It's still early enough in the campaign that discussing some overall team-shaping strategies still has plenty of merit. There are plenty of opportunities to still craft how your squad of fantasy NHLers is comprised. Today we are talking about the grinder fuel.
Grinder was a more common term when the NHL used to be populated by fourth liners that were more likely to drop their gloves and throw a hit than make a pass. But the general sense of the term, referring to a player that works hard, but maybe doesn't exude offensive skills in the form of scoring, can still apply to the league. Instead of fighting and hitting from the fourth line, grinding, as it were, exists more in the realm of the defenseman throwing their body in front of pucks. Every shot that doesn't make it to the net is a save the goalie doesn't have to make.
Have blocked shots gone up since the traditional NHL grinders started leaving the league? Hard to say. The data from before 2005-06 on blocked shots is apparently spotty enough to be excluded from the NHL's website. Here's how the league's blocked shots per game look since then.
Gone up? Sure. By much? Not in 2020-21, but perhaps that's an aberration brought on by the shortened COVID season. Maybe players didn't want to risk getting hurt when the playoffs were just around the corner from Day 1. Overall, it's enough of an increase that in, for example, 2017-18 there were 7,771 more blocked shots than in the down year of 2007-08. That's a lot of available fantasy points.
You can see a pretty stark increase in hits over that same span. It does scale up significantly here in the same way. In 2014-15 there were 24,947 hits more than were recorded in 2005-06.
Now, do we really think that many more hits and blocked shots are being doled out on the ice? It's probable that if you could somehow account for stat-keepers getting accustomed to recording hits and blocked shots, as well as the improvements in the collection of real-time data, that there probably aren't a lot more in reality. At least not in the scales seen on the official charts.
That said, with the acceptance of the importance of puck possession and limiting pucks that make it to your net, we probably do see more overall.
So, how does this relate to my fantasy team?
There is a real argument for using modern day grinders to fuel your fantasy production. If we remove points from the equation and look strictly at blocked shots, hits and shots (BSHS), you can see a strong base of production from some players.
Take a defenseman that puts up 6.8 fantasy points per 60 minutes (FPP60) from only blocked shots, hits and shots. They would only need to play 15 minutes per game to earn 1.7 fantasy points per game (FPPG) and would need 20 minutes per game to earn 2.2 FPPG. And that's with zero points from goals and assists.
There were 51 defensemen that managed to finish with 1.7 fantasy points per game last season. Only 15 finished with 2.2 FPPG or better. You can see how these peripheral stats would quickly become relevant when the quantity reaches certain thresholds.
And this is not even considering that some of these leaders in blocked shots, hits and shots will undoubtedly earn some points through pucks into nets.
These sample sizes are obviously very small at this stage of the season, but we can still take some information away from some of the players putting up big stats in just blocked shots, hits and shots (BSHS).
Alexander Romanov, D, New York Islanders (11.14 FPP60 from blocked shots, hits and shots): This was a result we could see coming from the physical Romanov moving to the Islanders, who play a grinding, physical and defensive-focused game. Romanov and Noah Dobson make for a pleasant combination for fantasy on the ice, and the results for Romanov are flowing. He blocked 14 shots and handed out six hits in his first two games of the season. Of the players listed here for a closer look, Romanov is the best pickup that is likely to be available (rostered in 49.5% of leagues).
Ivan Provorov, D, Philadelphia Flyers (9.52 FPP60 from BSHS): Some of Provorov's shine came off during the offseason when the Flyers acquired Tony DeAngelo, a power-play specialist who would inevitably keep Provorov from the first unit. But by playing an over-the-top physical game, Provorov can more than make up for a reduced special teams role. With nine shots on goal, nine hits and 11 blocked shots through two games, Provorov is actually playing with DeAngelo as his new defense partner -- and the duo looks good so far. You may want to be careful in plus/minus leagues if you still play in one that uses the stat, while Provorov has a plus-5 at the moment, he and DeAngelo are facing some of the most shot attempts against on a per-minute basis so far.
David Savard, D, Montreal Canadiens (7.87 FPP60 from BSHS): The veteran presence on the Habs blue line is going to be busy this season. Through four games, Savard has blocked an outstanding 23 shots. He's also a defenseman that will continue playing 23-plus minutes per game. Rostered in only 16.8% of leagues, you should add Savard wherever you can. Even without significant points, he's likely to approach 2.0 FPPG through his shot blocking this season.
Robert Hagg, D, Detroit Red Wings (6.72 FPP60 from BSHS): Hagg has always been a decent performer for periphery stats on a per-minute basis, but has rarely had expanded opportunities for minutes. He looks like a regular on the Red Wings third pairing so far and the results have simply expanded on his physical play from lesser roles in previous seasons. He's more likely to come closer to 15 minutes of average ice time than 20, but remember that his BSHS grinder fuel production is enough to put him in the conversation as a reserve defenseman for fantasy that you can freely pick up and drop at anytime.
Tyler Motte, W, Ottawa Senators (6.75 FPP60 from BSHS): Looking healthy again and playing on the Sens third line, Motte's early returns this season are reminding us of what he did in the 2020-21 season before an ankle injury derailed his campaign. In 24 games that season, Motte posted a dynamic line of 14 points, 40 shots, 28 blocked shots and 100 hits -- which are fantastic balanced stats for a forward in only 16 minutes of ice time per game. Playing with Shane Pinto (who may have been a top-six forward if the Sens hadn't had the offseason they did) and Mathieu Joseph, Motte is rostered in only 3.4% of leagues.
Jake Muzzin, D, Toronto Maple Leafs (6.18 FPP60 from BSHS): He was hurt on Monday, so this may be irrelevant. But Muzzin looks to continue doing what he's done for the last decade -- subtle, physical fantasy production.
Ryan Reaves, W, New York Rangers (6.60 FPP60 from BSHS): Maybe the closest player to an old-school grinder. While his per-minute production is impressive, he'll never get enough minutes to make it worthwhile for your roster.
Michael Rasmussen, C, Detroit Red Wings (6.59 FPP60 from BSHS): Actually kind of looks like a Motte clone. Keep an eye on these periphery stats, as Rasmussen also has just a touch of offense to his game, too.
Eeli Tolvanen, W, Nashville Predators (5.79 FPP60 from BSHS): Has really developed his physical game. Here's hoping he can finally bring it all together, as he does have the pedigree of a fantasy darling.
One final note just for fun. When pulling the statistics for historical blocked shots and hits in the league, it caught my eye that empty-net goals were included in the same "miscellaneous" stat chart from the NHL. Just for fun, here's a look at empty-net goals per game across the league since 2005-06.
I don't have any insight to it and it's meaningless for fantasy without trying to dig deeper, but it's a fun chart to look at.