appearances as well. While the other sports’ examples are effective in proving that this type of analytics has worked for those sports, the pairing with the (accurate) disclaimer of how hockey is immensely more complicated (think: line changes, short possessions, infrequent scoring, etc.) diminishes the impact. Therefore, I think the inclusion of the other sports would have been equally as effective in a smaller dose. The examples from across the sports world are definitely interesting, but it seems to pull focus toward the end of the book.

The Verdict: It’s a Good Book, Susan

Analytics in hockey is a major source of conflict, we all know that, but it doesn’t have to be. This book demonstrates, perhaps even bludgeons you with, the fact that analytics is both fairly and unfairly treated as a burden. Everyone groans because yuck homework and yay intangibles bloo bloo bloo, when actually analytics is like corn. It’s in everything, even when you don’t realize it’s there.

However, unlike corn, too much analytics won’t make you fat or turn you into a vampire. Or, as the authors put it:

I can’t give a higher recommendation that saying that I, Queen of Heart-Based Judgments and Senior Vice President of Staring Blankly At #FancyStats, enjoyed thinking through the arguments presented and at no point did I feel like the content wasn’t for me.

Put this on your offseason reading list, and someone mail copies to Blash and Kenny.

To be continued…

Basketball does raise an interesting question for the future of hockey analytics. If the NBA is utilizing spatial tracking, that means arenas have equipment in place (see: SportVU). There are arenas, like ours, that host both hockey and basketball. How much effort would be required to convert the NBA camera system setup when you switch the arena configuration to hockey-mode? Would you need two systems? Is it radically different per arena?

It’s something to think about if the NHL gets serious enough that there are plans regarding staggering spatial tracking implementation around the opening of new arenas and teams who share NBA arena space vs. those that don’t...

I was not able to find out if LCA has SportVU in place, so if anyone has insight please share in the comments!

P.S. Me, a Red Wings fan: If humans have developed technology that can track every time a player breathes and extrapolate from that what time his dog had breakfast, then dammit we should be able to figure out the acoustic puzzle of how to replicate the effect of The Joe’s goal horn despite massive volume of LCA.