Sunday, November 04, 2007

Nothing But The Hits

I know you're wondering "What does that picture of Dennis' favourite band have to do with the Oilers?" Well, bear with me for a second...

If you watched the Oilers in the late 1990's under Ron Low, you'd swear they were more interested in wearing out the boards than actually worrying about the puck. Obviously Ronny Low loved the hitting and figured that was how the Oilers were going to win hockey games back in those days. I always thought Low was a little crazy, or drunk, or both.

MacTavish, on the other hand, seems to have a very different view of the bodycheck and how it should be used. His teams have never been hit happy. I can recall more than a few Oiler fans pointing out that the Oilers under MacT tend to shy away from finishing their checks vigorously. Well, who's right?
I have no idea.

This was brought on by a totally sidetracked discussion over at LT's site about Bryan Young of all things. (If you're talking about anything over there, it usually starts with a hockey dinosaur or a hockey zit-popper, there is no in-between) A couple of posters over there (PDO and Bruce) think hits have particular value to winning hockey games. The idea being that somehow the total number of hits a team has is somehow a partial indicator of how good they are. (To be fair to these guys, they're not going to the wall over this one, but I get the impression they do think hitting is important. I'm sure they'll comment if they think I'm being unfair.)

Personally, I think hitting is a means to an end. Some players find it to be a very useful part of their toolkit, while others tend to find it a waste of time. It's interesting to me that players like Zetterberg and Lidstrom are wildly effective without going out of their way to hit anybody. Heck, even Chris Pronger picks his spots pretty carefully in my honest opinion. So do hits have any real universal value to winning hockey games?

As Bruce pointed out over at Lowetide, the Oilers are last in the league in number of hits according to the NHL's RTSS stats. On the current roster, Shawn Horcoff is an effective defender and all-round hockey player who is not afraid to block shots with his face. How come he has posted a paltry 47 hits in his last 173 games since the lockout? On the flipside, his bash brother at centre Jarret Stoll has had 182 hits in 147 games since the lockout and his number is is only on the rise. Stoll's a much more physical player the past two years than I remember him and the totals seem to bear that out - 71 in 82 games in 05/06, 89 in 51 games last year and 22 in 14 games this year.

This is going to be a truly unsatisfying post because I don't have any answers but I think I have a pretty good question:

What if you track shots that closely follow hits on the NHL play-by-play?

(First, the assumptions: The RTSS stats measured by the NHL are independent of the building in which they occur and the record keepers generally do a good job of recording them. This is a whopper and pretty much not true, but c'est la vie)

You could choose goals, actual shots, or the IOF darling "shots directed at net", whatever, just as long as it happens within 5-10 seconds after a hit. I choose 5-10 seconds because you have to cut it off somewhere.

If hits are of particular defensive value, you won't find many shots against immediately after a hit in the defensive zone by a defender. If they have particular value for forwards, then we should see a decent number of shots for/goals for immediately following hits by attackers on the forecheck.
If it works we can get together and write Zetterberg a heartfelt email to "man up" and perhaps "grow a pair." Maybe I'll send Ron Low a bottle of scotch as an apology.

Personally, I think the whole thing is a red herring, but does this sound like a reasonable way to get closer to a real answer? Has someone like Alan Ryder or Gabriel Desjardins already done it? Does anyone want to check it out?


Blogger Jeff J said...

One of the most important things about the hits stat is that you can only record one if you don't have the puck. Is Stoll more physical than Horcoff? Or are the Oilers simply more likely to be chasing the puck when Stoll's on the ice? For all we know, Zetterberg is a killer and goes for the big hit every time he sees an opponent with the puck. badProblem is, his opponents never have the puck.

To make sense of hits, I think you need a time of posession breakdown.

11/05/2007 7:49 am  
Blogger Vic Ferrari said...

I don't think that there will be anything in it, Rivers. I don't see hits leading directly to scoring chances very often at all.

And after reading jeff j's post, I suspect that it might be the opposite, for the reason of possession as he says. I mean the only thing we know for sure from a stat line of Greene-hits-Draper is that Detroit had the puck at the time of the hit.

Low's teams were hard on the forecheck as well. So it was more a part of the vague game plan. I mean I think hitting was a big part of Grier's game, he hit like a train. And there are damn few defencemen in this league that didn't get rid of the puck a little bit quicker if Mike was bearing down and they were standing on the tracks. I'm sure that aspect of his game helped Mike's results, and those of the guys he was on the ice with. It would be a bitch to prove, though.

11/05/2007 10:36 am  
Blogger Slipper said...

Didn't Java Geek or someone once do a big work up on scoring chances or shots directly proceeding a hit some time ago? I think whoever did it arrived at the same conclusion that Rivers and Vic are leaning: to that there's no direct positive relationship.

I'm a big fan of seeing big hits, for the entertainment value and also for the desire of a team getting it's pound of flesh. Something bothers me when I watch a player of a team I root for get broken in a half and seemingly not respond. I know it's voodoo to speak of such things around here, but it's like a measure of balls or chutzpah or something. There appears to be something lack when I see Smyth take a knee on knee hit against the Avs or Hemsky get repeatedly run by Cooke or Boogard, and noone else on the team reacts appropriately.

When I read java geek's (or whoevers) work up on hits to scoring opportunities, and even this blog post, I feel like the interpreter is missing the point. On the other hand, tallying hits and blocked shots to express some phantom defensive ability is pretty off base aswell.

I think Derek Boogaard had considerable impact both in the Oilers games versus the Wild and outside, considering the injuries contact seemed to create. Matt Cooke running Hemsky all night and drawing reactionary calls against the Oil plays a factor in the W/L. I watched Pavel Bure get neutered in the 2000 playoffs against the Devils after taking a bit of pain, he literally grimaced and shied away from 2 on 1 puck battles when that one Devil was Scott Steven (which is fucking ridiculous!), and that was amidst on of Bure's most effective season (he had 40 something EV goals that year).

Obviously it's not the prevalent factor at the end of most nights, either way. In a game that allows a measure of physical contact, that contact has to figure into the results somehow, both negatively and positively. I think it appears irrelevant to simply try to measure it by seeing who the shots favour in time increments after HIT (or HIT!) appears on the play by play sheets.

11/05/2007 2:10 pm  
Blogger RiversQ said...

Well, I agree with the comments, but we're all like-minded indviduals, so it's not really getting anywhere.

Of course you guys are moving even further away from hitting than I was. Jeff j is probably on to something with hitting totals actually being a negative indicator.

Except for maybe slipper who at least adds to the anecdotes anyway. So slipper we're up to what? 10-15 games in the last decade where hitting played a big factor? Good point about the arbitrary measure though - the cutoff probably doesn't capture it.

I forgot about java geek too. He probably did do that already.

11/05/2007 6:59 pm  
Blogger PDO said...

Busy with an assignment tonight, so I'll keep it short and sweet...

I mean the only thing we know for sure from a stat line of Greene-hits-Draper is that Detroit had the puck at the time of the hit.

So, who has the puck now, and how valuable are turnovers?

Good thread though, I'll come back to it tomorrow...

11/05/2007 8:24 pm  
Blogger Slipper said...

Well Rivers, anecdotal is all I can go by because, sadly, that seems the only expression that has any merit in the debate. No? Like you've said, and I agree, the data provided in reference to hits is all arbitrary, and therefore practically useless.

Just like judging scoring chances, or blocked shots. If the information or data from games was defined enough that it could give resolute conclusion on things like scoring chances, hits and blocked shots, then sites like this would be all over it. Unfortunately, that's not the case. The NHL doesn't provide quadrant like info on shots taken like the NBA does, and the positioning of the players on the ice isn't available either, for any of the afformentioned events. That, in my opinion, makes determining their value, and quantifying them versus winning, impossible.

Today I'm going to bet money on hockey. I will base most of those bets purely on statistical analysis. The stuff readily available to me, on places like here, online. I'll base that mostly on goal differential, powerplay and penalty effeciency, back to back games, head to head match-up, perhaps even these Corsi numbers. I won't look at hits or blocked shots, and you know, even as a non-monetary interested fan, I don't recall ever paying much attention to those stats. That doesn't mean, as an observer, I haven't noticed that they've made a difference in games I've watched.

There has to be some affect of contact in any contact sport. If in a head to head match-up, one team was allowed to hit while the other was not, would that be fair?

With blocked shots, as the data provides, it's probabley only useful to determine puck possesion, and which team is throwing the puck on goal more. Sure, I'm right on the bus with that. But to conversely argue that there's no value to be gleaned from the guy who sprawls on the ice and either positions himself correctly, or takes himself out of the play, is wrong minded. If the NHL began logging "failed blocked shots" and "failed hits", well despite it still being arbitrary, then it might lend itself o everything you say.

Until then....

11/06/2007 4:24 am  
Blogger Vic Ferrari said...

I love ya, slipper, but I think you've lost the mark, here.

On a similar vein, though. Since the Oilers are apparently in next-year country before remembrance day ... they still have a few short winning streaks in them, I mean they really are this bad, injuries or no, but they probably deserve a bit better.

An aside: The early lines vs Phoenix on the road a while ago had them pegged as a -125 underdog. Then Souray's injury is announced ... line stayed the same. -125. I mean Smyth has moved the line a quarter for years, one of the game's true difference makers. Pronger 20c (vs Flames on road NOV before last) with the Oilers, about the same as Horcoff, and a quarter with the Ducks last year (between MIN and DET on the road last season, hurt his ankle iirc).

But that's a lot of scratch to spend on Souray, because he gives back at evens everything that he gave you on the powerplay. He's a good teammate for sure, but your chances of winning don't move whether he's healthy or no. Penner the same. This isn't going to end well, slipper.

11/06/2007 12:32 pm  
Blogger Slipper said...

Vic, the way personnel changes drive the lines make me money. Across the board of the big North American sports, there are really only a few handful of players who's absence affects there team's performance, ecspecially in a one off game scenario.

A few things:

With your posts and responses as of late, you're either driving at MacT being completely incompetent or purposely trying to get fired. I'd lean toward the latter, but the reality is he only has 4 decent NHL players on the team.

Yeah, the season was over before it started, and the worst is yet to come. That'll be the disappointment of the saviours Pitkanen and Souray, and then topped by Burkie picking top three. Oh well.

Going into this season, I thought atleast it would be entertaining. Besides a few Hemsky highlights, it hasn't been. I guess these young players need to be able to get the puck in order to do something with it.

Lastly, I think you be doing a good thing for this blog and all the hockey discussion if you'd divulge more when you disagree with other's opinion. I'm a big boy and I can handle a constructive disagreement. I'd rather know why you disagree with than just that you do.

11/06/2007 2:45 pm  
Blogger Vic Ferrari said...

Slipper said:

Lastly, I think you be doing a good thing for this blog and all the hockey discussion if you'd divulge more when you disagree with other's opinion. I'm a big boy and I can handle a constructive disagreement. I'd rather know why you disagree with than just that you do.

Ya, that's just laziness on my part.

Though in the case of a poster a couple of threads down, it's a case of me realizing that he/she's not a newbie internet poster that was inspired to comment by one of my posts, but rather someone who chose to create a new google account to argue this point. Presumably to distance themselves from "Bure is the greatest player ever" commentary. Though I'm just guessing. It still pisses me off, and wasted my time.

11/06/2007 3:09 pm  
Blogger Hawerchuk said...

I believe I used 2002-2004 data to analyze the effects of hits on goals:

The net effect of being credited with a hit is slightly negative. But if I recall correctly, there was no zone data back then on hits, so we don't know.

Obviously, separating the man from the puck and being credited with a takeaway is a positive event.

11/07/2007 9:54 am  
Blogger Bruce said...

Way behind the curve on this one, just getting caught up on old posts and new (to me) blogs, and saw my name in this one with a challenge to respond. So I will, even though nobody will read it.

Hits are not the be-all and end-all, far from it. Last night against Calgary for example, Oilers had 16 hits through two periods (in which they sucked), then just 1 in the third when they played pretty well. And as has been pointed out above, only the team without the puck gets hits. Thus in many games, the team with the most hits and/or blocks has often lost the battle of puck possession; and the team with the most giveaways has most often won that battle. Usually.

That said, the Oilers have played an awful lot of time without the puck, but you'd never know it fromn their hits numbers, especially those of their defencemen which I detailed on Lowetide a while back.

At the time RiversQ challenged me that there were neither statistical nor anecdotal arguments to prove that hits really mattered. I don't really disagree with that, a team of high-skilled puck possession Euros like say Detroit would be expected to have low hits totals and a damn good winning percentage.

From an anecdotal perspective, however, I will merely say that a team that is hemmed in its own end is often exactly one hit away from recovering the puck with room to move it out. But the Oilers defence (Staios 21 hits, Smid 19, nobody else above 10) just doesn't play it that way. And it's pretty hard to argue that the current system is working. It's also pretty hard to argue that this team sorely misses Jason Smith.

11/18/2007 2:45 pm  

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