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On Hitting, Or a Lack Thereof - The Canucks Don't Hit Much and That's OK

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Hitting doesn't correlate to winning. Regardless of what you think about the death of big body checks. Sorry, but you need to get over it, casual fan/mainstream media/old school blood and guts guys.

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

I have heard the same three refrains so far this season from enough casual and not-so-casual fans to warrant a bit of a rant. They are basically as follows:

1. The teams that can play physically are winning the Cups.

2. My team doesn't hit enough, they need to add more [grit/sandpaper/jam/truculence] to win against these teams!

3. Gary Bettman is killing the big body check, and it makes the game boring.

I hate every one of them because they are wrong and stupid. I guess, if you like violent hits, the third one is just, like, your opinion man. But the rest of the thinking on hits needs to stop.

Physical Teams Are Winning All The Cups?

No they aren't. Only one team is doing that...that's the Los Angeles Kings. I'll explain why they hit a lot and do well in a bit. First, facts.

Stanley Cup Winner and NHL Total Hit Rank:

2014 - Los Angeles - 1st

2013 - Chicago - 30th

2012 - Los Angeles - 2nd

2011 - Boston - 21st

2010 - Chicago - 25th

2009 - Pittsburgh - 6th

2008 - Detroit - 11th

2007 - Anaheim - 10th

2006 - Carolina - 25th

2004 - Tampa Bay - 28th

2003 - New Jersey - 23rd

2002 - Detroit - 26th

2001 - Colorado - 8th

2000 - New Jersey - 16th

1999 - Dallas - 12th

1998 - Detroit - 2nd

That's as far back as I have NHL's Real-Time Scoring Statistics (RTSS) for. But it doesn't matter if I keep going. If you aren't just accepting that there is no correlation here, you are being really hardheaded. Wrongheaded. It's all over the map.

Back in 2013, Cam Charron ran the RTSS stats to date for correlation to winning percentage. He wanted to see whether road stats could be predictive of home wins, but the premise and result is the same in regard to the predictive quality of hits. Before I show you his results let's explain quickly and in simple terms how that is done, so nobody claims that it is sorcery not worth taking seriously.

An "r" coefficient measures the relationship between two variables. The two variables in this case would be the ability of the team (hits, takeaways, shots, shot attempts or Fenwick, wins...whatever) and points that the team gains. The resulting number can be between +1 and -1. A +1 shows a perfectly positive relationship. A -1 shows a perfectly negative relationship, and 0 indicates no relationship at all.

All you need to know is that an r between 0 and +0.09 basically indicates no correlation at all; an r between 0.1 and +0.3 indicates a small correlation; an r between 0.3 and +0.5 indicates a medium correlation; and an r between 0.5 and +1 indicates a large correlation. The same rules apply for negative numbers but moving to larger and larger correlations with less points gained, not more.

Here's what his numbers showed.

Statistic Ability/Points "r"
Fenwick Close 0.218
Wins 0.199
Goal Differential 0.196
Points 0.177
Goals 0.084
Giveaways -0.002
Takeaways -0.003
Hits -0.021
Blocked Shots -0.117
Goals Against -0.119

Basically, hits are closer to a sign of a team that is losing points than gaining them. Steve Burtch over at Pension Plan Puppets further expanded to all "ability" stats and their correlation to winning. Burtch had this to say about the correlation, or lack thereof, between hits and winning in an excellent article he did in 2013 about the reliability of certain statistics, including repeatable "abilities" like hitting, in building a winner or a loser:

Virtually none of these matter to teams winning and losing. Teams win with an edge, or win without one. They also lose with an edge and lose without one. Being big and tough is NOT a cure all to a losing franchise... getting better at puck possession and spending more time in the other team's end is.

Why am I showing you these instead of running more numbers on it? Because nothing has changed this season. And nothing will. Hits are not suddenly a magical elixir for whatever ails a team. They will not lead to winning simply because the Kings hit more than anybody last year and won the Cup. Hockey has not changed so much that now, suddenly, hitting is MORE significant than it was in the past. A past that those lamenting over #grit and loud bangs are so passionate about returning to. A past where hitting did not lead to winning.

Here's this season's hit leaders and hit bottom feeders in a variety of common game states, ranked by hit% (percentage of hits in the game as compared to their opponent). I've also included their current points per game rank in parenthesis. Stats courtesy of puckon.net

Tied:

1. NYI - 60.5% (9th)

2. CBJ - 58.0% (29th)

3. BUF - 56.3% (30th)

28. CAR - 41.9% (28th)

29. MIN - 41.7% (14th)

30. CHI - 40.6% (15th)

Down 1

1. WPG - 63.6% (16th)

2. COL - 63.1% (25th)

3. DET - 62.7% (8th)

28. DAL - 44.2% (24th)

29. NYR - 44.0% (19th)

30. CHI - 33.9% (15th)

Down 2

1. WSH - 69.5% (23rd)

2. DET - 67.7% (8th)

3. CGY - 63.0% (10th)

28. MIN - 41.7% (14th)

29. NSH - 35.7% (6th)

30. CHI - 39.2% (15th)

Up 1

1.  BUF - 60.3% (30th)

2. CGY - 55.7% (10th)

3. TB - 55.6% (4th)

28. MIN - 39.1% (14th)

29. MTL - 37.4% (2nd)

30. DET - 32.6% (8th)

Up 2

1. BUF - 63.2% (30th)

2. NYI - 55.6% (9th)

3. ANA - 53.9% (5th)

28. MIN - 35.4% (14th)

29. STL - 32.7% (3rd)

30. VAN - 31.7% (7th)

Notice anything? I mean other than that it's just a mish-mash of random teams at the top and the bottom for the most part? If anything, you see the worst team in the league by an unholy margin, the Buffalo Sabres, at the top of the hits list.

Your team hitting more or less has no necessary correlation with winning.

Being at the top or bottom doesn't even match up with those eye test perceptions that are haphazardly thrown around (often by mainstream media and even former players, who should know better). A team like, say, Chicago, who is often deemed "tough to play against" amongst other illusory terms, is at the bottom. Those gritty and defensively minded Wild?  At the bottom.

That's why I'm not going to bother to run another r coefficient at you. I want casual fans, and hardheaded hardcore fans, to just see it in simple terms. Your team hitting more or less has no necessary correlation with winning.

Just to really hammer it home, here's last years total hits leaders and bottom feeders arbitrarily cut at top and bottom 5, with conference rank and finish in parenthesis:

1. Los Angeles (Stanley Cup)

2. Columbus (7th - 1st Rnd)

3. Toronto (12th)

4. Ottawa (11th)

5. Winnipeg (11th)

---

26. Detroit (8th - 1st Rnd)

27. Nashville (10th)

28. New Jersey (10th)

29. Minnesota (7th - 2nd Rnd)

30. Chicago (5th - Conf. Finals)

So please, just stop with the needing to hit to win. It's not the case.

2014-15 Score-Adjusted Corsi Leaders Aren't Really Big Hitters.

Ever on the analytics beat, I have latched onto a new formula for score-adjusted Corsi and its ability to be predictive of point totals, based on this article from puckon.net. Read it if you like math. If you don't, just understand that basically what it does is weight shot attempts based on game state. It uses total average team TOI in each state in order to do the weighting (more time at a particular game state means more weight). The resulting number has proven to be more correlated to predicting future success than anything else to date.

Your top score-adjusted Corsi teams to date, arbitrarily cut off at 10 teams, with their hits per 60 rank in parenthesis:

1. Chicago 57.1% (29th)

2. Pittsburgh 56.4% (10th)

3. Minnesota 55.9% (30th)

4. Detroit 54.0% (28th)

5. Boston 53.9% (13th)

6. St. Louis 53.6% (24th)

7. Tampa Bay 53.2% (19th)

8. Nashville 53.0% (25th)

9. San Jose 52.7% (17th)

10. Washington 52.6% (11th)

Sorry. I don't know what else to tell you on this.

Your Team Probably Does Not Need To Add More Hitting. They Need To Do Whatever They Should Be Doing In Their Chosen System, But Better.

There isn't one way to score more goals than your opposition. There isn't one way to do that more often than not, though there are some ways that work better in today's NHL than others. There isn't one way to win a Stanley Cup. Some hitting is system reinforced and a natural result of a particular system. The Los Angeles Kings are an example of a team that runs up hit totals because of their system, not necessarily just their personnel being "tough."

Today's game is different. Not worse or less physical. Just different.

Most big hits in today's game do not come in open ice. That is not because the Department of Player Safety has cracked down on head shots. Head shots aren't a natural extension of open-ice hitting, or vice versa. Head shots are a player targeting another player's head or, possibly unintentionally, making initial contact with it. If you have played the sport or watched it even remotely closely, you know that it is much more effective to target the body, mainly at the midsection and hips where a player cannot shift or slide out of the way of the impact as easily.

The reason there are seemingly less open ice hits in the modern game are two-fold as I see it.

1) Players, quite simply, are WAY better at keeping their head up with the puck and while receiving the puck in the modern game. It is a lot harder to hit a target that is aware of your existence and acts accordingly. I don't care if you are an old-timer who yearns for simpler days. The game is faster now and the players are way better at it. If you sent Steven Stamkos back in time at his current speed and ability and knowledge of how to play it would be a damned circus.

2) The lack of a red-line in the modern game opens up neutral ice for greater extension of passing lanes, unclogging the middle of the ice a bit. We are all familiar with those big Scott Stevens open-ice explosions on unwitting players about to receive a pass in neutral ice. Put simply, because of (1) above, and because outlet passing can extend from the defensive zone all the way to the opposing blue line, defensemen can't risk going for the nuclear bomb open-ice hit and missing on it. They just can't.

Blame #2 on Bettman if you want. But if you would prefer neutral zone traps clogging up and minimizing rush opportunities, and you think that is less boring than the modern game, so be it. Once again, I cannot help you. But please, before you stop reading here, watch a low event team like the New Jersey Devils for a while and then reconsider. Really watch. Because their fans don't anymore. I don't blame them.

So about those Kings.

Big hits are leveled most often on the dump and chase forecheck. The combination of defensemen turning to play the puck, incoming forechecking forwards, and backchecking forwards behind them are a recipe for contact. The Los Angeles Kings love to dump and chase because they have the personnel to do it properly and the personnel buys into a swarming support system. In particular, a team like the Kings, who utilize an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck on hard dumps, are going to hit a lot and retrieve resulting loose pucks. They are built for it. They are quick enough, and they have several big players. And those players have the puck retrieval anticipation and skill for it to work.

Credit: NHL.com

The Canucks are not a team that would benefit from this style of hockey.

The 2014-15 Canucks do not employ a 2-1-2 aggressive forecheck that prefers dump and chase and swarm supporting loose pucks. Tort's 2013-14 Canucks employed a 2-1-2 forecheck, but did so poorly because they weren't built for it (and he coaches it poorly, but that's a different article). Last season Vancouver did hit more because of it. But that didn't make it right.

This Canucks team is not the Kings and should not try to be them. You can't be what you're not in hockey. It is a sure recipe for disaster, as last year's club proved often.

Vancouver Hit Ranks:

Tied: 46.9% (22nd)

Down 1: 46.4% (24th)

Down 2: 46.0% (24th)

Up 1: 45.5% (22nd)

Up 2: 31.7% (30th)

Vancouver clearly hits less than most teams. But that doesn't mean they need to hit more. The Canucks are a team that strongly prefers controlled entry possession or, when controlled entry is not available, short boards chip and chases that fall into a 1-2-2 forecheck if the play goes low into the offensive zone. As soon as possession is gained, a support arrives to start a cycle or finish the rush opportunity.

Here is an impressive example of a short boards chip and chase attack where the first man in (Higgins) finds his support (Bonino) as a third forward goes wide to spread the backcheckers, giving a lane for the pass and rush attempt:

If you have the puck, you generally don't hit as much.

If you have the puck, you generally don't hit as much. If you play a possession entry-driven style and not a dump and chase, you don't hit as much. That's just the way it is, and it is system and personnel dependent. Hitting more, just for the sake of it, will not correlate to doing what they do better. In fact, it might mean they are doing it worse.

One notable departure from past Canucks teams is Willie Desjardin's preference to get up ice quickly and produce rush chances. Rush chances are defined by David Johnson of hockeyanalysis.com as any shot attempt basically developed within 10 seconds from an event occurring in your defensive zone. Think odd man rushes, and a lot of controlled entry shots moving directly at the net or quickly laterally once in the zone. Unfortunately, This team appears to be lacking a bit in team speed. That is problematic for some of what Desjardins has traditionally liked to do with his teams. This is especially the case for generating those quick countering rush chances, which have the highest shooting percentage of any type of shot.

Rush chances graph

Courtesy of: stats.hockeyanalysis.com

However, from my viewing, we are already seeing the coaching staff making adjustments to compensate for the foot speed problem. Namely, this team is pulling up offensively and keeping the high guy in the forecheck much higher as of late. The idea seems to be trying to limit foot races up and down the ice. More so with the Sedin line. Less so with the Bonino line, which has a bit more speed for such attacks and resulting necessary recoveries.

Yes, that may make for moments of more boring hockey. The corresponding gap and lane control/congestion in neutral ice will lower the total number of events against them, but also sacrifices some up and down north/south offense. Play tight games, don't make mistakes, and allow your superior puck control and skill with the puck in the cycle or off rush chances to do the scoring.

None of this, notably, requires more hitting.

No, they won't get intimidated by a team that hits more because of whatever their chosen system is. Nor is it an inferior system. The Ducks would be a recent example of doing just fine against a team that dumps and chases, and therefore hits, more. This offsets the bad loss to the Kings, where they didn't get physically beat up, they just played horribly. It is more a matter of imposing their preferred style successfully than it is trying to play a differently constructed team's game.

The reality is that, thanks to the hard work of Corey Sznajder and his Three Zone Project, we know that possessed carry-ins produce shot attempts at a rate of ~.58 per carry-in. By contrast, dump-ins only produce shot attempts at a rate of ~.26 per dump-in.

What the Canucks need to do is own the puck more and spread the ice better in the neutral zone to facilitate more carry-ins. Because that is what they are built for, and that is what their systems are designed to promote. Executing that style can win games, because controlled entries are optimal for producing shot attempts. As you learned above, shot attempts (Corsi) correlates to winning. Not hits. Not banging. Not none of it.

So stop it.