Hits: The Defensive Statistic Nobody Recognizes As a Defensive Statistic

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Hits: The Defensive Statistic Nobody Recognizes As a Defensive Statistic
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

In this years heated Hart Trophy (MVP) race, two players have separated themselves from the pack in the eyes of fans and voters.  With all due respect to the spectacular seasons of Zach Parise and the ever-underappreciated Pavel Daytsuk, this one is coming down to Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

With two games to play, this duo is almost dead even in points.  Malkin leads the league in assists.  Ovechkin leads the league in goals. 

But this is not an MVP debate article. 

In attempting to break the Ovechkin-Malkin deadlock, much has been made by media and pundits about the value of two oft ignored secondary statistics: hits (used as proof of Ovechkin's physical dominance) and takeaways (used as proof of Malkin's defensive superiority).  Regardless of who each of us ultimately sides with in the Hart debate, it strikes me as odd that so many people seem to ignore the fact that “hits” are not only a form of defense, but statistical evidence of successful defense. 

Most fans are unaware that “Hits” as a statistical category is not synonymous with “body checks.”  A player can land a thunderous check and not get credit for a “Hit” because hits only count as official “Hits” when they “remove the opposing player from the puck.”  To wit, Dion Phaneuf probably lands more body checks than any other player in the NHL, but he only ranks 42nd in “Hits.” 

The Relative Value of a Hit Versus a Takeaway

Because of this narrow definition, hits and takeaways have far more in common than most fans seem to think.  Both are methods of dispossess an opposing player of the puck, and thus both are a form of defensive play.  Both require speed and quick thinking, because the defensive player needs to make his move before the offensive player has recognized what is about to happen and dished the puck to an offensive teammate.  Both create offense from defense. 

While much is similar between hits and takeaways, there are also some key differences.  Takeaways, by definition, have a 100% correlation with turnovers.  A takeaway isn’t a takeaway until the defensive player has gained possession. 

On the other hand, there is no guarantee that a hit will result in a turnover.  While the majority do, because all that is required for a hit is the generation of a loose puck, that puck could be recovered by an offensive teammate, or even the recipient of the hit himself in rare instances. 

Clearly, there is not 1-to-1 equivalency between these two metrics.  Of course, it is also true that hits have the ancillary benefits of all physical play – intimidation, wearing down an opponent, etc – that a lift-check can never provide.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to say how much more valuable (if at all) the average takeaway is than the average hit. What is certain is that hits are more prevalent than takeaways.  The NHL leader in hits had 346. The NHL leader in takeaways only has 91. 

Because both hits and takeaways are defensive statistics, one might expect that ‘good’ defensive players will rate highly in both categories.  But just the opposite is true, and this presents a bit of a mystery.  Looking at the respective leader lists, only two players rank in the top fifty league-wide in both hits and takeaways.  (Ovechkin: 9th in hits, 25th in takeaways; James Neal: 22nd in hits, 17th in takeaways). 

Takeaway artists tend not to hit, and hitters tend not to be masters of stick work.  Cal Clutterbuck leads the league in hits, but has only 21 takeaways – less than a quarter of the league leader.  Evgeni Malkin leads the league in takeaways, but has only 80 hits – also less than a quarter of the league leader.

Is there any way to explain this?  Maybe.   

If hits and takeaways are properly understood as two very distinct ways to skin the cat defensively, it is perhaps not so surprising that players would tend to resort to one method at the exclusion of the other.  Encountering an opponent with the puck, the defensive player must either commit to the hit, or commit to attempt to make a play with the stick.  It is all but impossible to try both in the course of one play.  Players will tend to go with the maneuver they are ore comfortable with.  And the player who can master both methods is few and far between.   

Conclusion

Anyone who has thought hard about the subject recognizes that defensive play is almost impossible to quantify. 

Plus/minus is mildly informative for a quick sketch, but is rife with flaws if you’re looking to make a conclusive case. 

“Goals against,”’ defined as a goals scored by the opponent while the player is on the ice, tells a lot about how the player helps in denying scoring chances but doesn’t tell us how much the individual is contributing vis-à-vis his teammates.  

Takeaways gives insight into individual players who have mastered a particular defensive skill. 

And, I would argue, hits deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as these statistics, as yet another imperfect – but meaningful – metric by which to assess individual defensive contribution.  Unfortunately, misinformation about what defines “a hit” has led to this statistic being severely overlooked.  Hopefully this article will help change that, even a bit.  

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