“Shoot the Puck!” Or…Don’t? An NHL Analysis

Is shooting the puck at will, even in a situation like this, really the best thing? (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

As a young hockey player growing up, I was always instructed by coaches to “shoot the puck!” As a few coaches told me, “A shot on goal is never a bad thing.”  So, I shot the puck.  A lot.  But I didn’t always score.  So, I thought to myself, “Shooting is never a bad thing, but is it always a good thing?”

Was there a chance I’d score? Sure, there was.  But one thing I always noticed — but apparently coaches never did — was it wasn’t always about how much you shot, but when you shot.  Or how. Or where.

Case in point: Sunday’s Detroit Red Wings vs. Los Angeles Kings game.  The LA Kings fired 47 shots at Red Wings netminder Jimmy Howard.  He stopped 45 of them.  The Red Wings, on the other hand, only shot the puck 31 times.  Kings goalie Jonathan Quick stopped 28 of them.  That’s a Kings loss.  So, how much does a large number of shots really matter?

Now, some people might say that a little luck was involved with the win – posts were hit, the Wings’ winning goal barely snuck over the line, etc.  But the bottom line is this: the team that shoots the most doesn’t always win.  In fact, when you look at the numbers, there’s really no correlation between the number of shots taken and number of wins.

When I started this analysis, I wasn’t even looking at NHL team totals.  I wanted to see which of my favorite players were shooting the puck most effectively.  Then it turned into a team analysis, and that’s where it got interesting.  I expected the teams with the higher win totals to have the higher number of shots. With almost every team having played at least 10 games (except a couple teams who had a game cancelled due to the latest winter storm), I looked at the teams with 6-9 wins and found that wasn’t always the case.

Of the 14 teams with six or more wins (as of Feb. 10), half had fewer than 316 shots.  316 is an important number (again, as of Feb. 10) because that is the average number per team of total shots taken in the NHL.  Of the teams that are above .500, only seven teams take more than the league average of shots.

I wanted to take this a step further and look at how those seven teams are doing so well, yet not shooting the puck a lot.  So, let’s head on over to the shooting percentage category.  The shooting percentage is the rate at which shots turn into goals.  Theoretically, the higher the shooting percentage, the better off your team will be.  The three teams with the highest shooting percentage all have shot totals below the league average.  They also have at least six wins, and as many as nine.  These teams also rank 1, 3, and 4 in goals scored.

The teams with the fewest wins, 3-5, show an interesting story as well.  Logically, half those teams have above league average shot totals.  However, looking at shooting percentage, we see where these teams are faltering.  Of the teams with three wins – lowest in the league – all of them are shooting below 9%, which is below the league average shooting percentage of 9.31%.  If we add in the teams with four wins, for a total of eight teams, only one is shooting above the 9.31% mark.  And if we add in the remaining eight teams with five wins – there are 16 teams with five or fewer wins – we find that only three teams are shooting above 9.31%. This is, predictably, a very different outcome from the teams that are above .500, of which only four of 14 teams are shooting below the 9.31% average.

Shooting percentage is important because it is indicative of a team’s ability to get quality chances on net.  Sure, you’re going to have a lucky bounce here or there, or a puck that will get through every player on the ice en route to the goal, but most times goals are scored on quality chances.  Teams that fire the puck at will, from every conceivable distance or angle, are not going to be the teams that succeed long term.

If we look at the teams with the most wins, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Anaheim Ducks, all of them have shooting percentages above the 75th percentile.  In fact, they are 3, 5, and 4 in shooting percentage, respectively.  So these teams are picking their spots and finding success doing so.  They are not putting their heads down and winding up for a shot, but instead methodically looking for an open man, an extra pass, a better opportunity.  Peppering a goalie can be effective, but these teams are showing that picking your spot may be more important.

This is not to say that this is the norm among the top teams.  As stated earlier, only half of above-.500 teams are below league-average shot totals.  However, this is saying that, especially at the lower levels of hockey where we want players to improve, telling players to “shoot the puck!” at every opportunity isn’t the only way to do it.  Nor is it necessarily the best way.

*All statistics taken from Yahoo! Sports on 2/10/13.

2 Replies to ““Shoot the Puck!” Or…Don’t? An NHL Analysis”

  1. Interesting analysis Adam. With the season still relatively young, do you anticipate the trend to stay around the same by the end of the season?

  2. @Walter Franco  That is one thing I’m definitely interested in revisiting later.  Since I’m not able to analyze each team’s coach and coaching style, I’m not sure if this is something that’s being instilled in the players by their coach, or if the players are taking it upon themselves.  If it’s the players, with this being a short season, I could see a point where the goals don’t come, they press, and start taking shots at will.  If it’s coaching, then maybe it stays the same.  I know that’s a very diplomatic answer, but I just don’t know the team’s approach in this regard.  I will be looking at it toward the end of the season, though.

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