Hitting is one of the most important, popular and polarizing components of hockey. With the speed and strength of NHL players, it's arguably the hardest-hitting sports league in the world. Watch a hockey game between rivals such as the Chicago Blackhawks and the Vancouver Canucks with the uninitiated and prepare to be pummeled with the question "but really, they're allowed to just...hit each other like that?"
Yes. Yes they are allowed to just hit each other like that. Awesome, isn't it?
Big hits can turn the tide of games just like timely goals can—and depending on the circumstance, a physical shift by a role player can turn an entire playoff series around. Just being able to set the tempo by playing the body and wearing the opposition down can make less talented teams suddenly appear immortal.
Hitting is a remarkably important part of the game that some players are just better at than others. Last year during the Calder Trophy race, people brought up the physical and punishing nature of Gabriel Landeskog's game just as often as they brought up the goals and helpers.
Some of the best captains in hockey are viewed as such due to their willingness to engage in and lead by physical play. Would Jarome Iginla be as beloved among the Calgary Flames faithful if he didn't sacrifice his body when needed? Would he be considered among the best active captains in the game right now if he didn't drop the gloves when the time was right and didn't land a big hit now and again?
The saying goes that your best players have to be your best players. While that tends to be true, to win games and be successful in the playoffs a team's most physical players must also be the most physically imposing guys out on the ice.
If a player gets lit up once or twice crossing the blue line during a game or early part of a series, you can bet your NHL GameCenter subscription that that guy will have his head on a swivel for quite some time thereafter.
So which players on each team are the best at bringing a physical component to the ice on a nightly basis?
The Anaheim Ducks may have a few more well-known heavy hitters like Ryan Getzlaf aboard, but Luca Sbisa takes the top spot for the biggest hitter on this squad. The Ducks once boasted one of the toughest teams in all of hockey, but the loss of Chris Pronger shifted the team's identity a bit.
Still, this is a group with good overall and all-around toughness, and Sbisa can light guys up with the best of them.
I don't want to hear the cat calls for Zdeno Chara on this one. Is he the most physically imposing force in the NHL? Perhaps. The guy is ridiculously big, and he's not afraid to use that size to his advantage. Yet, I still think Milan Lucic is the heaviest hitter on the Boston Bruins.
He leads the B's with his physical play and monster hits, as evidenced by his 57 hits through just 13 games so far in Boston. He doesn't make a lot of friends for his physical presence, but I have an odd feeling that Lucic couldn't care less about popularity among his peers.
This is exactly why the Buffalo Sabres went out and traded for Steve Ott. The Ryan Miller-Milan Lucic incident was embarrassing for the franchise, and I still feel like it was the main reason that the Sabres traded a bit of skill in Derek Roy for a lot of sandpaper in Ott.
Ott has gone bananas in Buffalo, taking his old role on a new team very seriously. He's already thrown 79 hits this season (in 18 games played) and has tacked on a respectable seven points.
The Calgary Flames aren't the toughest team around, but Tim Jackman can line 'em up and take 'em down when need be. Jarome Iginla may get more attention for his fights and point production, but when a big hit is laid out for Calgary, there is a good chance that it was Jackman on the delivering end.
The Carolina Hurricanes are currently tied for the Southeast Division lead, so the long-term loss of Tuomo Ruutu has flown a bit under the radar. When this guy is in the lineup, he provides the 'Canes with a lot of grit and some timely scoring and offensive contributions.
He's still on the sidelines after hip surgery, but once he returns, Carolina will look for him to add another look to an already-solid offense. Ruutu will likely again take up the mantle of the talented-but-rugged forward—a role that he thrived in in 2010-11, when he threw over 300 hits.
The Chicago Blackhawks have been the most wrecking ball-like team in the NHL so far in 2013, and they've managed to not lose a single game in regulation (yet) as of this writing. They've managed to win most of these games by great team defense or outstanding offensive production, but rarely has an overly physical element crept into Chicago's game.
The team still have a few guys that can throw a good hit, though—Steve Montador being chief among them.
I watch a lot of Colorado Avalanche games for two reasons: Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog. The latter won the Calder Trophy last season due to his offensive prowess and also because of his tenacious and physical style of play.
A player that can take the body as well as make fireworks in the offensive zone, Landeskog could be one of the NHL's premier power forwards for the next decade and beyond.
Derek Dorsett, fresh off of a Gordie Howe hat trick against the Detroit Red Wings last night, is one of the feistier players in the NHL. While he may be smaller than a lot of the players on this list, Dorsett is never one to back down from a challenge and is typically more than willing to fight all comers after the now obligatory "fight after a big hit" around the league.
Toss-up here between Brenden Morrow and Jamie Benn. I know this hasn't been Morrow's Dallas Stars for a few years now, but I've witnessed too many battles involving him to pass on him. Benn can take the body as well, but I still feel like Morrow has some bone-shattering hits on his resume that are impossible to ignore.
Despite his point totals dipping in recent years, Morrow has still maintained his physical edge—he has 27 hits through 17 games played so far this season despite diminished minutes in the early proceedings of 2013.
This would have been Niklas Kronwall a short while ago, but I haven't seen Kronwall "Kronwall" anybody in what feels like years. So while he still puts up decent hit numbers, I'm giving my nod to newcomer Jordin Tootoo here.
Every fan of every other team despises Tootoo for countless reasons—such as his tendency to come off the bench at the start of every shift like he's been shot out of a cannon, beeline for the puck carrier and then hit them.
The Edmonton Oilers wanted to add a bit more grit to their blue line, so they traded a third-round draft pick that they really didn't need to the Dallas Stars for Mark Fistric. Fistric is making a nice niche for himself on an uber-talented, very young Oilers squad. So far this season, he has nearly 40 hits.
Russians aren't supposed to be tough, physical defenders, but apparently no one informed Dmitry Kulikov of this fact. I'm not going to be the one to do it either. After barely breaking the 100-hit barrier in his first two seasons, Kulikov has suddenly exploded with a more physical game.
He has 43 hits in just 15 games played for the Florida Panthers so far in 2013.
Dustin Brown's physical play was a large part of the Stanley Cup run that the LA Kings went on last season.
When the team needed a lift (which really wasn't that often) Brown was there to deliver with a timely hit or goal, usually flashing a toothless grin afterward.
Fantasy hockey players around the globe can attest to Cal Clutterbuck's overtly physical play style. He's among the league leaders in hits every year and has put up over 300 in two of the last three seasons.
Clutterbuck only managed 288 hits in 2011-12.
Alexei Emelin emerged as a physical force on the blue line for the Montreal Canadiens last season, putting up a staggering 236 hits as a rookie.
The Russian native has picked up right where he left off in 2013, springing out for 60 hits in only 17 games.
Shea Weber is expected to be the do-it-all defender for the Nashville Predators as their captain and as the highest-paid player in the NHL.
While he's struggled to find his scoring pace early in 2013, he's still been a rock in his own end. Weber has never been afraid to throw a mean body check, and he keeps his bag of tricks wide open when it comes to taking down offensive threats.
Watch out, Wayne Gretzky—here comes David Clarkson of the New Jersey Devils.
Clarkson became one of the most well-rounded, all-three-zone forwards in the NHL last season as he added quite the scoring touch to his physical presence. He's always had high PIM counts, but his hit-reel stayed steady in 2012 as he tacked on a career-high 46 points.
Travis Hamonic makes life difficult for the opposition on a nightly basis for the New York Islanders.
While he sports an unglamorous minus-10 right now, he can still be counted on to take the body more often than not. Hamonic has several huge hits on his reel and could evolve into a solid top-pairing guy on Long Island over time.
Ryan Callahan is the Mr. New York Rangers.
He embodies the kind of hockey that coaching and management desires from players. Shot-blocking, hitting, timely scoring. Just doing whatever it takes to win a game. Callahan's name shows up on the score sheet for hits just as often as points.
Colin Greening is growing into one of the better gritty forwards for the Ottawa Senators.
He's already put up 44 hits in 17 games in 2013, which is right on pace for the numbers he put up in 2011-12. The Sens hope he can continue his evolution into a power forward as he matures.
When the Philadelphia Flyers dealt the suddenly high-scoring James Van Riemsdyk to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Luke Schenn, I imagine they were hoping for some kind of Chris Pronger-type guy to anchor their back end for years to come.
He's a guy that may not ever achieve the kind of offensive numbers that Pronger did, but his play in his own zone is developing nicely. He blocks a ton of shots and throws a ton of checks. Through 329 career games played, Schenn has already put up over 750 hits.
Shane Doan is a guy that I have a hard time saying nice things about, so I suppose I'll just leave it at "he is quite the opportunist when it comes to using his checking ability."
Tanner Glass is already playing for his fourth team in the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he's brought the same exact thing to every squad. He's a rough and tumble customer, throwing a lot of hits without taking too many PIMs in the effort.
Glass also isn't afraid to drop the gloves to defend his teammates or his own hits.
It's weird to write about Brad Stuart as a guy that takes the body, but he's really impressed me so far in his tenure with the San Jose Sharks. He was always steady for the Detroit Red Wings, but he's seemingly found a new physical edge on the West Coast.
Or it could be that his hits aren't being overshadowed by a teammate like Niklas Kronwall any longer.
David Backes is one of the best in the business at finding the top one or two players on the opposing team, zeroing in on them early and trying to run them through the boards before they get going.
His opening shifts are usually intense, and he's arguably the best power forward in the NHL.
Sadly Ryan Malone hasn't been able to avoid the injury bug since signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but when he's healthy and in his groove, he's every bit as effective as a guy like David Clarkson from the New Jersey Devils.
A Swiss Army knife-type of player, Malone can take the body as well as find the back of the net.
The Toronto Maple Leafs went out and got Dion Phaneuf for his hits and his leadership-type stuffs. Since his arrival, he's dished it out in doses.
Members of the media are a bit rough on the guy, as he's one of the more physically gifted and offensively capable defenders around.
Just like the Buffalo Sabres and their deal for Steve Ott, the Vancouver Canucks really were hurting for some toughness up front. They went out and found help in spades with Zack Kassian. So far the trade of Cody Hodgson has worked out very well for Vancouver.
They added plenty of toughness and a guy willing to take the body that can play top-six minutes, and a guy that can also play a good offensive game.
There was a time when Alex Ovechkin was one of the most entertaining players in the NHL because of his explosiveness on both sides of the puck. He was a mythical goal scorer, sure. But he was still one of the most ferocious open-ice hitters in the game as well.
While the offense has slid off a bit for AO, his physical side remains.
Evander Kane is one of the more underrated physical forwards in the NHL—pushing 60 points and 200 hits is quite an exclusive club, and Kane did just that in 2012. He's pushing the point-per-game boundary for the Winnipeg Jets in 2013,and is still clipping along nicely with highlight-reel hits as well.
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