Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Changing Profile Of 'Physical' Players in the NHL

Noted New York-area weepist and Stanley Cup ceremony re-enactor Mark Messier took to the airwaves today to lament the state of the New York Rangers hockey team.  According to Mollie Walker, Messier said, presumably through tears:  "In my opinion, if you're going to win, you got to be able to win in the street and the alley. I particularly would not have built the team that didn't have answers in this regard." Messier is here referring to two Rangers star forwards being abused by Capitals' bete noire Tom Wilson. He would've built a more physical team that could also dominate in that regard.

The Rangers have been rebuilding for several years now, but they don't have a Tom Wilson sort of player.  But then I got to thinking and I realized that no one else really does either.  Wilson was an oft-derided draft pick by the Capitals who selected him under the auspisces of him being 'the next Milan Lucic', and that derision stopped when he fully broke out in 2018-19, scoring 22 goals in 63 games.  He hasn't quite matched Lucic's boxcars but he's become a solid top 9 forward.  He ranks 72nd in points/60 at ES over the last 3 seasons (min: 1200 minutes).  He also ranks 9th in hits* among forwards over that time.

Yes, hits.  I was thinking of a way to approximate 'alley-winning', and it's difficult to come up with anything other than our old friend, hits.  I do still look at this number from time to time because it can be astounding - Matt Martin's still chugging along hitting everything that moves and Jaromir Jagr's 4 hit 2013-14 season still a thing to behold.  I couldn't help but notice the profile of the top 20 guys in road hits this year (veterans of this blog surely remember that hits are so inconsistently counted around the league that you've got to look at road hits):

Hopefully that looks even halfway decent.  Regardless, it is striking to me how while many of these players are top 9 forwards, most of them don't really score.  You've got the two Tkachuks, Kreider, and Jordan Staal, but other than that it's mostly 3rd and 4th line players.  There's young players on there - the Tkachuks are 23 and 20, Wagner is 23, Bastian is 23, Trenin is 24, but these latter three players really don't profile as future top 9 forwards.  So is this really what you want as Rangers GM, to go out and get one of these guys?  You've already got one in Kreider.  You had one in Brendan Lemieux, a 4th liner, and traded him for a 4th round pick.

The thing is, the list looks a lot different in 2007-08, the first year that the NHL kept track of hits:

The top 7 names all played more than 15 minutes a game.  Knowing what we know now, while Backes was a 2nd year player and Dubinsky and Lucic were rookies, they would go on to have long, productive careers as top 9 forwards - Backes has 2615 hits, Dubinsky 2149, and Lucic is close to 3000.    

Maybe the trends don't fully track, but I just am seeing very few forwards who come into the league who profile as the traditional 'power forward' - they're either missing the hitting part or the scoring part.  I'm real curious to see what this chart looks like in another 5-6 years.  But it seems like, based on the chart from 2020-21, it'd be a real challenge to build a group of alley-beaters through the draft.  Maybe there's a third Tkachuk brother out there.