There’s that famous Wayne Gretzky saying, “you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” It’s morphed into an inspirational quote for life, but it also speaks to a conventional wisdom in hockey, that shot volume is considered a correlation to scoring goals. Well, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz has his own expression that he’s called upon in the past: “They only count one stat and that’s the one they put on the scoreboard.”
Washington is ranked dead-last in the NHL in shots on goal per game with 28.67, and while the Capitals want to put more pucks on net, they’re also inadvertently challenging the need. They rank 31st in shots, but their 2.95 goals per game is 12th, even after they went back-to-back games without a goal.
That’s why the Capitals aren’t concerned about their low shot volume or that their fifth-ranked shooting percentage (8.96) could be due for regression in the future. They think there might be an exception for highly skilled shooters, of which Washington has plenty, and players say this team’s identity is to be picky.
“I don’t feel like we’re not getting looks or not getting enough shots,” center Lars Eller said. “I wouldn’t put too much into that. But what you can take away from it is that we have a lot of talented scorers, so when we do shoot, the chances of scoring are pretty high. It’s better that way than the other way around, shooting a lot and not scoring a lot.”
Said Trotz: “We look at the quality of shots. I mean, just throwing the puck with no one in front from the blue line has got like a 1 percent chance of going in, so unless there’s someone there, we’re probably not throwing it there. We’re trying to get our shooting percentage in areas where we can be a little better. But yeah, we’re not a shoot-first mentality on our team, and that shows up in some of the analytics.”
There’s a balance. Some teams have a philosophy to shoot often, even the low-percentage shots, in the hopes of creating chaos in front of the net with tips, deflections or rebounds. “We play Nashville, and they [expletive] shoot from everywhere, like from the blue line, and I think it’s just sort of a team identity,” Eller said. After adjusting for score effects on NHL statistical site Natural Stat Trick, the Predators take 46.19 unblocked shot attempts at five-on-five per 60 minutes, 10th in the league, but that only converts to 26.7 scoring chances, 23rd in the league, and 10.21 high-danger chances, ranked 20th. It works for them with 3.19 goals per game, one of the NHL’s highest-scoring teams.
The Pittsburgh Penguins take the most even-strength shots per 60 minutes (35.77) when the game is within one. But they’re scoring less than the Capitals with 2.75 goals per game, and they’re last in the league in converting scoring chances (29.63 per 60 minutes) into goals. The Penguins are arguably unlucky, and there’s a case to be made that their formula has a higher chance of success over a long period of time.
Shot attempts — on goal, missed or blocked — are generally considered a gauge of possession. Going back to the 2005-06 season, 10 of the past 12 eventual Stanley Cup winners put at least half of score-adjusted even-strength shot attempts in their favor during the regular season. The two outliers, the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes (48.2 percent) and the 2009 Penguins (48.4 percent), were close. In addition to those two, only one other team in the past 11 seasons has reached the Stanley Cup Finals with a score-adjusted shot attempt percentage of less than 50 percent: the 2008 Penguins (45.7 percent).
The Capitals’ current score-adjusted five-on-five shot attempt percentage is 48.15, among the NHL’s bottom 10 in that category. They take 40.49 unblocked shot attempts per 60 minutes, and while that’s relatively low, their 28.22 scoring chances are middle-of-the-pack for the NHL.
“Shot totals are very misleading a lot of the time,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “The high-danger stuff is a better stat that people are coming up with, because you know not many goalies are going to let in a clear slap shot from the point if it’s not tipped or screened. I think that’s something we’ve been really working on this year with [goaltending coach Scott Murray] and the coaches, they’re all kind of buying into that, how to create high-danger shots and not give the goalies confidence. For the most part, I think we’ve been getting better and better at it.
. . .“Guys are understanding it and guys are thinking about it, and you can tell. We’re trying to make those difficult plays on goalies, and it’s creating goals that aren’t lucky. They’re earned.”
To Holtby’s point, since Nov. 22, when the team’s play turned a corner for the better, the Capitals are ranked eighth in the NHL with 11.95 score-adjusted high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes at five-on-five. Roughly 29 percent of Washington’s unblocked shot attempts in those situations are considered high-danger scoring chances. There can be a downside to being so picky, too, and the Capitals are guilty of overpassing at times or getting “too fine,” as Trotz puts it. But it’s all part of this team’s identity.
“I don’t know what the right answer to that is,” forward Tom Wilson said. “Obviously you want to shoot the puck and you want to make things happen, and you can’t score without shooting. But we’ve got a lot of good players in this room that you want to trust their instinct with the puck and you want to trust their ability to make a play. If they don’t feel the shot’s there, then you know what, they’re going to hold onto it and maybe look for a better opportunity. Maybe they’re not going to just throw it away.”
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