Introducing Possession-Independent Hitting and Shot-Blocking

Bruce Bennett

The NHL's real-time statistics do a poor job of quantifying a team's ability to hit and block shots. I looked into whether they could be improved.

You hear the word "grit" thrown around in the hockey world a lot, and while the term is subjective, there are measurable aspects of it that we can use to weigh the credibility of the claim that you need it to be successful. Two of the main factors that contribute to a player being seen as "gritty" is his ability to throw hits and to block shots. The NHL tracks these two statistics so that fans, media, and management can find out which players and teams throw the most hits and block the most shots.

There are two major problems with the tracking of these metrics, however.

1. There is significant scorer bias in the NHL, in the sense that what certain scorers consider a shot block or a hit varies by building, and therefore a team that plays in a building with a liberal shot-block counter is bound to rack up more blocked shots than another team without necessarily being more gritty.

2. A team can only record a hit or a blocked shot when it does not have the puck; that's just common sense. The problem is that some teams possess the puck far more than others, so the opportunity to record hits and block shots is unbalanced.

The solution to the first problem is to restrict our dataset to only road data. That way, teams face roughly the same distribution of scorers, and most of the bias is washed out. The way to solve the second problem is to make these statistics independent how much a team has the puck, or how many shots they attempt. Time of possession hasn't been tracked in the NHL in a decade, but possession metrics - namely Corsi - have been shown to be a good proxy in that regard. Corsi also allows us to come up with a shot blocking efficiency statistic. The two new real time stats are as follows:

Possession-Independent Hitting (PIH) - The number of hits a team records divided by the opposition's share of shot attempts in all situations.

Possession-Independent Shot Blocking (PISB) - The percentage of shot attempts against a team blocks in all situations.

Ideally, 5v5 would be separated from odd-man situations, but the hitting and shot-blocking data the NHL provides isn't that extensive so this will have to do. First of all, I'll list the team rankings of the two statistics from 2011-2012 and the shortened 2012-2013 regular seasons (Note: columns are sortable).

2011-2012:

Num Team Road CA% Road Hits PIH Road CA Road BkS PISB
1 ANAHEIM 52 843 16.21 2271 590 0.26
2 BOSTON 48.8 880 18.03 2313 585 0.25
3 BUFFALO 52.8 777 14.72 2408 587 0.24
4 CALGARY 54.8 931 16.99 2466 643 0.26
5 CAROLINA 52 860 16.54 2494 575 0.23
6 CHICAGO 48.7 590 12.11 2221 551 0.25
7 COLORADO 51.5 1001 19.44 2337 564 0.24
8 COLUMBUS 52.7 913 17.32 2369 582 0.25
9 DALLAS 52.8 975 18.47 2350 573 0.24
10 DETROIT 46.4 700 15.09 2127 530 0.25
11 EDMONTON 54.4 907 16.67 2383 559 0.23
12 FLORIDA 51.1 776 15.19 2284 537 0.24
13 LOS ANGELES 47.3 1013 21.42 2190 534 0.24
14 MINNESOTA 56.5 955 16.90 2674 737 0.28
15 MONTREAL 52.5 885 16.86 2343 611 0.26
16 NASHVILLE 56.1 792 14.12 2495 656 0.26
17 NEW JERSEY 50.5 936 18.53 2175 606 0.28
18 NY ISLANDERS 53.7 849 15.81 2488 677 0.27
19 NY RANGERS 54.6 1181 21.63 2400 672 0.28
20 OTTAWA 50.5 923 18.28 2414 544 0.23
21 PHILADELPHIA 50.2 922 18.37 2277 609 0.27
22 PHOENIX 51.7 853 16.50 2373 527 0.22
23 PITTSBURGH 45.4 1063 23.41 2096 510 0.24
24 SAN JOSE 48.6 746 15.35 2286 606 0.27
25 ST LOUIS 49.4 1024 20.73 2185 566 0.26
26 TAMPA BAY 54.2 853 15.74 2480 636 0.26
27 TORONTO 52.1 939 18.02 2338 552 0.24
28 VANCOUVER 48.5 818 16.87 2183 494 0.23
29 WASHINGTON 52.4 838 15.99 2375 640 0.27
30 WINNIPEG 51.8 928 17.92 2419 632 0.26

Some of the lessons we learn here aren't particularly surprising. The New York Rangers under John Tortorella blocked a lot of shots. The Los Angeles Kings were a very physical team. Maybe surprising to some - although not to those of us who have looked into size and physicality in the past - is that Chicago is last in the league in PIH by a sizeable margin. They beat teams with skill, not physicality.

2012-2013:

Num Team Road CA% Road Hits PIH Road CA Road Bks PISB
1 ANAHEIM 52.4 531 10.13 1391 397 0.29
2 BOSTON 47.8 532 11.13 1318 356 0.27
3 BUFFALO 56.9 507 8.91 1556 414 0.27
4 CALGARY 52.9 554 10.47 1362 348 0.26
5 CAROLINA 49.2 498 10.12 1401 322 0.23
6 CHICAGO 48.7 307 6.30 1223 323 0.26
7 COLORADO 53.8 695 12.92 1438 372 0.26
8 COLUMBUS 51.3 638 12.44 1306 328 0.25
9 DALLAS 50.8 529 10.41 1302 302 0.23
10 DETROIT 45.2 366 8.10 1194 282 0.24
11 EDMONTON 58 481 8.29 1493 382 0.26
12 FLORIDA 53 473 8.92 1384 333 0.24
13 LOS ANGELES 44.5 609 13.69 1175 263 0.22
14 MINNESOTA 51.1 479 9.37 1266 311 0.25
15 MONTREAL 48 556 11.58 1232 334 0.27
16 NASHVILLE 54.7 535 9.78 1334 359 0.27
17 NEW JERSEY 45.1 487 10.80 1103 310 0.28
18 NY ISLANDERS 51.1 499 9.77 1401 392 0.28
19 NY RANGERS 50.1 671 13.39 1381 400 0.29
20 OTTAWA 46.6 586 12.58 1339 299 0.22
21 PHILADELPHIA 51.5 646 12.54 1329 355 0.27
22 PHOENIX 51.3 533 10.39 1418 334 0.24
23 PITTSBURGH 51.7 642 12.42 1389 354 0.25
24 SAN JOSE 48.1 506 10.52 1320 325 0.25
25 ST LOUIS 48.5 609 12.56 1182 351 0.30
26 TAMPA BAY 53.8 549 10.20 1413 348 0.25
27 TORONTO 56.5 721 12.76 1450 398 0.27
28 VANCOUVER 50.5 512 10.14 1289 292 0.23
29 WASHINGTON 54 505 9.35 1450 377 0.26
30 WINNIPEG 51.3 641 12.50 1410 345 0.24

Familiar faces appear at the tops and bottoms of these rankings. In fact, there is a significant correlation (R squared = 0.67) between Possession-Independent Hitting in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, for PISB (R squared = 0.37).

So what do all of these numbers mean in the grand context of the NHL? There isn't a massive correlation between hitting efficiency/shot blocking efficiency and points or wins, but unlike with conventional real-time stats, the correlation is positive. That means that teams that are better at hitting and blocking shots - rather than those who hit or block more shots overall - tend to win slightly more games. This applies both in the regular season and playoffs.

The important conclusion to take from these findings, however, shouldn't be that hitting and shot blocking are ends unto themselves, but that they're a way to recover the puck, to prevent scoring chances, and to tilt the ice in your team's favor. Teams that manage to hit a lot when they don't have the puck likely recover the puck effectively using that technique. Same goes for shot blocking. There are, however, other ways to recover the puck, such as good stick-work, solid positioning, and the ability to read the game at a high level and make good decisions.

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