Oilers' hitting game 2008-10 - Part One: the blue

There's no denying that hockey is a physical game, but that aspect of the game has proven extremely difficult to capture in a meaningful statistical way. The NHL has recorded Hits for the past number of years, albeit in a very haphazard manner. As with virtually any category tracked through much-maligned Real Time Scoring System there are absolutely huge rink biases which cause many to throw up their hands and discount the whole shitteree.

How huge? Check out this table which shows the range between the league's top and bottom teams in home, road, and total hits over the past three seasons (courtesy NHL.com):  

 

2007-08 Home Road Total
#1 1356 898 2137
#30 520 588 1130
1 v. 30 2.61 1.53 1.89
2008-09
#1 1367 952 2312
#30 518 667 1315
1 v. 30 2.64 1.43 1.76
2009-10
#1 1416 1038 2338
#30 631 659 1388
1 v. 30 2.24 1.58 1.68
Sum #1 4139 2888 6787
Sum #30 1669 1914 3833
Mean 1v.30 2.48 1.51 1.77
 

The names of the teams aren't particularly important here, just the numbers. For one example this season that was the Stars outhitting the Thrashers by almost 20 hits a game on home ice, a ridiculous 224%. On the road DAL still had the edge over ATL, but only by 922-838, or 110%. Somehow that seems a little more believable. Certainly the top to bottom range of ~50% on the road seems a lot more realistic than the ~150% (!!) differences of home teams. Thus many knowledgeable observers tend to use Road Hits as a better metric than Total Hits; some scorer (and schedule) bias will remain, but much will be ironed out.

Besides widely differing definitions of what constitutes a hit from one rink to another, there is a systemic bias towards  home teams, who have officially "outhit" road teams on a league-wide basis by some 10 to 15% - ~2500 to 3000 hits per year! - since the lockout. This suggests that whether a rink has a high counter or a low one, the scorer is more likely to recognize a hit by a home team player than one by a visitor.

Note that Column C is never the sum of A and B because the same teams never lead, or trail, the league both at home and on the road, as one often finds with more legitimate statistics. (e.g. WSH led the NHL in GF both at home and on the road this year.) As an extreme example, Calgary led the league in road hits but ranked 28th on their home ice! So once again RTSS numbers fall far short when attempting to do any sort of comparison across teams. However, it is yet another of those metrics which might have some meaning within a given team, since its players will perforce be counted by the same scorers each night.

Of course every hit involves an action by two players, the hitter and the hittee. NHL.com does record the names of both in its play-by-play data, but only releases the former when tabulating individual and team totals. That's unfortunate because there is lots to be learned on the other side of the equation. Who is taking the hit to make the play? Who is getting targeted? Who is avoiding contact, or alternatively, getting left the heck alone?

Luckily we at SBN have in our midst the lovely and talented Gabriel Desjardins. Noting that Gabe had written a couple of articles at Behind the Net introducing (?) the subject of hits both given and taken, I sent him a note requesting that info for the Edmonton Oilers. Gabe responded within minutes with raw data of individual hits for and against for the past couple of seasons. Let's start by looking at Oiler defencemen, right after the jump:

Player GP TOI HF HA Total
Tom Gilbert 164 3641 102 260 362
Ladislav Smid 111 1875 173 179 352
Jason Strudwick 143 2115 131 135 266
Sheldon Souray 118 2849 132 54 186
Theo Peckham 30 415 70 45 115
Taylor Chorney 44 761 36 64 100
Aaron Johnson 19 374 44 28 72
Ryan Whitney 19 482 18 29 47
Dean Arsene  13 168 18 14 32

I've listed current Oiler defencemen only, and have just included their totals while members of the Oilers, with leaders highlighted. I've sorted by total number of events. Somewhat ominously, the leader in this category is Tom Gilbert, who ranks only fourth on the blue in hits dished out, but has led the squad in hits received three years running. He absorbed a team-leading 130 hits in each of the two seasons under scrutiny here. In large part this was due to Gilbert playing a full 82 games each year, and leading the squad in total TOI by a significant margin. Moreover, he has the puck quite a lot so will be targeted naturally by the flow of play, and perhaps a little more due to his rep for being a tad soft. My conclusion is quite the opposite: the guy "takes a licking and keeps on ticking" as the old Timex commercial went.

Another guy who takes quite a beating is Ladislav Smid. By the numbers Smid gives as good as he gets, comfortably leading the blue line corps in hits dished out. Unfortunately there's a reason he only has half of Gilbert's minutes and two-thirds of his games played; Ladi's spent substantial time on the shelf in each of the last two seasons, almost entirely as a result of absorbing way more than his share of hellacious blows, especially to his head and upper body.

Given the wide disparity in GP and TOI, player comparisons make more sense on by using rates and ratios:

Player HF/60 HA/60 Total/60 HF/GP HA/GP Total/GP HF:HA
Sheldon Souray 2.78 1.14 3.92 1.12 0.46 1.58 2.44
Aaron Johnson 7.06 4.49 11.55 2.32 1.47 3.79 1.57
Theo Peckham 10.12 6.51 16.63 2.33 1.50 3.83 1.56
Dean Arsene  6.43 5.00 11.43 1.38 1.08 2.46 1.29
Jason Strudwick 3.72 3.83 7.55 0.92 0.94 1.86 0.97
Ladislav Smid 5.54 5.73 11.26 1.56 1.61 3.17 0.97
Ryan Whitney 2.24 3.61 5.85 0.95 1.53 2.47 0.62
Taylor Chorney 2.84 5.05 7.88 0.82 1.45 1.56 0.56
Tom Gilbert 1.68 4.28 5.97 0.62 1.59 2.21 0.39

For reasons I'll explain in Part Two, I've parsed the hits numbers on both a per 60 and per GP basis. This time highest and lowest are highlighted in each category. I've sorted by the right most column, the ratio between hits for and against, but in all columns have highlighted top and bottom performers on the club.

It's interesting to see Sheldon Souray leading the club in HF:HA. It's not that he's a prolific banger - his hit rate is in the middle of the pack - but his hits received levels are astonishingly low. Per 60 he gets hit less than a third as often as any other Oiler D. Having watched Sheldon play it's not that he avoids contact in any sort of proactive way, it's just a matter of Respect. The word has gotten around the league: run Sheldon at your own risk.

Less surprising to see Gilbert at the other end of the same list, giving out fewer than 2 hits for every 5 he receives. Ironic that he's the healthy one while Souray spends so much time on the shelf.

The team leader in most of these rate metrics is Theo Peckham, who clearly doesn't mind engaging on both sides of the puck. Unfortunately, his encounter with a bigger, stronger man in Douglas Murray ended a season that was plagued with physical problems from start to finish. Such are the risks inherent in playing the physical game, and it seems that defencemen are particularly vulnerable. Especially along the end boards, if serious injuries to Souray, Smid, and Peckham are any indication.

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