Reinventing the hitting game

One of the strongest accusations against Craig MacTavish's Oilers was that they were far too easy to play against. Steve Tambellini said as much in his post-firing news conference in which he promised the matter would be addressed.

There is no foolproof measure of easy-to-play-against-ness. Perhaps the best of an imperfect lot is the much-maligned Real Time Scoring System (RTSS) stat known as "hits". To me this is one of those double-edged categories like penalty minutes, where you don't really want your team to have the most in the league nor the fewest. Too few hits might be a sign of a soft team; too many a result of not having the puck often enough.

Last year's Oilers finished 28th in the league in hits; under Pat Quinn they have crept up to 19th. Quinn's strategy is simple: put a physical player on each line and give the guy some actual ice time to ply his craft.

Early season stats bear this out:

Player  GP  TOI TOI/GP Hits Hits/15
Jean-Francois Jacques 9 123.8 13.8 36 4.36
Zack Stortini 9 84.7 9.4 23 4.07
Ryan Stone 8 93.1 11.6 19 3.06
Gilbert Brule 7 90.4 12.9 17 2.82

 

These four guys rank 1-2-3-4 on the team in both total hits and hits per unit ice time (expressed here on the Copper & Blue as per 15 minutes played). No other Oiler forward has even reached double digits, nor as many as 1.3 hits per 15. But the four leaders have been a fixture every game, at least until Brule got sick and Stone went down with injury.

Last year's Oilers also featured exactly four forwards who had 2 or more hits for every 15 minutes played. Here's the foursome in question:

Player  GP  TOI TOI/GP Hits Hits/15
Tim Sestito 1 5.9 5.9 3 7.63
Steve MacIntyre 22 86.1 3.9 22 3.83
Jean-Francois Jacques 7 51.6 7.4 13 3.78
Zack Stortini 52 379.0 7.3 95 3.76

There are Jacques and Stortini at a pace just below what they have established early in '09-10, MacIntyre keeping pace with them, and Sestito a one-game wonder. The key difference is ice time. The four guys played a combined total of just 82 GP, meaning that in a given game one of them might be playing, the rest sitting. Even the guy who did play, didn't play much, as none of the four averaged as much as 8 minutes TOI. The four leaders in hits per unit ice time finished 29-21-25-4 in total hits, as only Stortini accumulated enough ice time to achieve respectable counting numbers.

The team leader in total hits, Erik Cole, reached his modest total of 134 in just 63 games (1.87 hits/15) before being shipped out at the deadline. His physical play was not replaced on the roster; moreover, MacTavish pressboxed Stortini to make room for the incoming Patrick O'Sullivan and Ales Kotalik. An already untenable situation became much worse. Coincidentally (or not!), the Oilers folded down the stretch, often being pushed around right in their own building.

Craig MacTavish used his four heaviest hitters for a combined total of 522 minutes over 82 games, just 6.4 minutes per game. After just 9 games Pat Quinn has already used his equivalent crew for 392 minutes, or 43.6 per night. While this has led to other issues -- JFJ and Stone have looked out of their depths at times on the top two lines -- the problem of too many smurfs has been largely masked to this point. Kinks remain to be worked out, but early evidence suggests Quinn's more aggressive strategy has been working just fine.

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