Tuesday, 6 December 2016

An Easy Point?

After Mother Nature unloaded a pile of snow upon us last night and throughout the day, I finally was able to clear most of it from my steps and sidewalks before Mother Nature starts the whole thing over again tonight. I will admit that I missed the first two periods of action between the Jets and Red Wings tonight because of my snow clearing efforts, but I was able to catch the third period, overtime, and the shootout. In watching the skills competition at the end, it became increasingly apparent that some teams are good at the breakaway challenge while other teams struggle. Part of this could be due to the players selected, but when you think about it there shouldn't really be a problem throwing anyone over the boards to collect a free point if you're in the NHL.

I don't expect that teams will throw a fourth-liner over the board to try and score a big goal in the first three shooters, but you have to expect that some fourth-line players have the skill to end a shootout in the later rounds. With a free point up for grabs, it would seem like there would a major impetus on coaching staffs and players to really work on and hone their shootout skills and tactics so that getting a free point in the standings doesn't require some Herculean effort. Instead, the Jets showed tonight exactly why practicing the shootout should be mandatory for every team.

As you may know, the pressure in the shootout falls mainly on the goaltenders. A one-on-one showdown usually favors the player carrying the puck and has forward momentum, so a goaltender needs to read and react quickly to any moves, dekes, or shots that the player may fake or take. Connor Hellebuyck, to his credit, has had some AHL experience where shootouts happen, but the Red Wings made him look like he'd never played the position before. Frans Nielsen beat Hellebuyck, but rang the puck off the crossbar. Gustav Nyquist didn't score, but Thomas Vanek did. Henrik Zetterberg scored the winner for the Red Wings, as seen above, while the Jets' lone goal of the shootout came off the stick of Patrik Laine. The other Jets shooters? Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, and Drew Stafford.

That's not say that the European players are any better than North American players, but there used to be a rumor circulating within the NHL ranks that European players practiced their shootout moves growing up, giving them an advantage over their North American counterparts. Since 2012, the leaders in shootout percentage for players taking ten-or-more shots during that time are as follows:
  • TJ Oshie - 60.6% (20/33)
  • Jakob Silfverberg - 58.1% (18/31)
  • Thomas Vanek - 56.3% (9/16)
  • Brandon Pirri - 55.6% (10/18)
  • Derek Stepan - 54.5% (6/11)
As we look at this list, there are two Europeans, but the remainder of the top-20 shootout shooters sees only two additional Europeans in the remaining fifteen players. And Alexander Steen doesn't count since he grew up in North America. Therefore, we can put the belief to rest that this is because European players practice the shootout and breakaways. It's clear that a number of North American players have the ability to score when sent in alone.

Perhaps this is a team-shooting issue? In looking at team shootout stats since 2012, there are certainly some teams shooting below 33.3% (one goal in three attempts) which means there are certainly times where they score no goals in a shootout. If you can't score in a shootout, you can't earn the additional point and half the league - 15 teams! - shoot below that threshold historically. Both Winnipeg and Detroit fall below that threshold, but there should be no surprise that the teams who have the better shootout players generally rank higher on the team shooting percentage list. What did surprise me, however, is that the vast majority of teams have a .500 win percentage when it came to the shootout.

There are some anomalies. New Jersey is 11-34 (.244) in shootouts while St. Louis is 29-13 (.667). For the majority of teams, though, they fall between .400 and .600 in terms of shootout winning percentage. If there is this much parity in the shootout, there has to be another factor that contributes to the ups and downs of teams in the shootout. That factor is goaltending. Stopping opposing shooters is just as important as scoring goals, and some teams have been destroyed when it comes to earning extra points thanks to goaltending.

New Jersey is one of those teams as they have had a whopping .594 save percentage over the last four years. That's very bad, and it explains their absurdly low winning percentage. Tampa Bay, who has the 26th-best shooting percentage over the last four season, is buoyed by their netminding which registered at a .713 save percentage, leading the team to a somewhat-respectable .486 winning percentage in the shootout (17/35).

Basically, anyone can tell you that a high shooting percentage plus a high save percentage will usually result in a high win percentage. This isn't rocket science, I admit, so I took a look at how those numbers relate to each other and the results might be surprising when it comes to trends.
  • The trends show that any team who shoots between 21-27% and has a save percentage below 70% have winning percentages below .400. Five teams have given away a lot of points over the last four years: New Jersey (.244), Philly (.295), Nashville (.359), Carolina (.367), and Detroit (.370).
  • Teams who shoot between 21-27% and have save percentages between 70-79% have winning percentages between .400 and .500. Two teams have done this over the last four seasons: Boston (.436) and Tampa Bay (.486).
  • Teams who shoot between 27-30% and have save percentages below 70% have winning percentages between .400 and .500. One team fits this trend exactly: Toronto (.465).
  • EXCEPTION: If we use Toronto's stats as the yard marker here, the Los Angeles Kings (.395) are lower in both shooting percentage and save percentage than the Leafs. This is why they fall just short of the projection.
  • EXCEPTION: Using the Maple Leafs' stats once more, the Buffalo Sabres (.510) are 2.5% better in save percentage than the Leafs and won five more shootouts than the Leafs. As a result, the Sabres exceed the projection.
  • Teams that shoot between 27-30% and have save percentages between 70-79% have winning percentages between .450 and .550. Two teams fit into this trend: Edmonton (.485) and Vancouver (.545).
  • Teams that shoot between 30-33% and have save percentages lower than 70% have winning percentages between .450 and .550. Six teams have done this: Arizona/Phoenix (.474), New York Rangers (.500), Ottawa (.520), Dallas (.522), Winnipeg (.525), and Calgary (.536).
  • Teams that shoot between 30-33% and have save percentages between 70-79% should, in theory, have winning percentages between .500 and .600. I say "theoretically" because there are none in the NHL over the last four seasons.
  • Teams that shoot between 34-37% and have save percentages lower than 70% have winning percentages between .500 and .600. Six teams have done this: Minnesota (.528), Washington (.537), New York Islanders (.542), Chicago (.558), Florida (.560), and Pittsburgh (.588).
  • Teams that shoot between 34-37% and have save percentages between 70-79% have winning percentages between .550 and .650. Teams that have done this include: San Jose (.565), Montreal (.611).
  • EXCEPTION: Columbus (.667) fits into this trend, but the Blue Jackets have an incredible .765 save percentage - highest in the NHL by nearly 5%. As a result, Columbus' winning percentage is increased by this anomaly.
  • Teams that shoot between 38-41% and have save percentages lower than 70% should have winning percentages between .550 and .650. However, no NHL team falls into this trend.
  • EXCEPTION: The Anaheim Ducks (.513) have the 27th-worst save percentage in the NHL at .640. This anomaly pushes them outside the projection.
  • Teams that shoot between 38-41% and have save percentages between 70-79% should have winning percentages between .600 and .700. One team fits this trend: St. Louis (.690).
  • Teams that shoot between 41-44% and have save percentages lower than 70% should have winning percentages between .600 and .700. One team has accomplished this: Colorado (.656).
The one trend that seems to be a common factor in all the anomalies? Save percentage. Remember how I said the pressure falls mainly on the goaltenders in a shootout? Well, it seems that they have the most influence on which teams are most successful in earning the extra points. As long as your shooters are scoring at a 1-in-3 rate (33.3% shooting percentage) or better in the shootout, the extra point falls upon the goaltender. Now that's pressure!

I guess the question needs to be asked as to whether this is fair for the netminders or not. On one hand, it's not like the netminders can practice breakaway saves without having his or her team working on that aspect in practice, and a goaltender will eventually learn the nuances and trends that his or her teammates use. On the other hand, it seems to be a vital skill in today's day and age of hockey when it comes to free points in the standings. Since netminders need players to shoot, this might be beneficial on both sides of the coin!

If save percentages go up, it seems this is the biggest factor in changing the fortunes of teams who desperately need some charity points. With half the teams at or above the 1-for-3 mark, there could be ways to increase shooting percentage, nut getting a save percentage above 70% seems to be the best way to guarantee a better-than-good chance of earning the extra point. Six teams shoot above the 1-for-3 average yet have save percentages below 70%. Not surprisingly, every team this season whose save percentage is above 70% is currently in or within two points of a playoff spot except one: the Vancouver Canucks who are four points back.

These are free points that the NHL wants to give out, and it seems a number of NHL teams simply don't care enough to practice the shootout. And it's not the shooters that need the practice, although one could arguably make the case that a number of players could work on their moves (hint: Winnipeg Jets). If one wants to earn some free points every season, find a goaltender who is good at stopping breakaways. It's arguably the most important piece of the puzzle when looking at the shootouts.

Of course, we could always just end in a tie and make that overtime point mean something to a team game. Just spitballin' here. Pay no attention.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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