As veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik approached his 1,000th career game last season, Columbus coach John Tortorella affectionately likened him to a long-extinct species. “He’s a little bit of a dinosaur,” Tortorella said, “because he hits. And there isn’t a lot of hitting in this game.”
Orpik has since retired, leaving the game without one of its heaviest hitters from the past 15 years. And as Tortorella yearns for the days of increased physicality, league-wide bodychecking continues to decline. Including the first quarter of 2019-20, hits per game have dropped in four of the past five years. The NHL is also on pace for its fewest hits per game since 2008-09.
The Hockey News recently spoke with several current and former players as well as coaches and executives on the subject of hitting. A popular opinion prevailed that, while physicality remains a critically important part of the game – see the past two Stanley Cup champions – changes in the NHL rulebook the past 15 years have affected where and when hits are delivered. “It’s changed so much,” said Hal Gill, the 6-foot-7, 240-pounder who patrolled NHL bluelines for 16 seasons and now works with the Predators Radio Network. “I had some kid come up to me and say, ‘I play just like you,’ and I said, ‘Well, you better change quick.’ I always said every new rule was a rule to get me out of the league, whether it was the hooking and holding, or now, with the speed of the game, if you can’t skate, if you can’t keep up, you can’t play. You can’t grab them on the way by, and you can’t use your strength.”
While the frequency of hits is declining, goal-scoring continues to rise. For the first time since the early 1980s, the NHL has seen goals per game increase in three consecutive seasons. The 2019-20 campaign is on pace to make it four straight. “The players’ skill level and their ability to quickly move the puck just doesn’t allow the hitting to be as much of a factor as it was several years ago,” said Predators GM David Poile.
In other words, you can’t hit what you can’t catch. With officials cracking down on hooking, slashing and obstruction, plus the removal of the red line in 2005, the game has been opening up for some time.
As a result, rosters are now littered with skilled forwards – regardless of size – and mobile defensemen who can quickly transition up ice. Lining up an opponent for the perfectly timed, bone-crunching hit is becoming a lost art. Transition defense is instead now largely reliant on the far-less-flashy, but potentially as effective, active stick. “There’s a bigger emphasis on disrupting the puck carrier by taking the puck rather than taking the body,” said 6-foot-8, 229-pound Vancouver defenseman Tyler Myers, now in his 11th season. “It’s tough to say who started that trend, but the idea is you get pucks back faster. You disrupt a team’s breakout faster. The whole idea is to get the puck back. Puck possession is such a big part of the game. Your stick becomes a magnet to the puck as opposed to just trying to separate the player.”
While Washington has been among the league leaders in hits per game this season, coach Todd Reirden is also an advocate of stick-on-puck defense. Reirden was first introduced to the now-common practice during his playing days in St. Louis with then-Blues coach Joel Quenneville in 1999-2000. “A lot of forwards hope you finish them and take yourself out of the play,” Reirden said. “Teams are better offensively at creating down low. It’s the development of the offensive player which has forced you to be able to defend first with your stick and then, if you have a chance, to separate physically.”
Scott Stevens, who ranks among the greatest hitters in NHL history, concedes the open-ice blows he delivered throughout his 22-year career are going by the wayside. He’s an analyst on NHL Network. “It’s all about speed and making guys turn pucks over,” Stevens said. “It’s just go-go-go. Puck pressure all over. That’s one reason we’ve lost some of the hitting: guys don’t want to expend a lot of energy or hit when they know they need to use their legs and be on top of people and force turnovers.”
Still, Stevens says, there are situations that call for physical play in today’s game that aren’t being fully exploited. “I see a lot of free passes being given,” Stevens said. “At times, for the skilled guys, it’s like they know they’re not going to get hit, and so now they’re allowed to make even better plays and maybe score a goal because nobody finished them. There’s no price to pay.”
Washington right winger Tom Wilson, who has arguably taken the mantle of hockey’s hardest hitter as the modern-day Stevens, knows the sport has changed but isn’t convinced hitting will ever die – not when it matters so much in the playoffs, when the game gets much more old-school. “The game is in a weird spot right now – teams want that heavy game, but they also want goal-scoring,” Wilson said. “I guess the guys coming out of juniors and the American League are just more focused on having to score. There’s more pressure to score goals and less on blocking shots and playing physical. But that’s what it takes to win, so we’ll see how it goes.”
With the speed of the game ratcheted up and the days of clutching and grabbing well past their expiration date, players are adjusting accordingly. Arizona right winger Michael Grabner, a 10-year NHL veteran and one of the game’s best skaters, says the biggest change he’s noticed has been in the volume of puck-moving defensemen who can join the rush. Not only might they be less inclined to deliver hits, but they’re also tougher to target. “They’re breaking out faster, they’re more agile,” Grabner said. “They can fake you out, they’re deceptive, and it’s harder to pin them. And if you miss them, poof, they’re gone.”
The mobile defenseman, who has become an even greater threat as teams preach an up-tempo game, is among the many factors keeping hit totals down. The risk versus reward in targeting the mobile ‘D’ for a big hit must be considered.
The decrease in hitting can be seen in all three zones, including below the goal line in the offensive zone. Arizona coach Rick Tocchet, a bruising power forward during his 18-year playing career, says there are more instances where the mental stop sign comes up. The example he gives is on the forecheck, where his players are reminded to proceed with caution once they see an opponent’s name on the back of his jersey. “You don’t abort the engagement, but you have to abort the hit,” Tocchet said. “You have to play a little bit – I don’t want to say softer, but a little bit smarter. That’s where I think hitting is less. Back in the day, the F1 would just crank the guy.”
Any given night will still present several examples of teams dumping and chasing and delivering hits on opposing ‘D’ – “that investment is still worth it,” Reirden said – but alternative plans of attack are also being utilized. “Instead of just dumping it in and running the ‘D’ like back in the day,” said Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland, “there’s more carrying the puck into the zone or dumping it with a plan to get it back.
“Guys are faster, and they’re chipping pucks into open areas where they can get it back and maintain zone time. They’re winning races, not collisions.”
As scouts continue to place a premium on the swift-skating, puck-moving defenseman, a case can be made that the physically imposing shutdown defenseman is becoming obsolete – or at least trending in that direction. “You can’t have a player whose skating is below average,” Poile said. “The defensemen that can get the puck and make the first pass out are very valuable today. That’s a huge change, and it’s probably penalized some of these bigger guys that have that great physicality and hit a lot but are maybe a little less skilled or less mobile.”
The notion brings us back to Orpik and Tortorella’s suggestion last season that he was a dinosaur. While Orpik invested in a skating coach to improve his mobility into his late 30s, not everyone of his ilk did the same. Many of the game’s most physically imposing stay-at-home defensemen were ultimately pushed out of the league. “When I came into the league, I felt like everyone was 6-foot-2 and up,” said Washington’s Radko Gudas, the hits leader among all defensemen since 2012-13. “Now you’ve got 5-foot-9, 5-foot-10 guys playing big roles, playing big minutes. It’s changed. Look at the guys who get drafted now. It’s tough to say what the coaches and GMs want, but I think hitting is still an important part of the game, and I want to bring it. You just don’t do it as much.”