“Team Toughness”-Myth or Must For Success?

“Team Toughness”.

Defined by most fans as “having a team willing to play physical and all stick up for each other”, it’s become one of those watchwords for both fans and coaches in modern hockey when they talk about what you need on a squad. How many times have you seen a team praised as “one that’s not going to be pushed around“, one that “won’t take any nonsense” or “a team that has toughness all the way through“. Conversely, how many times have you seen a fan look at a roster and say “one thing I’m worried about is that it looks a bit lightweight” or “can we be sure they’ll stick up for each other?”

But is “team toughness”, “physicality”, “strength in depth” etc really as important as it’s made out to be? As someone who thinks that there’s nothing wrong with the odd hard hit but that this “team toughness” phrase is given far too much importance by fans to the point it’s become a cliché, I decided to conduct a (somewhat) scientific examination to find out, using all ten seasons of the EIHL as a statistics source.

Firstly, though-how do you measure “team toughness”? For the purposes of this investigation, we’re using the following definition:

team toughness (n): a team that is made of of players who are physically strong, plays hard in an attempt to dominate the opposition physically and with several players willing to drop the gloves if necessary.

Having established that definition, we then needed to find a possible measurement. This is where subjectivity comes in, since “toughness” isn’t a stat that shows up on a game sheet. However, it’s a logical hypothesis that teams who have several players willing to drop the gloves and play physically will likely take more penalties than one that isn’t as a result, so of the available statistics, team PIMs would seem to be a decent measure.

So what we’re going to do, essentially, is take a look at team PIMs and see if there’s a relationship between the number of PIMs a team takes and their success in the league, using the ten seasons of the UK’s EIHL (considered by its fans and coaches, for context, to be a very “North American” style league where toughness is a major asset) as a statistical basis.

In order to do this, we’re going to consider the teams with most PIMs and their position in the league and number of competitions won per season, versus the league champs each year and their number of PiMs. We’re also going to consider the “average” position for the “most PiM” teams, and assess how many of the available trophies the PIM leaders have won each season.

Logically, if “team toughness” is a thing and we assume that “team tough” squads are likely to be among the higher PIM takers if not the highest, then using our definition the teams with the most PiMs (or for the sake of argument, top three) should automatically be the ones finishing as league champs each season, and there should be a very close relationship between the average number of PIMs taken by league winners each year and the “high” average within the league right? Furthermore, a high proportion of league winners should be around or above the “average” league-winning PiMs, and teams who take the most PiMs should win a significant proportion of the trophies on offer.

The  list of most penalised players below is taken from the “most penalised players” on eliteprospects.com, while the team PIM figures, finishing positions etc are taken either from hockeydb.com standings, (since eliteprospects don’t list team PiMs), or for the seasons after 2010/11, from the EIHL’s own website.

Got that? Right. Let’s beg…ah, wait, we have another issue to deal with, so let’s get that out of the way first.

Some of you are already saying-“what about teams that have one player who takes the most penalties-won’t that unfairly skew it? So, first of all, let’s take a look at the PiM leaders from each EIHL season and how their teams did both in league positions and total trophies won, to see if having the most active enforcer automatically wins you titles.

EIHL Season

Player

Club

Final League Position

Number of trophies won/total
03/04 Paxton Schulte Belfast Giants 4th 0/3
04/05 Andre Payette Coventry Blaze 1st 3/3
05/06 Brad Voth Cardiff Devils 5th 1/4
06/07 Brad Voth Cardiff Devils 3rd 1/4
07/08 Andre Payette Newcastle Vipers 5th 0/4
08/09 Brad Voth Cardiff Devils 5th 0/4
09/10 Brad Voth Cardiff Devils 4th 0/4
10/11 Alex Penner* Derek Campbell Nottingham Panthers Sheffield Steelers 4th, 1st 2/3, 1/3
11/12 Chris Frank Cardiff Devils 4th 0/3
12/13 Benn Olson Coventry Blaze 4th 0/3

We can see from the above that only one team had the outright PiM leading player and still managed to win the EIHL league title (Coventry in their all-conquering 2004/05 season, although some could argue it’s two with Sheffield in 10/11-see below) and the PiM leaders’ teams ended up trophyless in six of the ten seasons. However, in 10/11, as you can seem there are two players…Alex Penner didn’t finish the season with Nottingham, was not present for either of their title wins, yet still managed to lead the PIM table, so for the sake of argument Penner is listed, but in terms of data collection, we’re using the highest PiM taker who remained with his team all season-that player being Derek Campbell of the Sheffield Steelers.

We can see that no team with the single highest full-season PiM taker has finished lower than 5th in the EIHL era, but, conversely, they’ve only won the league title twice, and out of a title of 36 possible competitions, the highest PIM taker’s team has only won six, or just over 12% half of which were in one season on a Treble-winning squad. . Only twice has a PiM leader finished in the top three, with 4th being the most common position.

From this evidence, we can conclude that the “traditional” hockey coach strategy of having a designated guy to handle the rough-stuff/intimidate the opposition (the “enforcer” strategy) more than likely won’t win you a title in the EIHL, of any kind. The statistics bear that out.

So then…the “you need a designated enforcer to win” argument is, nowadays, not applicable to the EIHL-statistical evidence shows, in fact, that it just doesn’t work.

But what about having several people sharing the load? We’ve had a look at how having a PiM leader seems to relate to a teams’ on-ice success in the EIHL-what about if you try and spread them throughout a team?

Here’s another table. This time, it looks at the teams who led the EIHL in combined PiMs, and compares them with the league champions…it also looks at the number of trophies won once again.

Season Most Team PIMs League pos/trophies Champion (PIMs) PIM rank/other Cups won
03/04 Cardiff (1210) 5th/0 Sheffield (1105) 3rd, 1/2
04/05 Coventry (1231) 1st/3 Coventry (1231) 1st, 2/2
05/06 Belfast (1139) 1st/1 Belfast (1139) 1st, 0/3
06/07 Newcastle (1403) 8th/0 Coventry (1316) 4th, 1/3
07/08 Newcastle (1314) 5th/0 Coventry (842) 9th, 0/3
08/09 Cardiff (1385) 4th/0 Sheffield (1326) 2nd, 1/3 
09/10 Coventry (1336) 1st/1 Coventry (1336) 1st, 0/3
10/11 Nottingham (1539) 4th/2 Sheffield (1415) 4th, 0/3
11/12 Hull (1265) 8th/0 Belfast (1095) 4th, 0/2
12/13 Coventry (1208) 4th/0 Nottingham (999) 4th, 2/2

This provides a much less clear cut conclusion than the “most penalized player” table…although it does seem to back up that if you go for true “team toughness”, at least as defined by fans, you’re not going to be successful in the EIHL. Aside from Coventry (twice) and Belfast bucking the trend by winning the title, it’s noticeable that no team leading the league in PIMs has ever finished in the top three. The PIM-leading teams have also only won 7 trophies of the 36 available in 10 years-again, six of which were won in two seasons, and two more in another. So…using that measure alone, “team toughness” is way over-rated as a trophy-winning need.

However, when you look at the champions’ PIM ranking within the league, a slightly more optimistic picture emerges. Sheffield have twice won the league title while being in the top 3 of PiMs, and only three times has the league title winner been under 1100 PIMs (however, it’s noticeable that they’re an average of 100 PiMs a season or so behind the “goon teams). The trophy numbers are perhaps a little less representative as the EIHL champions tend to be the best teams in playing ability so we can expect a “higher” number…also they tend to be the “bigger budget” teams also, so roster playing quality as well as toughness comes heavily into play.

HOWEVER, when we look at “non-league” titles won by the champions, they’ve won 7 of a possible 26, or less than a quarter. Even when the PiM leaders have managed to win the league, only Coventry managed to win anything else.

Granted, it appears that if you want to win things in the EIHL you need at least a modicum of toughness…only Coventry (842) in 2009/10 and Nottingham (999) last season have won anything with less than 1000 total PiMs in a season, and the average number of PiMs of a league winner in the EIHL era is 1180 (although that’s still a long way behind the average highest). That said, five have won while above that average and five below it, so statistically, despite the fans’ and to some degree the coaches claiming that “team-tough squads are more likely to win the league” it’s statistically a coin-flip.

So basically, what we’ve learned from all of this analysis is that while a little toughness is good to have, you don’t want anywhere near too much if you want to be successful on-ice in the Elite League. Certainly, the statistics at least don’t bear out the huge emphasis placed on “team toughness” as a soundbite by fans nor the theory that “old-time hockey’s the best hockey”-it’s seemingly no more important or less so than any other factor.

In fact, the trend the past few years has actually seen both total and title-winning PiMs drop in the EIHL, perhaps signalling a move away from the “toughness” model by coaches and towards more emphasis on squads that need to be able to play first and second and (maybe) fight third.

So it seems that the era of “team toughness” as a buzzword has had its moment. While there’s been a lot of talk about the power-forwards such as Leigh Salters in Nottingham who’ve been signed this season, there’s also been scepticism at the Steelers signing of Tim Spencer, who appears to be the very epitome of a “team toughness” player. The “new” ideal EIHLer is someone like Adam Keefe, who doesn’t fight unless he absolutely has to and is far more well-known for his hard work and great effort. Perhaps it’s time for fans to stop obssessing with tired buzzwords and see the EIHL appears to be moving away from the “tough” era and embracing a still hardnosed but far more skilful style such as that played in Scandinavian leagues.

And frankly, it’s about time. Because as the stats show, “team toughness” might win you a game, but it doesn’t have much influence as fans think on winning a title. At least not any more.

3 thoughts on ““Team Toughness”-Myth or Must For Success?

  1. Need to try and separate the PIMs from fighting (“toughness”) and those from indiscipline.

    Cov had 1636 PIM and were shorthanded 298 times. Not all those will be 2 min minors but most will, so that’d be 596 minutes shorthanded. Therefore, Cov had 1040 PIM that didn’t result in being shorthanded (fights, misconducts, coincidentals).

    Here’s how the other teams compare (league position in brackets):
    Cov 1040 (4th)
    She 837 (3rd)
    Hul 715 (10th)
    Not 559 (1st)
    Fif 557 (7th)
    Bel 556 (2nd)
    Car 522 (5th)
    Dun 502 (9th)
    Bra 370 (8th)
    Edi 254 (6th)

    When was the last fight in a playoff final? Hasn’t been one in the last 3.

  2. Remember when I used to leave replies on your old blog that were longer than your original post? Well…

    I have a few issues with your original assumptions and the ones you make throughout this analysis. Your data analysis needs some tweaking and there’s also a huge piece of context missing from your investigations that applies to smaller hockey nations much more than it does the bigger nations.

    Firstly, high PIMs does not necessarily mean more team toughness, but for the sake of it, I’ll stick with your assumptions. They’re definitely a reasonable enough way of judging, but were hitting stats available, I would say they would be something to build in. You would need to fully consider the spread of those PIMs and not just by singling out the highest earner of time to feel shame. You’re only really looking at one half of the picture the way you’ve done it.
    – You would be better breaking the stats down across the players and see how far they deviate from the average, what sort of distribution you’re seeing and truly judge if having one tough guy (i.e. one outlier with the rest more or less within expected margins) is better than having it spread out (everyone more or less at the average or a group of players).
    – You should also work this out in the wider context of playing minutes and work this in with whether penalties are major or minor penalties. Do you want to know if more fights = more wins and more minors = less wins? This is a hypothesis you probably need to define. Taking a blanket across PIMs is too high level to really reach any meaningful conclusions about “toughness”. Much more time consuming, but much more accurate. If you can find the stats at that level of detail, send ’em my way – I love this shit 😛 You should also probably exclude, or find a way to account for, game and match penalties – you should always try to exclude outliers when doing analysis like this, otherwise you end up with really varied results that hide the true patterns. It’s possibly worth a cursory glance to see if there’s some correlation between personal game or match penalties harming/helping a team’s performance, otherwise just leave them out and look at your values that show the true trend. These should be few and far between anyway.
    – A comparison of how far players are from the league average would also be handy to account for any players (or teams) that have a bit of a mad year and see if that has affected them in any sort of way. What might be high PIMs in one year might not be the next – just puts further context into the data you’re looking at. Maybe Coventry won it one year with shockingly high PIMs when the rest of the league hardly took any. If the league leaders aren’t PIM leaders, how far are either team from the rest of the leagues averages? What sort of % difference are you seeing between the two? I suspect you’ll be able to draw very few conclusions if I’m honest, but it’s hard to tell at this point. I always find “toughness” to be more influenced by the general landscape of the game rather than whether it will help a team win. Which brings me nicely to my second point…

    As I said on twitter, with us being a smaller hockey nation, there’s a whole different context to bringing in players that will rack up the fights and the PIMs – and the evidence of that is this import space that crops up every now and again for an “entertainment” guy. The fights are being taken further and further out of the context of the game with one aim – putting bums on seats. It has no influence on whether the game is won or lost – these things often happen at face off. Whilst this is still something you see in the likes of the NHL, they are a much more “pure” form of enforcer as these issues are less of a thing in the big hockey nations. Take the likes of Hull and, in their time, Newcastle – these teams were never, ever going to be making it near the top of the table. Their approach to tackle that was – well, then we’ll give the fans something else to watch. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen elsewhere and that there isn’t a big disparity between top and bottom, but you can’t remove this, or any analysis, from the hockey landscape they’re playing in when drawing your conclusions. It’s just a reality that there are a number of teams each year that aren’t putting their investments into winning the trophies on offer – a successful year for one team could just be making the playoffs. Therefore, the last thing I think you should consider is where the teams normally fall in the league table and see if PIMs could make any difference to it (or vice versa) – it would be of interest to see if a team on the decline starts to take more penalty minutes; which one is causing the other?

    tl;dr – Good start, but there’s a far bigger can of worms just waiting to be opened 😛

  3. I have just read through again and some of it has sunk in a bit more… looks like you have more figures behind the scenes that I’ve mentioned in my reply 🙂 they’re definitely worth looking into in more detail

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