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How Do Bad Shooting Teams Succeed?

April 26, 2013, 1:34 PM ET [107 Comments]
Travis Yost
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There's going to be a lot of talk about Paul MacLean and what appears to be an inevitable Jack Adams Trophy nomination in the coming days. The Ottawa Senators pretty much lost every valuable player for the majority of the season, yet by game forty-six, had clinched another playoff berth -- the second in as many years under Ottawa's new bench boss.

I'm not particularly sure whether or not Ottawa's head coach will actually win the award, but his inclusion in the final three seems to me like a no-brainer. There's a pretty decent argument that this year's team has out-performed last year's team by a considerable margin, although it's only marginally translated in the standings; Ottawa's moved from a 1.12 PPG team to a 1.17 PPG one, but did so (a) with vastly superior possession numbers; and (b) at least a handful of guys taking on roles they almost certainly weren't prepared for.

I think the ability of this team can kind of get lost in the fact that this club as a whole was mired in the shooting department like no other. When I say no other, I mean no other. The 2012-2013 Ottawa Senators have the worst even-strength shooting percentage of any club to reach the playoffs since at least 2007 [and almost certainly longer], converting at an abhorrent 5.94% rate. There's some severe lack of puck luck in there, but I think a lack of individual scoring talent is probably contributory to some extent.

I put together a chart to illustrate Ottawa's shooting woes: a compilation of a number of the league's worst shooting teams in the last six years. It's a point I think worth emphasizing for a number of reasons I'll touch on in a bit:

As you can see, more often than not, poor shooting even-strength teams did not make the post-season. It's far from a single defining point though: seven of those seventeen clubs did grab a playoff berth, although a number of them sort of squeaked into the dance.

So, how does a team win hockey games when they can't score goals? It would seem to me that potential common denominators here are (a) strong possession time; and (b) strong goaltending. With one or the other, you're leaving things in doubt. The 1213 New Jersey Devils are like a case study in this: elite possession metrics, but one that was victimized by poor shooting percentages and awful goaltending.

Let's look at the seven playoff teams that did reach the playoffs with awful shooting metrics. I've included this year's Detroit Red Wings to jump the sample a bit; it does appear they're going to make it anyway, so the inclusion isn't unwarranted. As mentioned previously, the strong suspicion is that teams who succeed in spite of awful shooting percentages are very likely dominant controllers of the puck, and excellent between the pipes.

And, voila. The even-strength save percentages and corresponding ranks that year are well above normal, with only one team -- the 0809 New York Rangers -- even coming close to the league average. At least five of those teams are elite shot stoppers.

The Score-Adjusted Fenwick column is most important of all, though. We know driving possession correlates strongly with winning long-term, and the best way to ascertain what teams are controlling the puck is by looking at even-strength shot attempt differentials. Vic Ferrari's already shown the strength of the relationship.

It's one of the big reasons why the analytics community didn't see the Los Angeles Kings as a true Cinderella team last season; a lot of analysts suggested that the team just turned it on at the right time. But others, almost certainly more accurately, noticed that the team started to see pucks falling in their favor. The possession numbers were insane from start to finish. But, when it mattered most, the hockey gods smiled a bit upon their offense. When that team started to score goals, slowing them down was a war of attrition.

Of that list, seven of those eight teams were getting more than 52% of even-strength shot attempts. That's a pretty exclusive group that's generally reserved for the league's best teams.

As for Florida last year: they weren't a bad team. They just weren't a very good team. Regression, unfortunately, was inevitable. Combine that with a half-million man games lost, awful shooting percentages, and the wrong side of hockey luck, you have a team headed for the lottery.

Bringing this all back to Paul MacLean: this team was probably cheated out of a chance to dethrone the Boston Bruins in the Northeast division. Injuries happen, and the fact that this team improved from last year's healthy rotations is pretty remarkable, but that doesn't necessarily mean the production was reflective of the talent currently assembled on this roster. Keep a healthy Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson for forty-eight games, you're going to see a nice uptick -- one that probably has them neck-and-neck with Boston (and, Montreal) in the division.

MacLean's going to get a lot of the credit for the team's play, but I don't think it can be stated enough that Bryan Murray and the rest of the organization deserve a ton of praise, particularly on the scouting and player development side. Coaching value is kind of a mystery, but what's not a mystery is the importance of talent and depth. The fact that this train didn't derail after January and February is just as much a testament to the front office as it is to the coaching staff and players.

So long as they keep doing everything else right, they'll be a tough out in the playoffs. If they start scoring some goals, they're going to be a miserable draw. The same can be said for San Jose and Detroit.

Back with more tomorrow.


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