Do you remember those days when the New Jersey Devils were perennial Stanley Cup contenders? I know you do, that was a terrible question. However, do you remember the feeling back then that the East was the physical conference, and NJ had to play a physical brand of hockey to get far? There was certainly a reputation for tough hockey to come from the Devils, what with Scott Stevens’ hits highlight reel if for nothing else. Of course, those days are long gone, and as this year showed us, so is any connection to that physical style of play.
That is not to state or even imply that being physical is the absolute way to winning hockey these days. Many in analytics would actually refute that notion. Physical players are usually fourth line grinders, those on checking lines who do not produce much in the way of points or even possession. Replacing those players with skilled forwards who can skate, push the puck forward, and generate more secondary scoring is arguably more profitable to a club, especially where analytics are concerned.
However, it is not like New Jersey had either this year. Secondary, bottom six scoring was very hard to come by for the Devils, as they were constantly bringing in different prospects to give them a taste of NHL action after it became obvious this was a losing season. And these players, for the most part, were not physical. I noticed this initially when writing up comments for our AATJ regular season awards which will come out soon. Hits, a stat primed to showcase the physicality of a player, was rather interesting to look at. Blake Coleman, who I think had a quality, improved season over last year, was quite physical. As of Thursday, when I compiled all these stats, he had 218 hits in all situations. Only 24 skaters had at least 200 hits this year, so he has done quite well with being physical.
After him, however, the drop off is rather enormous, to say the least. Not only is he the only Devil to have at least 200 hits, he is the only Devil to have at least 100 hits! The next on the list, again as of Thursday, was Kyle Palmieri, who had 98. That is an incredible drop off between Coleman and the rest of the team. No one else who played significant minutes was clearly interested in being physical out there on the ice.
To see how this compared to other teams, as perhaps the Devils’ overall hits numbers were not too off from the pack, I decided to add up the top 5 hitters on each team to see how often teams were throwing around checks this season. Information from Natural Stat Trick. I apologize in advance for the huge chart to follow. I know it isn’t a pretty sight.
So there are teams that have less hits, are less physical, than the Devils. Not many, but a few. However, only one other team has only one other player with over 100 hits, and that would be Toronto, a highly skilled team. And as of this writing, they had two players with exactly 99 hits. The only player really keeping New Jersey from being down where Nashville is in terms of hits is Coleman. He is a one man wrecking crew for the Devils. Literally.
Now if you look at the chart, there is no crazy correlation between being physical and being successful. Again, this is definitely true, and it depends a lot on a team’s system and players as to whether it is physical or not. Vegas and the Isles dominate in hits, and they are both very good. However, Edmonton also dominates in hits, and they are not good this year. The same works true at the bottom of the chart. Nashville and Toronto are playoff bound, and they are not physical at all. Neither is Chicago, but they will be golfing as soon as the Devils are. If you expand it a little more, of the top 10 teams in hits this season, 7 will be playing hockey next week, the only three not being Edmonton, Arizona, and Philadelphia. Of the bottom 10 teams in hits, four will be dancing for sure, Nashville, Toronto, St. Louis and Calgary. Montreal could also sneak in still as of this writing. That bodes a little better for more physical teams this year, but nothing crazy.
What is the weirdest for the Devils, I think, is the major discrepancy between Coleman and the rest of the team. It seems like for John Hynes and Co., Fast, Attacking, and Supportive does not mean physical, and no one really goes out there to be physical for the Devils, with one major exception. Coleman just throws his body around out there, checking players left and right, seemingly against what anyone else does. That in itself is weird. No other team had such a major drop off from their top hitter to the next. The NHL average this year is having 5.3 players with 100 or more hits (with 80 games played). The Devils have 1. And that one so far above and beyond anyone else.
If Hynes and Co. want to push a skillful, finesse style of hockey out there, that is fine by me. Finesse teams can win if they are skilled enough. The Devils have that skill on the top line when it is healthy, and hopefully they can generate some secondary talent behind them to be successful in the near future. But Coleman’s style, if in terms of physicality, seems at odds with the rest. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues next year, or if someone else starts to hit more like Coleman, or if Coleman lowers his checking game.