While the Prince of Denmark never contemplated the vagaries of NHL statistics in his famous soliloquy, some of those statistics -- seriously contemplated -- are fully capable of driving one to the brink of insanity. In my case, it may not be a long drive, but the concept of the "hit" in NHL hockey is one of those numbers. Fully aware of my frustration with this concept, my wife loves nothing more than to lean over to me when the Blue Jackets struggle on the ice, point to the statistics board, and say "At least we are leading in Hits." It's like fingernails on the blackboard. Equally troubling is the fan whose cure for every on-ice ill is "Hit Somebody!!"
So, I come to this debate not as an impartial observer, but as an advocate for change. We'll examine the statistic in light of what it purports to be, what it actually measures and how good a job it does of reflecting reality of performance. At the end of the debate, we'll hopefully be able to determine whether the hits statistic is an asset, a liability, or just irrelevant.
A Hit or Miss Statistic?
For me, a valid statistic must do a couple of things. First, it must provide an objective measurement of a fact. To the extent subjectivity creeps into the equation, the validity of the statistic rapidly diminishes, as there is little assurance that common standards are utilized from situation to situation. Secondly, the statistic must bear some rational relationship to some meaningful aspect of the game. You could track the television shows that players watch on game days, and it would be an objective assessment of a fact. Yet, it likely has absolutely nothing to do with what transpires on the ice.
A big problem withthe entire concept of a "hit" is one of semantics. The common understanding of a "hit" is physical contact between two opponents, withthe effectiveness of the "hit" directly tied to the intensity of the contact. However, the word "hit" is not defined anywhere in the NHL Rule Book. In reality -- and in common usage -- the "hit" is simply a synonym for the word "check", with some reserving "hit" for a particularly hard check. There is likely little disagreement on this from the perspective of common understanding. Unfortunately, that understanding has nothing to do with the statistic.
For a valid "Hit" to be registered on the stat sheet, the player to be credited with the hit must a) intentionally initiate physical contact with the player possessing the puck, and b) the player sustaining the contact must lose possession of the puck as a result of the contact. If the contact results in a penalty, no hit can be awarded. The intensity of the contact does not enter into the equation, nor does the loss of possession necessarily involve a turnover. If the puck is retrieved by a teammate -- or even the player himself -- a hit is still earned. So, virtually all of those devastating "hits" that make the NHL Top Ten videos shown around the league are not "hits" in the statistical sense, as the puck is usually gone.
A key to the statistical version of the "hit" is the concept of possession. For that, we turn to Rule 56.1 in the NHL Rule Book, which covers Interference:
Possession of the Puck: The last player to touch the puck, other than the goalkeeper, shall be considered the player in possession. The player deemed in possession of the puck may be checked legally, provided the check is rendered immediately following his loss of possession.
Here is where we start getting into the meat of the matter. As written, the NHL only allows a player in possession of the puck to be checked. While a statistical "hit" necessarily involves a "check", not all "checks" are "hits", because not all "checks" result in a loss of possession. Strictly interpreted and applied, this means that only puck handlers are fair game for checking, and not the intended recipients of passes or others in the vicinity of the puck. (For an interesting discussion of the possession requirement in a slightly different context, check out this article.) As we all know, the NHL "checking" rule is enforced with the frequency that the NBA calls travelling or three second violations.
So the first thing that emerges is that the other team must be in possession of the puck for a valid statistical "hit" to be registered. It logically follows that the more hits a team amasses, the more their opponent possessed the puck. This is not a good thing, in most settings, unless you plan to thrive on odd-man rushes to generate all of your goals. Yet fans and broadcasters alike trumpet the hit statistic as an accomplishment and a demonstration of the "physicality" their club displays. (For the record, I use the word "physicality" by way of satire here, as it is a term I also loathe. That, however, is a different article)
So let's apply my two-prong test to the hits statistic and see how it fares. First, does it objectively measure a fact. In this instance, the "fact" is possession of the puck, and the loss thereof. As noted above, the concept of "possession" is an amorphous one, particularly when the statistic does not require that possession be obtained by the other team. The NFL has an analogous statistic for "fumbles caused". However, in football the loss of possession is relatively easy to determine. The ball comes out of the player's hands, and hits the ground, or is picked out of the air by the opposition. When it hits the ground, it does not necessarily result in a loss of possession. However, the only time a fumble is counted without the ball hitting the ground is when the opposition does gain control. It's a fairly straightforward statistic.
The problem is that in hockey, the puck is already on the ground, and is "possessed" with a stick. The puck itself spends relatively little time on the stick, however. So, at what point is possession lost? When it is out of range of both stick and arm? In Ryan Johansen's case, his wingspan would almost never merit a loss of possession finding. When it finds another stick? When it hits the boards? So, the "fact" of possession presents an issue here. That alone suggests that objective measurement is impossible, given that there is no uniform standard for what may constitute a "loss of possession."
A brief look at the application and history of the statistic reveal that there is a lot of subjectivity to the statistic. Peruse the game reports from NHL games, and you will be amazed at the large swings in numbers of hits from arena to arena. Significantly, there is a significant bias toward the home team when it comes to the number of hits recorded. Last season, only nine of the thirty teams registered more hits on the road than at home. Given that hit frequency is directly proportonal to the opponent's possession of the puck, you would expect that precisely the reverse would apply. In fact, it was the subjective nature of the statistic that led the NHL to stop tracking the number for part of the 2002-2003 season, resuming only after the NHLPA protested that some of its members had incentive clauses tied to the number.
Looking at the second prong of the statistical test, we have to ask ourselves what the hit statistic actually means? Anyone? Buehler? The NHL already has statistics for Giveaways and Takeaways, which govern changes of possession. As we already noted, since not all checks qualify as "hits", the hits number is not necessarily a good proxy for the physical nature of a team's play, particularly since some of the most intense checks do not qualify as hits. So, does the statistic really measure anything material to the game? It would not appear so on the surface. But, to be fair, let's see if we can back into the significance.
If an attribute of a team's play is truly significant, it should show up to one extent or another in actual results. So, I looked at the last five years of NHL regular season play, to see what correlation -- if any -- existed between teams that were among the league leaders in hits, and those that made the playoffs. It turns out that teams that ranked in the Top 10 in hits made the playoffs 34% of the time. The problem is that teams ranking in the Bottom 10 in hits made the playoffs 35% of the time. Teams in the Top 10 in hits were significantly more likely to fall in the Bottom 10 in goals per game (38%) than in the top 10 in that category (28%). For those believing that hits is a valid defensive statistic, the numbers do not provide much support. Only 30% of the teams in the Top 10 in hits were among the Top 10 in goals against per game, while 36% fell in the bottom 10 in that category. Conversely, teams that fell in the bottom 10 in hits, were the most likely (38%) to be in the Top 10 in goals per game.
A quick look at teams falling at the bottom of the hits category validates the numbers. For years, the Red Wings held down the last spot in hits. Today, the Chicago Blackhawks have claimed the cellar each of the past three years. Other similarly successful teams can be found lurking near the bottom of the hits category. The Los Angeles Kings are a notable exception to the rule. Since 2000, they have never been lower than 12th in the NHL in hits, and have been in the Top 7 each of the past seven years. In their 26 playoff games en route to the Stanley Cup, the Kings "won" the hits battle 17 times. Their record in those games? 8 - 9. In the nine games where they "lost" the hit count, they were 8 - 1. Questions?
So, in the final analysis, the statistical measure of "hits" does not seem to pass muster. The statistic itself lacks objective standards and application, and the resulting numbers do not seem to bear any significant correlation to any form of success or failure on the ice. If it is to be used as a proxy for physical play, then adopt a checking statistic. While the number would be much higher, the subjectivity would be far less, and there would be little question as to what was actually being measured.
In a follow-up piece, we'll compare the Blue Jackets with the Los Angeles Kings in terms of physical play. The two clubs tied for the NHL lead in hits last season, but closer scrutiny shows that there are some meaningful diffrences in approach. What are the keys to turning physical play into playoff success? We'll examine that next time. In the meantime, as the Bard would say -- all's well that ends well.