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The Best Hitters in the NHL -- Forwards

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 27:  Kevin Porter #12 of the Colorado Avalanche delviers a hit on Eric Fehr #17 of the Winnipeg Jets at the Pepsi Center on December 27, 2011 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 27: Kevin Porter #12 of the Colorado Avalanche delviers a hit on Eric Fehr #17 of the Winnipeg Jets at the Pepsi Center on December 27, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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"The Hardest Hitters in the NHL", "The Heaviest Hitters in the NHL"...these are Bleacher Report and The Hockey Writers' cannon fodder, the kinds of things you can engage in open discussion and with all sorts of observed evidence for and against. The discussion's played out annually, and it's always interesting to me because we have yet to find that hits have a particularly strong relationship to winning, and there's always an emphasis on big hits. I mean, if I was just going to base my analysis on the hitter who crushed a lot of people, I'd probably start with Rob Blake and work my way down (no offence, Scott Stevens, but you didn't use your ass enough).

But we all know that it doesn't really matter how hard you hit somebody; it's like a slam dunk in basketball - as long as the ball goes in the hoop, it doesn't matter if you throw it down or hit a 10 foot fadeaway. The hit needs to be useful, which is hard to assess (and something I won't look at in this post), but for a preliminary look I think we also need to look at guys who can execute their hits without a potential drawback of physical play: minor penalties.

Now, I could look all minor penalties, but for this purpose it's probably better just to look at the minors that are commonly associated with illegal physical play (roughing, interference, cross-checking, elbowing, holding). The data I have on this are for three seasons, but curiously enough I'm missing 2009-10, so I have 2008-09, 2010-11, and 2011-12. To offset playing time issues, I kept track of checking minor PIM per 15 minutes (your average forward's ice time per game). I made a second metric based on away hits, once again expressed in per 15 minutes. Using these metric, I ranked the 430-odd NHL forwards eligible for each season (minimum games played - 20), made a composite ranking using the two metrics, then put them in percentile buckets (top 10th percentile = 1, top 20th = 2, and so on) to reduce some of the minor league- and player variances. Of course, not all the forwards made it to 3 season's worth of data, so for something like this I've only compared players with at least 2 season's data and will also identify those with three.

The premise is simple: if you can be physical without taking minor penalties regularly, you are at the very least avoiding being a major detriment to the team. There will always be instances where trying for the hit might hurt your team, but I'd wager that you'd be hard pressed to get any kind of consistent measure of that, and that it wouldn't be extraordinarily frequent.

You'll notice by the title that I've separated forwards from defencemen. The nature of the hitting between these two is very different, and while the number of hits are close the playing time and PIM totals are different too. In other words, there's enough difference between them that it would be better to keep them separate rather than compare them.

So, without further ado, the forwards who, across 2-3 seasons, have consistently scored in the top 10th-20th percentile:

Rk Player Avg %ile
1 Andrew Murray, C 1.00
2 David Moss, RW 1.00
3 Ales Kotalik, RW 1.00
4 Liam Reddox, LW 1.00
5 Kevin Porter, LW 1.00
6 Mike Grier, RW 1.00
7 Rod Pelley, C 1.00
8 Jake Dowell, C 1.00
9 Trevor Lewis, C 1.00
10 Darren Helm, C 1.00
11 Andreas Nodl, RW 1.00
12 Joey Crabb, RW 1.33
13 Toby Petersen, C 1.33
14 Matt Bradley, RW 1.33
15 Tuomo Ruutu, C 1.33

The players in italics are those that have only two seasons of data, and the tiebreakers are the composite ranks mentioned above rather than the percentiles. A surprising list, no? A lot of 3rd liners, guys who would probably be out of a job if they would take those minutes and consistently put their team in shorthanded situations. I'll probably mine this data for more nuance later, but suffice to say that you simply did not see goons benefit unless they solely went to the box for fighting (Paul Bissonnette came in 21st), and a lot of star players who do not hit are, interestingly, prone to taking poor checking-related penalties. My guess is that when they do engage in the physical game, it's because they're upset and then are more prone to doing something dumb. Or they're just bad at checking.

I will note that these "best" hitters aren't necessarily the best overall players.

How about the bottom group?

Rk Player Avg %ile
403 Nathan Horton, RW 9.67
404 Todd Bertuzzi, RW 9.67
405 Steve Sullivan, LW 9.67
406 Alexander Semin, LW 9.67
407 Corey Perry, RW 9.67
408 Tim Connolly, C 9.67
409 Nathan Gerbe, LW 10.00
410 Dominic Moore, C 10.00
411 Alexei Kovalev, RW 10.00
412 Jeff Skinner, LW 10.00
413 Jason Spezza, C 10.00
414 Sidney Crosby, C 10.00
415 Evgeni Malkin, C 10.00
416 Marc Savard, C 10.00
417 Scott Gomez, C 10.00

A number of pretty good offensive players, and Scott Gomez. Some of these guys, like Skinner and Malkin, managed to match the top hitters in checking PIM yet threw the body far less. A guy like Gerbe, on the other hand, jut didn't do much of anything physically.

How about our Jets?

Rk PLAYER Avg %ile
69 Antti Miettinen, RW 3.00
95 Chris Thorburn, RW 3.33
99 Alex Burmistrov, C 3.50
101 Tanner Glass, LW 3.50
107 Jim Slater, C 3.67

Rk PLAYER Avg %ile
231 Nik Antropov, C 6.00
252 Bryan Little, C 6.33
282 Blake Wheeler, RW 6.67
321 Evander Kane, LW 7.50
329 Eric Fehr, RW 7.67

What struck me about this data included the fact that players were remarkably consistent in landing in their percentile, with a few exceptions (James van Riemsdyk, in his two seasons, went from top to bottom across last year and this year). This suggests that there's some repeatability here; it might be one of the few instances where we actually can quantify NHL behavior. I'll look some more into the consistency and the potential value of this data on an individual basis in later posts. For now, let me know if you're interested in how some other players ranked; hold off on teams, though, as I think I'll undertake that in the future.