Ignorance, knowledge and shooting percentage

Jonathan Willis
December 19 2012 03:48PM

When looking at the impact of hockey blogs on discussion of the sport, shooting percentage is a decent example of how untrained amateurs have moved the puck forward.

For ages – and by ages I mean the dawn of hockey right down into the 2000’s – things like “really high shooting percentages are uncommon” were not obvious. Not to players, not to general managers, and really not to the guys hammering out reports for media publications or the fans reading them.

Fernando Pisani

This is something that should be painfully clear to anyone who has covered the Oilers at all since the last lockout. Consider, for example, Fernando Pisani’s 2006 playoff run, where he scored 14 goals in 24 games on 49 shots, good for a 28.6 shooting percentage.

The management of the Edmonton Oilers gave him a raise to $2.5 million per season against a salary cap of $44 million. The equivalent total against today’s $70.2 million cap is $4 million. Guys signed to that equivalent amount this off-season included Jiri Hudler (25 goals, 50 points), P-A Parenteau (18 goals, 67 points) and David Jones (20 goals, 37 points).

Optics may well have been involved; after all, the best word to describe the Oilers’ off-season that year was “exodus.” But Pisani was handed a four-year contract in the hopes that he would score enough to earn it. He started 2006-07 on the Oilers’ top line, with Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth. Smyth had scored 36 goals the year before; Horcoff was coming off a 73-point season. Both general manager Kevin Lowe and head coach Craig MacTavish talked about additional opportunities and additional minutes.

This is before we get into what the media and what the fans thought about Fernando Pisani. Suffice to say that optimism was widespread. The Hockey News said Pisani “should be good for 20-plus [goals]” and after mentioning him, Ales Hemsky and Joffrey Lupul proclaimed the Oilers “as skilled, young and dynamic as they’ve been in 20 years.” McKeen’s Hockey predicted 24 goals and 50 points. Pisani played 77 games, scoring 14 goals and failing to clear the 30-point plateau. It was his most productive season on that four-year contract.

The arguments in his favour at the time were pretty clear. He was going to shoot more. He was going to play more minutes, including on the power play. None of it happened, because as it turns out a 28.6 shooting percentage wasn’t sustainable. Pisani ultimately managed to score at just over one-third of that clip in his first year under the new deal.

Gilbert Brule

A more recent example is Gilbert Brule, a guy who jumped from being a sub-seven percent shooter with Columbus to a 14 percent plus shooter in Edmonton. I’m glossing over some other things, but suffice to say that when the argument was made that there were serious concerns, the guys who made it were laughed out of the building. Oilers management handed him a shiny new contract, to the approval of the majority of punditry and fandom alike.

Reasons for confidence were many and varied. Some argued that because Brule was a close range shooter his shooting percentage would be consistently high. Others argued his shot totals would increase because he was young and hadn’t been given enough time on top lines and the power play.

The bottom promptly fell out, for a number of reasons including health issues. Interestingly, even at the AHL level Brule failed to match his NHL shooting percentage from the previous year; in the majors he failed to crack double digits in shooting percentage.

The Point

In hindsight, the unsustainability of Pisani’s playoff goal-scoring seems painfully obvious. At the time, everybody – including the experienced hockey men making multi-million dollar decisions for the team – missed the boat. Much the same can be said about Brule. Neither was an isolated incident; hockey men around the league have made and continue to make those mistakes, whether it was Toronto signing Jason Blake in 2007 or Buffalo signing Ville Leino in 2011.

Between those four guys alone, NHL teams spent more than $60 million on contracts immediately following a shooting percentage bubble. The vast majority of that money was wasted.

I bring this stuff up because people wonder why the online hockey stats crowd continues to talk about shooting percentage and other items. An Oilers Nation piece pondered that very question as recently as this Monday. The answer is this: it matters, a lot, and it’s something that still has not been accepted by many.

The reason for that lack of acceptance is obvious. The presence of shooting percentage-based analysis in hockey media started online. It wasn’t something that NHL insiders were leaking to journalists; by their actions it’s clear that an alarming number of NHL insiders had no idea it mattered as recently as the last few years. It wasn’t something that was generated by the professional media, either, and propagated in a mainstream publication.

Instead, the importance of shooting percentage in analyzing goal scoring has only been emphasized publicly because of the work of a group of talented amateurs, guys writing on websites. It is those places where people like me have learned basic principles and contributed what we could in turn.

The value has been an increased understanding of the game, and not just by the diehards with the spreadsheets. And every time someone breaks out a project studying zone entries or analyzes translations from the AHL to NHL or evaluates how penalty-killing save percentage fluctuates from year to year, they’re furthering everyone’s knowledge.

That’s why they don’t “just sit back and enjoy” the show. The stats guys could just shut up and watch the games. But we’d all be less informed if they did.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.