When the Leafs signed Matt Martin, a lot of talk turned immediately to hits, and how often he dishes them out. He is (in)famous for topping the NHL's list of most frequent hitters, and last year was no exception:
The caveat on NHL recorded hits is the following: there is venue bias in how they are recorded just like with all other numbers produced by hand by the NHL. What constitutes a hit is not defined in a way to make the recording anything but highly subjective. The number is almost never expressed as a rate statistic, meaning no accounting for time on ice is ever done in comparisons.
I am not going to rate out the hit counts either. But with Martin playing very low minutes, it is likely that he really does lead the league in hits in a meaningful way even allowing for the assumption that the home team's "hitter" gets awarded hits much more generously than the small scoring forward on the opposing team.
We have a general idea of who hits more that is good enough for this very superficial examination of the topic.
But who are they hitting?
Jack Ries at Hockey Prospectus answers that question for last season, and that list of names is much more interesting than the more usual way of looking at hit data.
In general, he found that most hitters are spreading the pain around without any pattern. They don't have grudges; they don't go after specific players. We can surmise, then, that most skaters get hit in a fairly evenly spaced way.
That is true for most players, but not all. Some are taking a lot more hits than others, and one of those who gets hit a lot is Nazem Kadri. He was the seventh most frequently hit player in Ries's data. Ries did rate out his numbers: Kadri is getting hit 10.5 times per 60 minutes, which works out to more than three times per game.
Ries also looked at which specific player is a repeat hitter of specific targets. As expected, there are a lot of in-division pairings, since the opportunities are more frequent there, but some of the results are simply amusing. Matt Hunwick does not like Brendan Gallagher. Ryan Callahan does not like Jake Gardiner. Leo Komarov thinks Zach Trotman and Zdeno Chara are good targets to keep revisiting.
He is not on the frequent hittees list, although you might expect him to be. Most of the players taking a lot of hits are defenders, but there are a few forwards. Andrew Shaw is there. Patrik Hornqvist is there. Those two have a particular sort of reputation, along with Kadri and Gallagher, for instigating heightened emotions, to use the polite phrase. Rats is the impolite word.
What matters, amusement aside, is the actual game on the ice, where the goal is goals, not revenge or energy or just testing your manhood by slamming into Chara (or noticing he is not what he used to be and thinking maybe hitting him is effective now).
The problem with hit counts, once you stop making narratives out of them about creating momentum by jousting for dominance, is that they don't mean anything. Even accurate ones don't mean anything. If Komarov hits Chara, that doesn't mean anything good happened that led to a scoring chance. It also doesn't mean anything bad that inevitably led to a chance against.
No one measures what matters. No one counts whether hits lead to meaningful changes in possession, which makes both the desire for a tough forechecking team an untested need and the belief that all hitting is useless an unproven opinion.
It is a popular saying lately that if you are hitting, you don't have the puck, but a lot of the time you don't have the puck. Until the effect of hitting on possession is tracked in a meaningful way, all we can do is tell stories to each other about how useful hitting is at getting the puck back. Puck retrieval should be job one when you don't have it, after all.
Crazy find: Nazem Kadri's ability to draw penalties in 15/16 was 6 standard deviations above average for forwards— DTM About Heart (@DTMAboutHeart) 27 July 2016
A lot of people believe that hitting helps to raise the stupid/60 of the opposing team and leads to power plays. A lot of people believe Kadri's ability to stir up the opposition (and some diving) led to his 47 penalties drawn for 36 taken last year. You walk the line as a rat, sometimes you slip over it; his penalties taken is not exactly low. He also led the team in penalty minutes.
Hornqvist also had a very high differential from 25 drawn and 16 taken. There are a lot more whistles blown when Kadri is on the ice, but the overall result is barely better.
Shaw has a negative differential, but Gallagher, not on the hit target list, has an excellent one of 21 drawn and 11 taken. Perhaps Montréal had all the rat they needed, and simply had never realized it?
Something interesting shows up in the hit counts that is likely a co-incidence, but Toronto, Pittsburgh and Montréal all have big hitters on the doling out list. How much does the success of the rat game Kadri or Gallagher play depend on some big bodies hitting hard and making people angry on the other team?
This is just one of the many, many areas of the game, dramatically secondary to the principle purpose of having the puck, getting it if you don't, and trying to score with it, that is the subject of myth and narrative and not very well understood in any more definitive way.
One cautionary note on falling in love with penalty differential as a mark of a good or bad player—the effect is minimal on the overall goal differential for a full season, and one player's positives can easily be wiped out by another's negatives. Arvind calculates the value of penalty drawing here.
A very high team differential can add up to enough goals for a win or two, and a very high negative can be a couple of losses. Toronto's five-on-five differential was second highest in the league last year—second highest negative that is! But their all situations numbers were better due to drawing a lot of penalties both on the power play and the penalty kill.
For all that the rat game seems to get you some power play time, is it worth it? How much effort do you spend manipulating your play to draw the ire of the other team? What dull, yet more valuable things could you be doing instead? Or is being a rat just baked into who you are?
There were a lot of skaters who had a higher differential than Kadri last year, even if his total drawn led the league. And most of them have one thing in common: they are fast, talented, high-scoring forwards against whom lesser opponents take penalties because they can't play against them.
Filip Forsberg, Johnny Gaudreau, Anze Kopitar, Brandon Saad, Jack Eichel, Jordan Eberle, Matt Duchene, Nate MacKinnon, and several more are all ahead of Kadri. If the game of hitting and being hit is of unknown value, maybe there is more to the game of drawing penalties than just drawing ire.
Are Kadri, Gallagher and Hornqvist really rats at all? Is their reputation just another narrative? Are they, just like those other guys, drawing penalties primarily by being fast, effective forwards who score often? Even last year in the depths of a shooting percentage trough, Kadri was still an offensive threat who spent most of his time in the opponents' end.
Get the puck, keep it, try to score, prevent the other team from doing the same. We know that works. The rest is just colour commentary.