Grit analytics: The fancy stats of hockey hitting, Vol. 1 (Puck Momalytics)

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Oct 9, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) checks Montreal Canadiens left wing Jiri Sekac (26) in the second period at Verizon Center. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
Oct 9, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) checks Montreal Canadiens left wing Jiri Sekac (26) in the second period at Verizon Center. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Recently, the fine folks at Puck Daddy took a vote on hockey terms that should be banned from use. “Celly” ended up winning the vote, while “grit” did not pick up many votes. I joked with Greg Wyshynski that I would have to do more “grit analytics” posts as a result. What started at a joke actually gave me an idea.

Hockey people often love big hits and value toughness more than, well, basically anything else, so I decided to take a closer look at the big hitters in the league. This quickly evolved into a multi-season look at hitting and how it ties in with other parts of the game. I’ve broken it down into two parts, because it would be too long and involved to digest in one reading. In the first part, we will look at the biggest hitters in the game and in the second part, we will look at some trends in how players who make hitting a big part of their game are used, how they perform and any widespread effects hitting seems to have on the game.

I started looking at hits and other things like points, possession metrics and deployment to get an idea of who the consistently big hitters were since 2008-09 season and how they contributed to their teams. While defensemen are often known for hitting, the more interesting group to look at is the forwards. There are many different types of forwards and most are expected to contribute on the score sheet. Below are details of the forwards who ended their regular season in the top 25 in hits from 2008-09 through 2013-14.

Washington Capitals’ juggernaut, Alex Ovechkin caused these graphs to have a somewhat ridiculous scale in terms of points. As you’ll see in going through these, the Top 25 Forwards in Hits have been led in points every season by Ovechkin save for 2011-12 season. This was Cal Clutterbuck’s first full season in the NHL and the start of his big hits tour around North America. He broke the single season hits record previously set by Dustin Brown of the L.A. Kings. This was also James Neal’s debut season.

 

From a possession standpoint, the top hitting forwards covered all areas of the spectrum. The graph above shows the Quality of Teammates (QoT) from left to right. QoT based upon TOI (time on ice) is a fairly good indicator of how the line these forwards played on were used. Coaches tend to put their lower forward lines on the ice less than their top scoring lines so that is reflected here. Left indicates lower QoT which increases as we move to the right.  

Quality of Competition (QoC) is also based upon TOI in this graph. Those lower on the graph faced the lower lines more often while those near the top faced the higher quality scoring lines. The circles indicate the players’ even strength (5v5) CF% (Corsi For Percentage), which is simply a way to tell us who controlled the play. 50% or above means the player and his teammates controlled more of the play during their games than their opponents. It is important to note that the possession metrics used here are not adjusted for score. They are for all score situations at even strength.

On this graph, we see that Ovechkin, Doan, Brown, Ruutu and the others at the top right faced the toughest QoC (competition), but also had the highest QoT (teammates). Ovechkin and Kunitz had the best possession numbers while Travis Moen and Cody McLeod had the worst.

 

While Ovechkin and Clutterbuck stuck to their plans, other familiar names also continued to cement their spots as big hitters around the league. Dustin Brown, David Backes, Ryan Callahan and others have built their reputations as the hard hitting leaders of their teams.

Ovechkin had a very impressive CF% of 57.76% during the 09-10 season while facing tough competition. David Backes shows up at the top of the graph with very good possession numbers, which as we move through the next few seasons, we will see becoming a consistent theme.

 

Again we see a consistent group dominating the hit column and within that group, those showing their scoring prowess.

 

Something a bit surprising about the possession measures for these forwards during the 2010-11 season, was Justin Abdelkader’s 54.77% CF%. Prior to this, we’ve seen the players at the lower end of the possession graphs having lower CF% numbers even though they were playing against lower QoC. This is often because the coach has to “hide” or shelter a line of less skilled players. Abdelkader was used as what many like to call a “bumslayer” and the mismatch showed in his statistics.

Ovechkin momentarily relinquished his top scoring spot among the heavy hitters during the 2011-12 season. Clutterbuck also gave up his leading hitter spot to Matt Martin of the New York Islanders who broke Clutterbuck’s single season hit record. Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche announced his presence in the league with a bang during this season taking his place as one of the highest scoring big hitters.


There’s quite a logjam at the top right of the graph. Callahan, Kunitz, Brown, Backes, Greening, Hartnell, Landeskog and Hanzal were all facing top competition and for the most part dominating possession. Ovechkin’s QoC was still quite high but his CF% showed a bit of a drop as did his offensive production.

Because of the shortened season, this graph is rescaled to show a bit more detail. Matt Martin continued to lead the league in hits although his point production was very low. This has held true for him in other seasons as well. Ovechkin was back to his high scoring ways with Evander Kane of the Winnipeg Jets coming in second in points among the Top 25 hitters.

Callahan rebounded in terms of possession during the 2012-13 season, partially from a slight change in usage. Dustin Brown ended up with a ridiculously high CF% as did Milan Lucic. One interesting comparison is that between St. Louis Blues players David Backes and Ryan Reaves. The Blues have been a strong puck possession team for a while now so Reaves’ 51.08% CF% is not surprising; however, the difference in the play of Reaves and Backes is a nearly perfect illustration of the huge gap between a heavy hitting, skilled, power forward in the NHL (Backes) and a far less skilled “energy line” player (Reaves).

The New York Islanders love hits so much that they brought Cal Clutterbuck on board for the 2013-14 season.  The Isles had three of the Top 25 forwards in hits last season: Martin, McDonald and Clutterbuck. Ovechkin was perched atop the group in terms of scoring again proving the “Russian Machine Never Breaks” and again causing certain old school analysts to rely on plus minus to criticize his game.

Zac Rinaldo and Ryan Reaves faced the lowest QoC while David Backes, Alex Ovechkin and Milan Lucic faced the toughest QoC. The best CF% of the Top 25 belonged to Dustin Brown (57.86%), Jared Stoll (55.86%), David Backes (55.54%) and Milan Lucic (53.6%). All of these players were on teams noted to be strong in puck possession so this is not surprising.

Here are 2014-15 Hits Per 60 and Points (Overall):

 

It’s still early in the season and some players with very little ice time (under 20 minutes or so) predictably wound up with some astounding Hits/60 rates, so they are left off of this graph. Both forwards and defensemen are included here. The majority of the players have a Hits/60 rate under 10. It is not really a big surprise that those with higher point totals have lower hitting rates as well.

The graph above shows the Top 25 forwards in hits so far this season with their point totals as well. Leo Komarov of the Toronto Maple Leafs is having quite a start to the season tied for the most hits with Matt Martin of the New York Islanders; however, Komarov has 12 points on the season too. Many of the familiar faces are present as well.

Again this graph, even early in the season, demonstrates the separation between the skilled power forwards, near the top of the field, and the “energy line” players, near the bottom of the field.

When I started to research this and put these graphs together, a few things jumped out at me. I’ll cover some of the league wide trends in Part 2 of this post so keep an eye out for that, but as it relates to the Top 25 Forwards each season in hits there are some enlightening patterns.

First, the vast majority of the players in the Top 25 each season had under 20 points at all strengths combined during the season. This includes even strength play, special teams and unique strengths such as 4 on 4. Second, the players with the higher scoring have been fairly consistent during this time span. Ovechkin, Backes, Brown, Callahan, Doan, Lucic and Kunitz have occupied the high scoring, heavy hitting areas of these graphs season after season.

Of course, there have been fluctuations in their point totals and play, but this small group of players has repeatedly remained at the top of the heap regardless.

The most intriguing trend in this is perhaps the most simple. Going from season to season, I started noticing how many of the big hitting forwards have served as Captains or Alternate Captains of their teams. 

PLAYER

TEAM

ROLE

ALEX OVECHKIN

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

CAPTAIN

ANDREW LADD

WINNIPEG JETS/ATLANTA THRASHERS

CAPTAIN

BRANDON DUBINSKY

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

BRENDEN MORROW

DALLAS STARS

CAPTAIN

CHRIS KUNITZ

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

CHRIS NEIL

OTTAWA SENATORS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

CODY MCLEOD

COLORADO AVALANCHE

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

DAVID BACKES

ST. LOUIS BLUES

CAPTAIN

DEREK MACKENZIE

FLORIDA PANTHERS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

DUSTIN BROWN

L.A. KINGS

CAPTAIN

ERIC NYSTROM

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

GABRIEL LANDESKOG

COLORADO AVALANCHE

CAPTAIN

GREGORY CAMPBELL

BOSTON BRUINS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

IAN LAPERRIERE

COLORADO AVALANCHE

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

JAMIE BENN

DALLAS STARS

CAPTAIN

JORDAN STAAL

CAROLINA HURRICANES

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

MARTIN HANZAL

ARIZONA COYOTES

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

MATT COOKE

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

RYAN CALLAHAN

NEW YORK RANGERS

CAPTAIN

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

RYAN GETZLAF

ANAHEIM DUCKS

CAPTAIN

RYAN KESLER

VANCOUVER CANCUCKS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

ANAHEIM DUCKS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

RYAN MALONE

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

SCOTT HARTNELL

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

SHANE DOAN

ARIZONA COYOTES

CAPTAIN

STEVE BEGIN

BOSTON BRUINS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

STEVE OTT

BUFFALO SABRES

ALT. CAPTAIN/CAPTAIN

TROY BROUWER

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

WAYNE SIMMONDS

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

ALTERNATE CAPTAIN

This speaks to perhaps the most basic and dearly held notion in hockey: toughness. It would seem that it is not just fans who value this, but players too since they have chosen these men to be their leaders. The combination of toughness, grit, skill and fearlessness that many of these players possess seems to make them naturals for leadership roles in a sport like hockey.  

*All data collected from war-on-ice.com and NHL.com. All data for the 2014-15 season current through November 20, 2014.