With the Oilers acquiring Mike Brown, it’s been a fun couple of days for all of those in the punditocracy who d love hitting because they like seeing a guy hit another guy, which must mean that it’s important in terms of winning. Regrettably for those of us who would like to hear insightful things from the people who cover the team, this seems to be a rather large percentage of the people who cover the Oilers.
There’s been a lot of discussion about this but precious little data presented, so I gathered some up. The first table that I’ll throw up shows the percentage of the hits that each team was credited with at home in the 2011-12 season versus the percentage that they got on the road.
It strikes me as a bit suspicious that no NHL team was credited with hitting more on the road than they were home. It seems awfully likely to me that there’s an issue with scorer bias here – home teams are probably more likely to be credited with a hit than road teams.
There’s undoubtedly an issue with the frequency with which hits are awarded by the scorer in the various arenas. According to Chicago’s scorer, there were 2112 hits in games played in Chicago last year. Calgary’s scorer says that there were 1248 hits in games played in Calgary. When Chicago was on the road, the road scorer saw just 1581 hits. When Calgary was on the road, the road scorer saw 1874 hits. I’m more inclined to believe the road scorers about the frequency of hits in their respective games, given that that’s the opinion of something like 28 different scorers who saw the same team play.
I pointed out yesterday that the Oilers were actually a pretty average team when it came to laying the body on the road. You can see that the road scorer credited them with half the hits, which probably means that they tend to get more than half the hits in their road game and that the scorer at Rexall Place is awfully stingy when it comes to handing out credit for a hit.
The problems with the data are so obvious that it seems to me that if you’ve got a shred of intellectual honesty, you’re going to have to admit that it’s better to just look at the road data. And yet, if you do that, the Oilers are a pretty average team in terms of the volume of their hitting.
What about the connection between hitting and winning? I have a problem with just looking at the overall data because home teams are, in my view, more likely to be credited with hits than road teams and we know that teams do better at home than on the road. If you at the overall data, it’s going to be polluted by that, in that teams are more likely to win home games and more likely to be credited with hits in home games.
What I did, therefore, is break things out into home and road games and, specifically, by whether the team was outhit or not. That produces the following results:
(Note: I counted shootouts as ties – I assume that poop inducing fear that Mike Brown puts into a player like Patrick Kane doesn’t extend to the shootout.)
The data is, of course, hilarious. As a whole, teams did far better when they got outhit than they when they outhit the other side. I suspect that there are two main reasons for this: first, there probably is a great deal of truth to the argument that teams without the puck hit more, which doesn’t facilitate scoring. Second, there’s probably an element of teams that are behind deciding to focus on laying the body to try and turn the momentum – “Send out the energy line!” I suspect that what shows up here contains some score effects although, we know that trailing teams tend to possess the puck more, which would seem to give them less opportunity to hit.
Even teams that hit a lot tend to do better when they get out-hit than when they hit. The Rangers led the league in road hits last year (ie. they were likely the most physical team in the NHL) and did better home and away when being out-hit. Ditto the Penguins, who were second in road hits. The Blues and Kings (third and fourth) are inconclusive, as they each did better in one locale when outhitting and another when being outhit. The only other top ten teams in road hits (which I’m using as a sort of proxy for physicality) who did better when being outhit in one of home or away were the Leafs and Flames. Nobody did better when outhitting both home and away.
I caution that any media members reading this should resist the temptation to say “THE OILERS DID BETTER ON THE ROAD WHEN THEY HIT MORE.” There’s going to be relatively large variance when you’re dealing with small samples, which we are, but the difference here between how teams do when they outhit versus get outhit seems fairly clear to me. I suspect if I went back through five or ten years of data, I’d find that every year some number of teams does better at home or away when they hit more because that’s how small samples and randomness work. In 2011-12 though, it’s pretty clear: if all you knew was whether or not a team got outhit, you’d be smart to bet that they lost if they outhit and won if the other team hit them more.
This doesn’t mean that hitting is a bad thing. I’m a fan of sensible hitting that separates players from the puck. I’ve got serious doubts that there’s any value in outhitting the opposition on the night though or that you can improve your team by adding guys who hit, if they’re playing at the expense of a better player who doesn’t hit very much. I’m eager to see the data that suggests otherwise but I haven’t seen it yet.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org