Hitting, Toughness: Why I'm changing my mind on their importance

Quite a bit has been made of the Islanders' collective toughness (or lack thereof) for much of the last few seasons.  (Save for the bit of last year that saw Trevor Gillies, Zenon Konopka, Micheal Haley, Matt Martin and Travis Hamonic in the same lineup due to injury). Toughness has been talked about in any number of ways including fighting, hitting, "getting to the dirty areas," taking contact to make plays, winning battles on the boards and of course, hitting.

My initial stance on the "hitting" aspect of the game is that it is not as important as playmaking and goal scoring. While I stand firm on that, something that Billy Jaffe and Ken Daneyko said during Satuday's "Hockey Night Live" stuck with me: The Islanders not having an "identity."

While generally, this speaks to narrative I don't buy into, they may have a point. If the Islanders were scoring and winning, they would have an identity. As it stands, and as last year bore out as well, they don't do much in the way of winning or scoring right now. So they have to "work hard" and "be tough to play against"...like they did at the tail end of 2010-11. Now that the toughness is gone, their identity is "bad hockey team" (at least for right now), and they don't look tough to play against...whether bounces are going their way or not.

A look at the "hitting" numbers after the jump.

The first thing that bears mentioning is that the Islanders have played less than every team in the league, which drives their stats down a little bit. Initially, (not realizing NHL.com tracked this) I reviewed the Yahoo game boxscores and counted game by game stats. (*Note also that many of the NHL.com "totals" did not match the game by game adding of the Yahoo boxscores...but they are close).

The highlighted rows are games the Islanders outhit their opponents.

The first thing that struck me was that the Isles have outhit their opponents in 64.7% of their games (11/17) and have outhit opponents by 11. It was actually shocking to me that the Islanders were close to the bottom of the NHL.com standings (26th) given the minimal difference in hits between the Islanders and their opponents. This doesn't pass the "eye test" in which so many feel they were manhandled. After doing some digging and averaging, here are the home/away splits.

It is a small sample thus far, but it appears that NVMC may over count some hitting statistics, with minimal difference between home and away teams. However, it also appears that there is a five-hit difference between the Isles home and away hits and about a two hit difference for opponents.

Using Behind the Net's "Fenwick by Team" page, we can create a proxy for "puck possession" that gives us a little more information. The Islanders fenwick percentage (shots on net + missed shots [doesn't include blocked shots]) is pretty bad (45.72 with the score close)...and outright atrocious on the road. (38.19 with the score close). This would indicate that the opposition is controlling play, has possession more often, and therefore, the Islanders should have more opportunity to hit.  Further, it may explain why there is little disparity in hits between the Isles and an opponent on a game by game basis. The other team can't hit them while they're on offense.

There can be a couple of factors for the discrepancy between possession and hitting: the stat counters are different/have different criteria, the coach is not able to get the line matchups he wants and therefore, hits are more limited, or some random unknowable thing like "bad on the road" kind of travel problem.

 

Missed Opportunities

The bottom line is, on a couple of occasions already this season, the Isles have had an opponent on the tail end of back to back games. They have had an extremely light schedule (amount of games), good health, plenty of practice time together, and an extremely favorable road/home split. They haven't even played one of their 14 sets of back-to-back games yet.

They have squandered a golden opportunity to take advantage of other teams in their division while they had injuries and less favorable schedules. (Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Pronger, and a host of others have missed time, Brodeur has struggled, the Rangers were in Europe and had a terrible start.) There really is no excuse for a lack of physicality and being tough to play against at this point.

In games where the Isles have outhit their opponents, they are 3-5-3. In games where they've been outhit, they are 2-4-0. So the record doesn't significantly bear out that hitting more would help the Islanders win, however, even in wins, they generally aren't outhitting teams by much, and often, they are being outshot when they are outhitting...and score effects come into play once the game gets away from them...they tend to drive posession a little more when down by more than one goal. But as noted by the MSG live crew, their identity is missing. 

And it's not so much the "hitting," it is the work ethic...the skating hard and forcing the play. Going into a corner and coming away with a puck...taking a couple of cross checks to ensure a goalie can't see: Those things are also not getting done.

But we don't have anyone measuring those things.

So while my initial stance was hitting isn't really that important, I'm now going to change that to: hitting and physical play is important to some teams...the Islanders being one of them. 

When you're not the Red Wings or the Lightining, you will need to bring other aspects of the game to keep your identity and your head in the game when you're not scoring. While I didn't initially believe that the Isles were being outhit badly, I recognize now that you need to look not at the hit totals, but the missed opportunities for hits...and also look at the bad or missed hits that affect possession, shots against, scoring chances and goals against. As a proxy for "hard work", "hitting" is not a great stat to use, and I'll admit that, but in line with everything that the eye test and possession metrics tell us, I'm ready to agree a piece like Micheal Haley or Justin DiBenedetto may help this squad.

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