I’m tired of being told that hits and blocked shots don’t matter. The best advanced stats bloggers generally refrain from saying it outright, but I’ve heard the sentiment too many times. I’m also tired because it’s hard to get sleep when you’ve got a newborn and a toddler, but that’s a side issue.
As I spent some time wondering why the idea of hits and blocked shots not mattering bothered me so much, I started to relate it to the shot quality debate. Many proponents of advanced stats will tell you that shot quality doesn’t matter and that shot quantity is far more important. It’s understandable why many traditionalist take issue with hockey analytics when they’re told that shot quality, hits, and blocked shots are unimportant when all three can play a vital role in the outcome of a game.
It’s clear to me that all three do, in fact, matter and that looking at hits and blocked shots in the same light as the shot quality versus shot quantity debate can shed some light on why.
We know that shot quality exists because we can see it on the ice. Some players are just better at shooting the puck than others and shots from certain areas on the ice are more likely to result in goals than shots from elsewhere. If Steven Stamkos is taking a one-timer from the slot, it’s a safer bet to hit the back of the net than a Zenon Konopka wrist shot from the boards. Of course, the low-percentage wrist shot from the boards could potentially deflect off a defender’s skate and go in — it’s a low-percentage shot, not a no-percentage shot — but it’s clear to observers that shot quality matters.
And yet, the most often-cited advanced statistics in hockey are Corsi and Fenwick, which measure shots for and against, including missed shots, and, for Corsi, blocked shots, ignoring shot quality altogether. Here’s where the misunderstanding comes in: proponents of advanced stats aren’t saying that shot quality doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t matter when it comes to the individual shot. It’s just that when you look at the big picture, shot quality more or less disappears.
The two elements of shot quality are location and skill. A shot taken from closer to the net — aka. a scoring chance — has a better opportunity to be a goal. Possession statistics like Corsi and Fenwick, however, have been shown to have a high correlation to scoring chances, so, since it’s easier to track the quantity of shots than it is to track scoring chances, it’s much easier to use Corsi and Fenwick.
As for skill, that generally comes out as shooting percentage, which fluctuates so wildly from season-to-season that it’s essentially useless in predicting future performance. Skill certainly plays a part in shooting percentage but so does luck. Players with abnormally high shooting percentages in one season are unlikely to repeat it the next. Corsi and Fenwick are far more useful as they’re far more repeatable.
Here’s an example: Patrik Berglund had the highest shooting percentage in the league last season among players who played all 48 games. His shooting percentage was 23.0%, scoring 17 goals. That brought his career average up to 13.0%. How much do you want to bet that his shooting percentage will be far closer to 13.0% than 23.0% next season?
The quantity of shots is what ends up mattering the most when it comes to predicting future success: Fenwick Close, which tallies shots for and against when the score is close, including missed shots but not blocked shots, is the most reliable of our current statistics as it correlates well with future success and is far more repeatable than something like shooting percentage.
So, while we see shot quality matter on the individual level, it’s shot quantity that ends up being more useful for analysis.
We can look at hits and blocked shots in a similar way. We know that a hit or blocked shot can have a major impact on the course of a game because we can see it on the ice. We see a hit on the forecheck that frees up the puck, leading to a scoring chance. We see a defender lay out to block a shot, taking away a good goalscoring opportunity. We see the positive effects of hits and blocked shots every time we watch a game.
What we’re really seeing are quality hits and blocked shots. It’s very easy to ascribe a higher value to those hits and blocked shots that seem to really matter, erasing from our memory the ones that had a negligible impact on the end result of the game. The same is true of shots: the ones that stick out in our memory are the quality shots, the scoring chances. We tend to forget the bad angle shot that was easily saved or the weak wrister from the point.
Quality hits and blocked shots obviously matter but, unlike shots, the quantity ends up being a negative. A high quantity of shots indicates that a team was in control of the puck, whereas a high quantity of hits and blocked shots means the other team had the puck, which, all things considered, is not ideal. In fact, hits and blocked shots correlate better with losing than they do with winning.
The virtue in a high quantity of hits is that maybe, just maybe, it’ll wear down the other team, even though that team is composed of players who have spent the vast majority of their lives getting hit by opposing hockey players. The virtue in a high quantity of blocked shots is that media members will praise you for your blue-collar effort and grit.
There’s one other virtue to both, however: there is the chance of throwing a quality hit or making a quality shot block at the right time.
The quality hit that creates a turnover leading to a scoring chance or that wipes out an opponent to prevent a scoring chance — that’s the whole point of throwing hits in the first place. The quality shot block that bails out a goaltender or, even better, starts a rush the other way that creates a scoring chance, makes the bruised shins worth it.
Hits and blocked shots, as individual events, can be very positive. A high quantity of them, however, is bad news.
The oddity comes in the emphasis: in order to get quality hits and blocked shots that lead to scoring chances and save goals, coaches emphasize quantity, at least for teams that focus on such things. Players are encouraged to finish every check and block shots at nearly every opportunity, in hopes that one of those hits will lead to a turnover or that one of those shot blocks will prevent a potential goal.
With shots, however, quality is emphasized more than quantity. The emphasis is on scoring chances, not just shots, excepting those times when a team goes into desperation mode and is encouraged to shoot from anywhere. The search for quality shots, however, inevitably leads to quantity over time for the better team. In attempting to create scoring chances, shots on goal, blocked shots, and missed shots will be created as a by-product.
In some ways quality hits and blocked shots are a by-product of emphasizing a high quantity of hits and blocked shots. A team that’s good at possessing the puck, however, won’t end up with many hits or blocked shots, even if quantity is emphasized.
The key to remember is that shot quality, hits, and blocked shots do matter, if only when it comes to the individual event on the ice. It’s only when those individual events become small pieces of data in a bigger picture that shot quantity becomes more important and hits and blocked shots become a net negative. The individual scoring chance, big hit, and blocked shot still have meaning and purpose, no matter what some may say.