Hit or Myth? Busting Your Way To Success in the NHL . . .Or Not

Among  the faithful followers of the Columbus Blue Jackets, there are many who attribute  the team’s struggles over recent years as being due almost entirely to a perceived lack of physical play.  “Hit harder” is the mantra for this devout sect of hockey enthusiasts.

In Columbus, where hockey is reasonably new and college football reigns supreme, such an approach is understandable.  If they could get away with it, they would suggest the same remedy for the ailing Cleveland Indians.  However, I digress . . .   The essential point here is that this emphasis on hitting is not confined to the the hearts and minds of Central Ohio hockey fans, but is relatively widespread throughout the hockeyverse.  Navigate the blogs, message boards and media outlets around the league, and you will find more than passing references to the need to generate more hits as a panacea for an ailing franchise’s woes. Being the naturally inquisitive sort, I began to wonder if there was truth to this adage.  Does increased hitting mean more success on the ice?   Is it relevant at all?  In the fine tradition of Mythbusters, inquiring minds want to know . . .

As the NHL world is a vastly different place since the lockout, I confined my inquiry to the five seasons played under the “new” rules.  Comparing this era to the former “grab and hold” environment would be pointless.  I could find no particular statistical relevance to the absolute number of hits, so decided to employ relative rankings, slotting each team in terms of league rank for hits for each regular season.  To gauge success, I did the same ranking, using total points.  While I frankly did not expect to see much of a correlation either way, I was surprised to find some intriguing trends and equally interesting inferences that could be drawn from the data.

Figure 1 shows the data generated, with the numbers representing the teams’ relative league rank in hits and points for each season, with #1 representing the most hits and most points, #30 the fewest in each category. [table id=20 /]

Overall, the data reveals that NHL teams falling within the top ten in hits in a given season have only a 30% likelihood of ending up in the top ten in points for that season.  Indeed, it is slightly more likely that they will end up in the bottom ten in points, as that has occurred 32% of the time over the past five years.  Approaching it from the other angle, fully 44%  of the teams in the top ten in points for each of the past five seasons were in the bottom ten percent of the league in hits for that season.

In terms of playoff contenders, three of the five Stanley Cup champions over the period came from the bottom ten in hitting numbers, while the other two were in the top ten in hits.  Expanding the field to include the conference finalists over the five year period, we find that only four of the 20 participants came from the top 10 in hits, while half came from the bottom 10 in hits.

Some good examples of  the rule in operation include the Detroit Red Wings, the Chicago Blackhawks and the New Jersey Devils.  For the first four years of the cycle, Detroit led the league in points three times, and was third the other season.  During that same span, they ranked 23rd twice and 25th twice in the hitting category.  Ironically, only last season did they break the top ten in hits, but fell to 7th in scoring and enjoyed relatively little playoff success.   New Jersey has been in the bottom third in hits and the top third in points every season, and Chicago’s points ranking has improved as its hit ranking has fallen from 13th in 2005-2006 to 25th last year.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Islanders have been in the top 12 in hits every year, but have not climbed above 17th in points.  Their cohorts — the NY Rangers — have been in the top five in hits for the last four years, yet haven’t cracked the top ten in points.  The only time they did crack the top ten was in 2005-2006, when they were 1oth in points, but only 18th in hits.

Lest we get too carried away with the statistical associations, there are the inevitable exceptions to the rule.  San Jose has consistently  been in the upper echelons of the league in both hits and points.  Pittsburgh has done the same the last two seasons, and Dallas shared similar numbers for the first three years of the period.  However, as the overall results showed, this is the exception, not the rule.

Clearly, hitting (or the lack thereof)  is not the only factor that plays into a team’s success on the ice, and this data is not intended to suggest such a thing.  Rather, the critical question is really whether increased hitting is predictive of victory.  To that question, the answer is clearly “No.”   While it is possible to have high hit numbers and matching victory tally, it is not certain, nor even probable.    However, neither is it the case that a lack of hitting universally predicts success.  Atlanta is is the poster child here, ranking near the bottom in both hits and points.  It’s “run and gun”
style is not conducive to hitting, but has been equally ineffective in producing victories.

Why should there be such a poor correlation between hitting and victory?  Actually, there are a number of factors that play into the mix.  First, by definition, legal hitting occurs primarily in the team’s own defensive zone, or in the neutral zone.  If you are amassing large numbers of hits, your club is probably spending far too little time in the offensive zone, which in turn signifies a relative lack of scoring opportunities.  Again, Detroit serves as a perfect object model here.  Their ability to maintain possession of the puck for long periods of time maximizes their offensive zone presence, and provides them with relatively few hitting opportunities.

As one coach explained to me, a focus on hitting can also open up vulnerabilities from a defensive perspective.  Much of the hitting that occurs takes place along the boards.  This opens up the center of the ice, which is generally more of an advantage to the offense than the defense.   Similarly, defenders committing to a hit run the risk of missing entirely, particularly at the fast pace of the current game, thereby creating more odd-man rushes.  The days of “hold and hit” are gone, and the prospect of an open ice hit is risky business for all concerned.

So, while a well-time, well-placed hit remains a beautiful thing to watch, and represents a necessary element in a defense’s toolkit, it is not the be-all and end-all of a team strategy.   With the right mix of personnel, it can work, but the odds don’t favor a team that relies too heavily on the hit.  For our purposes, this myth is busted!

  • Mitch

    Great article. It’s good to see intelligent and passionate Columbus fan (being a Wings fan who is moving to Columbus). I would believe that the correlation between hitting and winning is likely a result of the confounding variable time of possession. Logically, teams that control the puck should have a higher winning percentage and a lower amount of hits.

  • http://thecheckingline.com/blog/rob-mcgowan Rob McGowan

    Did not mean to press the reply button just yet. I meant to say that I feel that grit is always essential for a winning hockey team, but it is not the primary factor. As you proved, the teams with less hitting, like Detroit, spend more time in the offensive zone scoring goals. I feel that a team’s most powerful hitters are needed on the blue-line. Like you said, most of the hitting is done in the defensive and neutral zones. Therefore, guys like Pronger and Phaneuf, Sutton, etc (not the same talent level, but all have big frames and love to use them) are integral for winning teams.

  • http://thecheckingline.com/blog/rob-mcgowan Rob McGowan

    That was one heck of an article and I couldn’t agree more. I am very impressed with your math and logic. Hitting has always been something that I have felt has been lacking in the game since the lock-out. The games do contain more offense and is faster, but regardless, grit is always essential for a winning hockey team.