The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight
Okay, so in the previous post I teased that in the next post (this one) I would reveal the reason for the Capitals’ offensive difficulties. I have been tracking this for a few weeks now, and even wrote about it once before this season.
To save you the trouble of scrolling through that lengthy Oct. 22 post, here’s the pertinent bit:
Another problem the Caps have had this season is getting shots on net. Washington has averaged 28 shots on goal per game this season, the same number it averaged in 2006-07. But many other intended missiles have missed their mark. The Caps have 196 shots on goal in seven games. Another 106 have been blocked en route and 93 have missed the net altogether. So more intended shots (199) have missed the mark than have gone on goal (196).
Opposing teams have 220 shots on goal, have had 79 blocked and have missed entirely on 67 in the same seven games.
“I think our [defensemen] have to do a better job of changing the angle [of their shots],” says Hanlon. “Every team plays [defensive] zone almost the same; they collapse, they come out to the point. If they’re in shooting lanes, we have to do a better job of just moving them a little bit. It’s hard to get pucks through now. A lot of teams, they start to use [the area] behind the net. Instead of just throwing it at the net, they get people set up behind the net and the cycle starts again because it’s so hard to get pucks through. It’s a skill. It’s an acquired skill to walk three or four feet, move, change the angle and find a new shooting lane. It takes composure and it takes poise. The good ones are better at it.”
The seven defensemen the Caps have employed this season have combined for 60 shots on goal. Another 51 have been blocked and 26 more have missed the net.
Alex Ovechkin’s normally finely honed radar is also off just a bit in the early going of this season. He is averaging better than five shots on goal per game, as he has done over the course of his career. Ovechkin has 37 shots on goal this season, and that’s more than twice as many as any other Capital. Nylander, Kozlov, Poti and Matt Pettinger are tied for second on the team with 16 shots on goal. But Ovechkin has had more shots blocked (17) and more that have missed altogether (18) than any other Cap has managed to put on the cage.
A couple weeks later, things haven’t improved much in the getting-shots-through department.
Beginning with this season, the league added the “A/B” column to its official game sheets. The stat tells how many intended shots skaters had blocked in individual games. As it has for years, the league also tracks missed shots, those intended shots on goal that went wide or high of their intended mark.
The NHL does not make it easy to track these stats on a team-by-team basis, but here’s what we know.
In 2005-06, Alex Ovechkin led the NHL in shots on goal. Ovechkin was second in the NHL with 144 missed shots in his 81 games played, trailing only Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk (159). Ovechkin averaged 1.78 missed shots per contest in his rookie season.
Last season, Ovechkin again led the NHL in shots on goal. Ovechkin missed 148 shots in 82 games, second in the league behind Philadelphia’s Simon Gagne (179). So Ovie fired an average of 1.8 missed shots per game in 2006-07.
This season, Ovechkin is third in the NHL with 68 shots on goal. He has missed the net on 31 attempts (that’s 2.4 per game) and has had 50 shots blocked by opposing defensemen or forwards. You don’t have to be a math major to tell that more of Ovie’s shots have missed the mark (81) than have gone on goal (68).
Ovechkin trails Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg and the Rangers’ Brendan Shanahan. Zetterberg has 76 shots on goal in 14 games; he has had 15 shots blocked and has missed the net 21 times. Shanahan has 72 shots on goal in 13 games. He has had a dozen shots blocked and has missed altogether 19 times.
So although Ovechkin trails Zetterberg by eight shots on goal, he has actually teed the puck up for 37 more shots than has the Detroit star. Ovechkin has launched 46 more shots than Shanahan, but trails him by four in shots on goal.
The seven Washington defensemen who have played this season have combined for 104 shots on goal. Another 96 attempted shots have been blocked, and 43 have missed the cage. Capitals blueliners have taken more “bad” shots (139) than shots that have gotten through.
Like I said, the NHL doesn’t make it easy to track these things. But I spent several hours this morning tracking a few teams, game-by-game. I tracked the three teams with the most shots on goal in the league (Carolina, Detroit and Toronto). Despite having about 100 more shots on goal for the season than the Caps, none of the three had as many blocked shots as Washington.
I tracked the three teams in the league with the best shooting percentage (Philadelphia, Buffalo, Calgary). None of them had as many blocked shots as Washington. I tracked the three teams with the fewest shots on goal in the league (Vancouver, Boston and Atlanta), just to see if maybe they had the fewest because they were getting a lot of shots blocked. Nope. They’re just not taking a lot of shots.
I tracked Ottawa, because they’re so good. I tracked the Rangers, because they’re getting shots on goal but not scoring. Including the Caps, I tracked a dozen of the league’s 30 teams. None has had more shots blocked than Washington. Only Toronto (206), the Rangers (173) and Carolina (170) have missed the net more than Washington.
I also tracked the Caps’ opposition in the 13 games to date this season. Caps opponents have totaled 373 shots on goal. They’ve had 142 shots blocked and they’ve missed 126 times. So although Washington has been outshot by seven in terms of “shots on goal,” they’ve actually taken 103 more shots than their opponents.
Of the 12 teams I tracked, the Caps were the only team whose total of shots missed and shots blocked exceeded its total of shots on goal.
What are we to make of this?
“We do look at it and I know the reason for it and I’m not going to go into it because it’s part of our system,” said Glen Hanlon prior to the Philly game on Friday, in which Washington had 26 shots on goal and 25 blocked. “Trust me, I don’t sit and say, ‘Okay guys, I want to have a whole bunch of shots blocked.’ But I know the reason why it’s happening. We have to make the proper play. There’s a play that has to be made there. I know the reason for it, but I don’t really want to get too much into it.
“It’s a very simple adjustment. We have plays to accommodate that. Lots of nights it’s on, and some nights the processing of the information is not there.”
The adjustment wasn’t made (or maybe the info wasn’t processed) on Friday, but it’s worth looking for as the current road trip progresses. Here’s what three other Caps had to say about the problem:
Defenseman Brian Pothier:
“It’s something we need to get better at. We’re not doing a very good job at getting pucks through. Teams nowadays they really harp on that. They know if they limit point shots, they limit rebound opportunities. We need to work just as hard at maybe stepping aside, finding a lane and getting some pucks through.”
Defenseman Mike Green:
“We’ve just got to be smart at getting pucks down low. We’re successful when we get pucks behind the net and battle and cycle. We’ve just got to be smarter as a defensive group at getting pucks through. We work on it a lot.”
Goaltender Olie Kolzig:
“The one thing I do see is that our [defensemen] aren’t moving their feet. They stay stationary and they allow the forward to really key up on the puck. If they get their feet moving a little bit, it’s going to be tougher for the forward to eye up on the puck and you’re also dragging that forward away, so it opens up the high forward for a one-timer.”
By the way, Pothier and Tom Poti are the only two Caps defensemen whose totals of blocked and missed shots combined do not exceed their shots on goal totals.
Guys who take a lot of shots are going to miss their share of shots, just like the guys who handle the puck more than other players are going to be the ones who are among the league leaders in giveaways. It goes with the territory.
Since the beginning of time immemorial, hockey coaches have preached the importance of a consistent point shot, one that’s hard and low and gets through to the opposing net. Point shots that get through sometimes result in rebounds, and sometimes those rebounds result in goals. Point shots that get blocked sometimes result in turnovers at one of the most vulnerable spots on the ice, the offensive blueline. Think back to the game-winning goal in Thursday’s 2-0 loss to the Rangers in New York. The sequence started after a Mike Green point shot was blocked and the puck trickled all the way back to the Washington end of the ice.
The Capitals are taking an average of 57.23 shots per game. Only 28.15 of those are getting to the net. One can’t help but wonder if a few more of those 744 intended shots had gotten through, and led to other shots and maybe a few goals, maybe the outcome of one or two of Washington’s four one-goal losses might have been different.
Washington has been starving for goals all season, and its power play has lacked luster. Alleviating the point shot problem could go a long way toward fixing both problems.