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The Physical Game: Style or Substance?

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For many, the solution to an NHL team's problems comes down to the need for "more hitting". Does physical play correspond to success? Does it matter at all? What does it mean for the Blue Jackets? We'll find out.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the last installment,  we took a look at the NHL "Hits" statistic, demonstrating that it is a poor metric, based on subjective criteria, and not truly representative of facts that materially impact success on the ice.  At best, it is a relatively poor proxy to evaluate the relative physical play among teams. Here, we continue the quest to determine whether physical play is a) a prerequisite for success,  b) a crowd-pleasing, but largely irrelevant aspect of the game or c) something in between.

The Statistics -- Take II

Not content to entirely abandon the quest for a statistical measure that could serve as a more reliable indicator of physical play, I combined the Hits number with the Penalties In Minutes number for each of the NHL teams over the past five complete seasons (excluding the abridged 2012-13 campaign), under the theory that the majority of penalties are physical in nature and the combination might just provide a better measuring stick to use.  What emerged was that 42.5% of the playoff teams over the last five years fell in the middle third of the combined Hits/PIM rankings, while 27.5% were in the top third, and 30% in the bottom third.  The problem is that virtually the same distribution -- almost a perfect bell curve --  appears for non-playoff teams, where 47% come from the middle third, 26% from the top third and 27% from the bottom third.  So, there is really no statistical association that can reliably tell us that physical play is determinative of either success or failure at the team level.  

As with any attempt at statistical support for a given phenomenon, some interesting results do emerge.  First, the combined Hits/PIM number does confirm actual experience to the extent that certain teams who thrive predominately on possession and skill fall consistently deep in the bottom third.  Chicago and Detroit are the poster children here.  Other statistics suggest changes in team approach that may have an impact.  In the four years prior to this past season, the New York Rangersranked first in hits three times, and second once.  They were also solidly in the top half of the NHL in PIM.  While they made the playoffs in three of those years, only in 2014 did they break through to the Stanley Cup finals.  Under new coach Alain Vigneault, the Rangers ranked only 14th in hits, and 22nd in PIM.  Of course, they also had this guy named Lundqvist in the net . . .    Conversely, the Calgary Flameshave only one playoff appearance during this time frame, and their combined Hit/PIM ranking has fallen dramatically since then.  Maybe they would benefit from more physical play?  Maybe.  The problem is that for every rule you try to glean from the statistics, there are just as many exceptions.  The Islanders, Oilersand Leafs have ranked all over the place in these stats, and have zero playoff appearances between them.  The six Stanley Cup finals, including the shortened year, have featured three appearances by clubs near the top of the Hits/PIM numbers (Los Angeles twice, and Philadelphia once), four appearances by clubs at the bottom (Chicago twice, Detroit and New Jersey) and five by clubs in the middle  (Boston twice, the Rangers, Vancouver and Pittsburgh).

The Reality on the Ice

So it's time to look beyond the statistics.  Hockey is a physical game -- no question about it. Despite what the rule book says about who may be legally checked, the reality is that much greater contact is permitted, and even tacitly encouraged. Some clubs -- including the Blue Jackets-- have made physical play their calling card. "If it moves, hit it." is their philosophy. Other clubs eschew the physical side of the game, for the most part, relying instead on puck possession, skill and the transition game.  Clearly, these latter teams can have success, as evidenced by Detroit's unblemished playoff string that has endured longer than the lives of most in the NHL today, and Chicago's two Stanley Cups in the last five years.   But the teams who bring a big physical component to the game have seen equal success.  Los Angeles equals the Blackhawks total of two Stanley Cups, and the Flyershave been in the playoffs each of the years reviewed, including a trip to the Finals in 2010.  

Physical play clearly has an important role in the game.  To one extent or another, it can be used to exert pressure on the opponents, produce turnovers, wear an opponent down, provide a spark to one'sown team, send a message to the opponent and exact retribution for a real or perceived transgression.  Clubs that focus on the physical side of the game are considered "gritty" , hard to play against, andreceive grudging admiration. However, less frequently discussed are the downsides to a strategy centered on physical play. A style of play premised on hitting is equally wearing upon the team doing the hitting, with the resulting risks of injury, year-end fatigue and the like.  Additionally, many a goal is surrendered when an attempted hit misses the mark and an odd-man rush ensues.  Former Blue Jackets coach GordMurphy once noted that since the majority of hits tend to occur along the boards, over-reliance on the hit can open up the middle of the ice for the opposition, creating defensive problems. Further, when players become over-focused on delivering a hit, they can lose focus on the ultimate goal -- namely to get the puck andscore. How many times have we seen players delivery a big hit behind the net, ignoring the puck at their feet, which finds its way in front, and then into the net?  Quite a few.  So, as with everything, the physical game is a mixed bag of opportunity and risk.

Statistics and experience dictate that physical play is integral to the modern game, but perhaps in different ways than in the past.  As the Holding and Grabbing Era has largely become extinct, focus has turned to delivering "The Big Hit" . .. to the point where you hear the word "hit" far more often than "check".  It is more than a matter of semantics -- it is a philosophical change.  Much the same thing has happened in the NFL, where "tackling" is almost an anachronism, falling by the wayside in favor of "The Big Hit."  That phenomenon carries the same risks and rewards already discussed.  

The real issue, then, is not if  the physical game needs to be part of a teams arsenal of weapons, but rather when and how. Clearly, for teams like Chicago and Detroit to be able to minimize the role of physical play to the extent they do, they must possess the requisite roster talent and team chemistry to play the possession game and find other ways to achieve the same goals.  A hit can sever a player from the puck, but so can proper positioning, quickness, anda deft stick.  Conversely, teams not blessed with a high degree of skill on the roster may well be more inclined to resort to physical play as a substitute.   Many would argue that Columbus fell into that bucket for many years, and is only now emerging.

A Case Study

The Los Angeles Kingsare the prime example of a team that has been able to incorporate a high degree of physical play into a successful team system. In 2013-2014, they tied withColumbus for the NHL lead in hits with 2609 each. While both made the playoffs, the Kings are drinking from the Stanley Cup this summer, and the Blue Jackets are not. While there are of course a lot of reasons for this unrelated to physical play, some of the differences in how the teams approach the physical side of the game are illustrative of the points we've already covered, and demonstrate that the when and how make a difference.

 When questioned about hitting during the Stanley Cup Finals, Kings coach Darryl Sutter noted in substance that "you have to pick your spots" when it comes to hitting (paraphrasing).  This is in relatively stark contrast to the Blue Jackets Todd Richards, who has leaned more toward the "hit it if it moves" school of thinking.   While these statements are interesting, the fact remains that the Kings and Blue Jackets delivered the same number of "hits" during the year, so timing is only part of the equation. A closer look suggests that a more fundamental difference exists.

Of the King's 2609 hits this season, 1044 (40%) were delivered by defensemen, while 60% were meted out by forwards. Of course, since there are many more forwards than defensemen, this is not surprising. However, digging down another layer reveals that among the forwards, only Dustin Brown ranked among the leaders in hits and in the top 6 in goal scoring. The key scorers -- Kopitar, Williams, Carter, Gaborik -- all averaged near or below 1 hit per game. Thus, the Kings rely on their defense and lower line members to deal out most of the physical punishment, leaving the skill players to do what they do best.

Coach Todd Richards took a different approach with the Blue Jackets. He expected everybody to hit -- andhit often. This put him at odds with some of his players -- most notably Cam Atikinson-- but the team managed to make the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. Still, a look at the numbers shows some stark differences from the L.A. stats. Of the Blue Jackets' 2609 hits, only 745 were doled out by the defense-- a mere 28.5%. The forwards accounted for a whopping 71.5% of the total, andfive of the top seven goal scorers for Columbus also registered more than 100 hits, with three (Dubinksy, Jenner and Foligno) accounting for more than 200 hits. Among the top scorers, only Artem Anisimov and Atkinson fell below the one hit per game plateau. 

Some of this difference is one of style, as the Blue Jackets were fond of the intense forecheck, which puts more pressure on the forwards -- and accordingly takes a bigger toll over time.  The Kings, of course, were capable of a solid forecheck, but preferred to challenge more in the neutral and defensive zones, creating significant transition opportunities.  The downside of this approach is a relatively low goal production number (206 regular season goals vs. 231 for Columbus) ,.  However, the Kings allowed only 174 goals over the 82 game span, contrasted with the 216 goals the Blue Jackets permitted.   The Kings' resulting goal differential of +32 was more than double the Columbus total of +15.  By picking their spots and reserving their skill players for what they do best, the Kings were able to generate the same physical presences as the Blue Jackets, while maintaining a fresher corps of forwards for the long playoff haul.   Since the playoffs, Richards has become noticeably more vocal about "speed and skill", terms that were not in his lexicon just a few months earlier.  Perhaps he saw the same things we did?

Wrapping It Up

Obviously, volumes could be written about the subject of physical play and its evolving role in the game.  At the endof the day, a few clear points seem to emerge.  First, there is currently no really valid statistical measure of physical play in the NHL.  Second, the hitting game -- by itself -- is not predictive of success or failure on the ice.  Teams like Los Angelesthrive with a combination of physical play and impressive skill.  The Blackhawks acheive similar success, while falling at the opposite end of the physical play spectrum.  It must be part of the equation, but only a part.   Finally, while the physical game itself must play a role -- to one extent or another -- it is the more detailed aspects of the who, when and how of the physical game that ultimately have a greater bearing on success.

Much of this is common sense, at some level, but with so many people putting such great emphasis on "Hit somebody!! Anybody!", a deeper look is worthwhile.   I also suspect that we will see  a Blue Jackets team this season that plays a different brand of physical hockey.  Stay tuned.