Despite the NHL’s move towards speed and skill, watching games brings constant mentions of how a team needs to increase their physicality and hit the opponent more to force them into bad decisions. That’s even more prevalent in the playoffs, when it’s largely insisted upon that the grittier and more physical team will win. Given the consistency of that messaging, I wanted to see if there was evidence that delivering more hits was beneficial to teams.
To test that,, I examined the correlation between hits per 60 minutes and various other statistics. A correlation coefficient varies between -1 and 1, and measures the relationship between two variables; -1 indicates a strong negative relationship (one moving up would move the other down), +1 indicates a strong positive relationship, and 0 would indicate no relationship. It’s important to note that none of these indicate a definite causation between the two variables.
2019-20 Regular Season
As a starting point I started by looking at the most recent regular season, and with examining averages for each team in the league. This doesn’t give a look at how fluctuations in hits impact individual games, but does give an idea of if there is a benefit to playing a more physical style. While I compared against a number of statistics, the most notable are takeaways, penalties, wins/losses, and goals.
Since much of the praise of hitting focuses on putting the team under pressure to force quicker decisions, the first statistic that stood out was takeaways/60. There was almost no correlation shown between increased hitting and more takeaways. That isn’t actually incredibly surprising - these are all NHL players who are used to being hit. However, it also doesn’t necessarily capture other bad decisions that aren’t included in the takeaway stat.
Penalties are also not surprising, but show the most direct correlation of any statistic. Teams who hit more are also those who tend to take the most penalties; however, they also draw more, likely by forcing teams to match their physicality or by drawing retaliation penalties. Overall, this is a clear negative that increased hits corresponds to taking more penalties than you draw overall.
The next areas to examine are clearly the most important - does increased hitting show any correlation to goals and wins? There’s a slight negative correlation between hits and both goals for and goals against, as well as goal differential; however, none of these are strong at all. Similarly, there’s almost no correlation between hits and wins/regulation losses. There’s a small positive correlation with OT losses, likely due to the lower scoring games being played.
Based on this, there’s no apparent clear positive advantage gained by a team being more physical and making more hits. The same held when looking at a team’s rank in each statistic instead of the raw numbers. However, that’s while looking at the league as a whole instead of a game-by-game analysis. Because of that, I aimed to do a similar analysis with three teams with very different profiles in hits/60.
Team Game-by-Game for 2019-20
To examine game-by-game impacts for individual teams, I chose the Islanders, Jets, and Wild due to ranking 1st, 16th, and 31st in hit during this regular season. I examined similar statistics, but did so by looking at each team’s variations by game.
Takeaways do seem to differ significantly in this method compared to examining the season as a whole. In this case, how much of a correlation more hits has with more takeaways changes with how much of a part hitting has in a team’s gameplan. This indicates that at least to some extent the positive impacts of hitting correspond to a team following their own strategy - the Islanders gain more from hitting because it’s part of their game, while the Wild struggle when teams draw them into more physical games.
Penalties tell a similar story - while the Islanders and Jets have worse penalty differentials overall, the Wild are impacted more when they increase hitting. Again, they struggle when involved in a more physical game. For them, not getting drawn into the hitting allows them to gain a power play advantage that they lessen when engaging the opponent more.
Wins continue to follow that same trend - while the Islanders see a slight negative correlation when hitting more, they aren’t as heavily impacted. Meanwhile, the Jets and Wild being taken out of their game corresponds to results being worse. The same (not surprisingly) applies to goals for, against, and goal differential.
Analyzing team-by-team game results gave some additional insights compared to looking at overall team seasons, but still didn’t show significant advantages to gain from increased hitting. However, that’s in the regular season and not the playoffs where the games tighten up.
Playoffs were analyzed in two ways - playoff totals for each playoff team from 2013-14 until now, and then game-by-game analysis from last season’s playoffs.
Overall, playoff team totals followed similar trends when comparing hits/60 against other metrics, with some of the negatives actually more amplified:
No correlation at all with increased takeaways
-0.20 correlation with winning percentage
-0.16 correlation with Goals Scored %
0.11 correlation with penalties taken, -0.14 correlation with penalty differential
All of this follows a similar trend to the regular season, and certainly doesn’t follow the accepted thought process that you have to be more physical in the playoffs to succeed. Instead, it indicates that more physical teams are likely taking too many penalties and taking themselves out of position too often. In tighter games, those drawbacks are enough to significantly impact results.
Game-by-Game 2018-19 Playoffs
Analyzing the 2018-19 playoffs gave similar results, though it’s important to note there’s a drawback to analyzing just one year’s playoffs - I would expect correlations to automatically favor the style of play of the champion. However, given that the Blues were praised for their size and physical play, I would have anticipated results that favored hitting.
In line with that, one area was positively impacted compared to other versions of the analysis - takeaways did have a slight positive correlation with hitting. However, winning still had a correlation of -0.10 and Goals Scored % still had a negative correlation of -0.04. While neither showed a strong negative correlation, they still weren’t the positive impact expected from a year where St. Louis won the Stanley Cup.
What Does This Mean for Coaches and GMs?
In order to understand what this means for coaches and GMs it’s important to understand what this analysis can’t show. First, this depends on the NHL’s classification of all stats, and doesn’t capture physicality outside of what is considered a hit. It also doesn’t take into account where hits are taking place on the ice, how much possession a team has, or who the specific opponents are.
Despite those drawbacks, I think there are important lessons for team leadership. For coaches, it’s important to understand who your team is and not get drawn into the opponent’s game. We often hear commentators mention the need to match physicality, but these stats show that if it doesn’t fit your style of play then that will actually be detrimental to success. Instead, coaches must understand the strategy that fits their players and work to impose that on their opponents. Similarly, for a physical team the ability to draw opponents into trying to match them could be extremely beneficial.
To be clear, I’m also not advocating that a team could build an effective strategy around not hitting at all. That’s clearly a part of the game that can’t be ignored - the Wild still had over 16 hits per game. Instead, I’m advocating that each team doesn’t need to play the same style, and different methods can be successful.
For GMs, this shows that there is no single correct way to build up a team. A strategy and style of play should be decided upon, and then a team built around that. If that style doesn’t favor physicality, then there’s no need to try to force larger and more physical players into the team if they don’t fit. In fact, this likely represents a potential market inefficiency, especially if teams use the success of the Capitals and Blues in the last two playoffs as a sign that they need to get bigger. Smaller players could in turn become undervalued, and the GM who takes advantage to successfully build a team and style of play around them could be the architect of the next overachiever.
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