As a stat, hits are often a negative indicator of possession: the more you’re hitting, the less you have the puck. But this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. It’s undeniable that certain players make their niche in the NHL through physical play, and rough stuff can become an integral part of any player’s game. But there’s a time and place for physicality, and it’s usually not whenever and wherever Neil’s doing his business.
There are a few situations where, in my opinion, hits are probably a positive. When a defenceman is racing an opposing forward for the puck in our own zone and it’s unlikely our D will be able to get his stick on the puck in a useful manner, the D will most likely land a big hit on the forward to keep him out of the play and allow back-up to scoop the puck away and out. Legal open-ice hits are also useful in that they break up the opposing team's rush and allow our team to start a play back the other way; Methot has a lethal hipcheck that does wonders in preventing the opposing team from getting deep.
Then there are the ineffective hits, the futile slamming of bodies around that seems to be more about making noise rather than having a figurative impact on the game. These are evident: every time a forward like Neil goes out of his way to bash an opposing player into the sideboards while he’s supposed to be on a breakout with his linemates; when the opposing team has set up a cycle in our end, and Cowen pins a forward to the endboards instead of getting the puck, leading him to be out of position.
And there’s a difference between pure hitting and physical play, too. The way Zibanejad plays is undeniably physical: he charges hard on the forecheck, he's able to skate through a number of defending players through sheer strength and he's also able to shrug off opposing hits rather like Zdeno Chara. (He also can land hits like nobody’s business.) No one would ever call Zibanejad a Chris Neil, right? But they’re both undeniably physical players. The difference is that one uses his physicality to complement his play, meaning that he uses his strength (among other things) to drive play; the other, as a niche player, uses his strength as his play.
Let’s compare Karlsson and Cowen. King K’s known as an offensive defenceman, but as this GIF might tell you, when he lands hits, they’re well-placed, well-timed and safe—meaning he doesn’t hit at the expense of the puck. Cowen has been repeatedly sold as a stay-at-home, bruising defenceman, and with his size, the expectations come with the job. We’ve seen that he’s capable of smart hits and good physical play… but too often, his physical efforts come at the expense of his defending. Which is ironic, given that we’re looking for physical defence.
Essentially, physical play needs to be smart to be effective. But with the niche roles that the Senators are perpetuating, players like Neil and Kassian don’t feel the need to play smart; they just hit, and that is their job done. There’s not much we can do with these players, however much Kassian attempts to improve his puck-handling skills. But there’s hope for players like Greening, Smith and Cowen, players who have a modicum of skill and are also expected to play physical. The rough stuff can and should be used in a smart way aiding the development of hockey rather than drawing away from the other aspects of the game. There are still people who watch hockey for the fights and hits, but I'd say they diminish every year. As hockey evolves, I look forward to seeing physical play become smarter, more effective and perhaps even as thrilling as the rushes, the perfect plays, the goals.
(All right, I doubt rough stuff will ever be as exciting as goals.)