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Speed vs Physicality in the Modern NHL

By: Jared Fong


Source: NHL.com

Introduction


The game of hockey is ever-evolving. Teams in the sport’s best league the National Hockey League (NHL) are scoring at a much higher rate than in years prior. In the past 3 seasons, teams have averaged 3.15 goals per game, up 13% from 10 years ago. This past season saw Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay Lightning), Nathan Mackinnon (Colorado Avalanche), Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers), and Artemi Panarin (New York Rangers) all registered over 120 points during the season while Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs) scored 69 goals, a feat that had not been accomplished since Mario Lemieux did so 30 years ago. 



Part of the reason scoring is up is because of the blazing speed at which some of the players of this generation can move. The skating ability of guys like Connor McDavid, Nathan Mackinnon, Cale Makar (Colorado Avalanche), and Quinn Hughes (Vancouver Canucks) allow them to blow by players to create many scoring opportunities for their team. However, hockey is more than just speed and skill. Hitting and physicality are what set hockey apart from other major sports. A team’s physicality can change the course of a game. One big hit can get the crowd off their seat and steal momentum in an instant. Additionally, constant physicality can wear down another team or throw them off their game which prevents them from being able to use their speed. Because of the importance of physicality, there will always be a place for enforcers like Ryan Reaves (Toronto Maple Leafs), Matt Rempe (New York Rangers), and Kurtis MacDermid (New Jersey Devils) whose sole role is to hit people on the other team. 


At the time of the writing of this article, the 2024 Stanley Cup Finals are about to begin. Representing the Western Conference is the Edmonton Oilers. On their way to the final, the Oilers dominated the Los Angeles Kings for the third year in a row winning in 5 games, outlasted the Vancouver Canucks in a grueling 7 game series, and shocked the world by beating the Dallas Stars in 6. Led by Connor McDavid, the Oilers have been able to use to fast-paced play style to find success. Their effective use of their speed in transition has caught their opponents off guard leading to the Oilers generating scoring opportunities and drawing penalties to get to the powerplay. On the other side is the Florida Panthers, who play a completely opposite style of play to the Oilers. The Panthers bested their cross-state rival, the Tampa Lightning in 5, dismantled the Bruins in 6, and took down the President trophy winner (the team who finishes the regular season with the best record), New York Rangers in 6 games in route to a back to back finals appearance. Through their ruthless and physical style of play, the Panthers used constant pressure and physicality to wear down their opponents and capitalize on their mistakes. 


Seeing the success of the two teams in the finals and wishing for my team, the Los Angeles Kings, to replicate said success has led me to ask the question: What plays more of a role in a winning formula, Speed or physicality? To answer this question I collected data from the past three seasons. I used the number of hits, each time a player on a team hit a member of an opponent, to measure a team’s physicality and the number of 20+ mile per hour bursts, anytime a player skated at least 20 miles per hour, to determine how fast a team was. Using this data, I analyzed the results of the past seasons to see if the most successful teams were the ones that were among the NHL’s fastest or most physical.


2021-2022 Season 


Regular Season 

The top 10 fastest teams during the 2021-2022 regular season were the Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Dallas Stars, and New York Rangers. Of these ten teams, seven made it to the playoffs while three failed to qualify (Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, and Ottawa Senators).



On the flip side, the ten most physical teams were the Nashville Predators, Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders, and Pittsburgh Penguins. The physical teams saw the same success as the fast teams with only the Senators, Blackhawks, and Islanders failing to make the playoffs. 




Based on the 2021-2022, regular season, no real conclusion can be made since both physical teams and fast teams had equal amounts of success. The regression line further proves this point with there being similar positive slopes for both speed and physicality, meaning that more hits or more bursts mean more points. The speed slope was a bit stronger, however, which shows that being faster was a slight advantage during this season. The regular season is only half the story, however. At the end of the season, the team that comes out on top is the one that can successfully survive the grueling 4 rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs. To determine if speed or physicality is more successful in the playoffs, using the data from the regular season, I went round by round comparing each team’s number of hits and bursts to their opponent to see who was more physical and faster and see if those numbers affected who came out on top. 


Playoffs

In the first round, 7 teams had just a speed advantage over their opponents. Of those 7 teams, 4 successfully won their series. On the other hand, 5 teams had only a physicality advantage with 2 advancing. The Edmonton Oilers were a faster and more physical team than the Los Angeles Kings and won their series in 7 games. The second round of the 2022 playoffs looked very different. No team had just an advantage in physicality, and the Oilers, who defeated the Calgary Flames, were the only team with an advantage in just speed. The Avalanche, Rangers, and Lightning all had an advantage in both speed and physicality and all advanced to the conference finals. 


Source: DNVR

In the conference finals of the 2022 playoffs, the Avalanche took on the Oilers in the west and the Lightning and Rangers faced off in the east. On the western side, the Oilers were the more physical team while the Avalanche were faster. The series only lasted 4 games with the Avalanche sweeping the Oilers. In the East, the hits were practically even while the speed advantage went to the Rangers. The Lightning would come out on top in this series winning in 6 games. The Stanley Cup finals saw the Avalanche take on the Tampa Lightning. The Avalanche held the speed advantage, while the Lightning were a more physical team. The ultimate Stanley Cup winner would be the NHL’s fastest team the Colorado Avalanche. 



In total during the 2022 playoffs, 7 of the 11 teams with a speed advantage won their series, 64% success rate. For the more physical teams, only 2 out of 7 teams won their series, 29% success rate. The 4 teams who held advantages in speed and physicality all won their series, with a 100% success rate. Based on the outcome of the 2022 playoffs, one can say that faster teams are more successful in the playoffs. 


2022-2023 Season 


Regular Season 

During the 2022-23 regular season, the 10 fastest teams were the Avalanche, Oilers, Canadiens, Penguins, Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Blue Jackets, Jets, Devils, and Lightning. These teams had the same success rate as the 10 fastest teams of the previous year. 7 of these teams qualified for the playoffs while the Canadiens, Penguins, and Blue Jackets failed to make the playoffs. 



The 10 most physical teams were the Penguins, Senators, Predators, Flyers, Islanders, Coyotes, Lightning, Canucks, Capitals, and Flames. The success of the physical teams saw a massive decline during this season. The Islanders and Lightning were the only ones who made the playoffs while the other 8 missed out on the dance. 




The 2022-23 regular season had drastically different results than the 2021-22 season. While the top 10 fastest and most physical teams had the number of teams make the playoffs, this season saw a drastic change. The regression line from this season shows a negative slope for physicality and a positive slope for speed because the more physical teams did a lot worse than the top fastest teams. This regular season showed that the key to success and making the playoffs is being fast not being physical. 


Playoffs 

In the first round of the 2023 playoffs, 5 teams held a speed advantage, and 4 advanced to the next round. 5 teams were more physical than their opponents and the Seattle Kraken were the only ones to advance. 3 teams had a speed advantage two of those teams moved on. The Carolina Hurricanes didn’t have a speed or physicality advantage and managed to win their series against the Islanders. The second round had 4 teams with a speed advantage and only the Dallas Stars made it to the next round. 2 teams were more physical and one of these teams, the Vegas Golden Knights, advanced. 


Source: DraftKings

In the Conference finals, the Golden Knights had both a speed and physicality advantage over the Stars and ended up winning the series. In the East, the Hurricanes held a speed advantage over the Panthers, who were a more physical team. The series ended with the Panthers sweeping the Hurricanes in 4 games. The Stanley Cup finals saw the Golden Knights who had both a speed and physicality advantage take down the Panthers in 5 games to win the cup. 



During the 2023 playoffs, 10 teams had a speed advantage and 5 won, 50% win rate. 8 teams had a physicality advantage with 3 successfully winning their series and, a 38% win rate. 4 of the 5 teams that had an advantage in speed and physicality won their series, an 80% success rate. Out of the 5 teams that didn’t have a speed or physicality advantage, 3 of them won their series, 60% success rate.  


2023-2024 Season 


Regular Season

In the year’s NHL season, the Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Lightning, Bue Jackets, Capitals, Islanders, Senators, Canadiens, Kings, and Penguins were the 10 fastest teams. These teams saw a slight decline in success with 4 teams (Blue Jackets, Senators, Canadiens, and Penguins) failing to reach the playoffs. 



The 10 teams with the most hits were the Panthers, Maple Leafs, Bruins, Canucks, Predators, Islanders, Flyers, Golden Knights, Senators, and Lightning. Physical teams saw a drastic improvement from the previous season with 8 of these 10 teams making it to playoffs. The two that failed to make the playoffs were the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators. 




During this season physical teams did slightly better than faster teams did, having 2 more teams advance to the playoffs. The margin however is not large enough to be able to conclude that the recipe for success during this season was to be more physical. The regression lines for speed and physicality were both positive and the slopes were nearly identical. This tells us that neither speed nor physicality was a better recipe for success during this season. 


Playoffs 

The 2024 playoffs so far have been very different from the past two seasons. In round 1, only 2 of 5 teams that held a speed advantage advanced, 2 of 4 teams who were more physical advanced. The Oilers and Islanders both had advantages in both departments with only the Oilers advancing while of the 5 teams with no advantages 3 won. In the second round, there were 2 teams with a speed advantage with 1 winning, 2 that held a physicality advantage with 1 winning, 1 of the 2 with both advantages moved forward, and 1 out of the 2 with no advantages won their series.


Source: NHL.com

In the conference finals, the Oilers won their series over the Stars while having both speed and physicality advantages while the Panthers, the more physical team, bested their faster adversaries in the Rangers. The Stanley Cup finals have not begun at the time of writing this article but the Oilers hold a speed advantage in the upcoming season while the Panthers have an edge in physicality. 



Throughout three rounds of the playoffs, 3 of 8 teams, a 38% win rate, with a speed advantage have won, 4 of 7 teams, a 57% win rate, that were more physical won, 3 out of 5 teams, 60% win rate,  with both advantages were winners, and 4 of 8 teams, 50% win rate, who had no advantage won. 


Conclusion 


Regular Season

Based on the regular season it is tough to conclude whether it is better to be faster or more physical. While the fast teams had more consistency, with close to 7 teams making the playoffs each year, the physical teams had a higher ceiling with 8 teams earning a trip to the playoffs during the 2023-24 season. That being said, the physical teams also had the lowest floor with only 2 of their ten teams making the playoffs in 2021-22. In total, over the past three seasons, 20 out of 30 teams (67% success rate) who finished in the top 10 of most bursts made the playoffs while 17 of 30 of the most physical teams (57% success rate) made the playoffs. Overall the faster teams did see a little more success in the regular season but the margin is not large enough for a clear and concrete answer as if to physical teams or faster teams are more successful. 


Playoffs

Again the regular season is only half the story. The playoffs in the last 3 years saw very different results compared to the regular season. Totaling both playoffs 15 of 29 (52% win rate) teams that were just faster, 9 of 22 (41%) teams that were just physical won, 11 out of 14 (79% win) teams with both advantages in speed and physicality won, and 7 teams out of 21 (33%) teams with no advantage won. 

Based on the playoffs, it’s apparent that being both faster and more physical should be what teams strive for as only three teams in the last three years that had speed and physicality advantages lost their series. However, if a team were to pick just one advantage, recent years suggest that being faster is more efficient as a higher percentage of faster teams won their series than the more physical teams.


Closing Notes

While the regular season did not give a clear answer, the playoffs suggest that the faster teams are slightly more successful. However, if I were a general manager of an NHL team, I would build my team to be the fastest team in the NHL because of the recent success of faster teams compared to the more physical teams. I would do this because I value the playoffs significantly more than I value the regular season. When it comes to the NHL, the playoffs matter more than the regular season. The end goal is always to win the Stanley Cup and not just be the best team in the regular season. So it is because of the higher playoff success of faster teams, that I would choose to prioritize speed over physicality in today’s NHL. 




Sources: 




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