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.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!
December 19 2012, 03:59PM
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I'm FISTing at a staggering, and clearly unsustainable, 100% mark today. 2 for 2.

NOW SHOW ME THE MONEY!

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#2 Sanaa Montana
December 19 2012, 03:59PM
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F!$+

(7 seconds late)by Youssou N'Dour

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#3 Sanaa Montana
December 19 2012, 03:59PM
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Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy! wrote:

I'm FISTing at a staggering, and clearly unsustainable, 100% mark today. 2 for 2.

NOW SHOW ME THE MONEY!

Fist you @$$hol.!..

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#4 Archaeologuy
December 19 2012, 04:00PM
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Well said, Mr. Willis.

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#5 Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!
December 19 2012, 04:06PM
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@Sanaa Montana

Your FISTing is WEEEEZZEEEAAAK, son!*

*TWSS

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#6 Hacienda
December 19 2012, 04:16PM
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So Willis, what's your opinion on Eberle's shooting percentage? Do you think it will be consistently high, or do you take the defensible position that it's still too early in his career to know?

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#7 They're $hittie
December 19 2012, 04:17PM
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wait for it... wait for it......

the paaravi terrible shooting percentage and bust comment is about to come.

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#9 Neil
December 19 2012, 04:22PM
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Jonathan,

I respect your opinion, but your constant need to say "I told you so" or needing to suggest stats guys are smarter reeks of insecurity.

It is easy to suggest Pisani was a one-hit wonder, most assumed that. Also it was understandable why the Oilers signed him. He was a hero in the city and Pronger and others had all decided not to stay.

Shooting % shows us what exactly? So Eberle drops from his 19% down to 15 but still scores 34 goals because he shoots more, which is likely because he'll get more icetime, is he any better or worse of a player? If you need to jump up and down

And suggesting you those who just "watch" the game are stupid is incredibly arrogant. I guess because I don't immerse myself in stats I'm an idiot.

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#10 Sanaa Montana
December 19 2012, 04:23PM
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To say that we'd all be stupider if there was no stat guys is one of the stupidest things I have read on the site.

I watch hockey for the game of hockey. I don't sit there and count Khabi's saves, Eberle's shots or Horcoff's face-off wins.

Stats are irrelevant to the game during the game and hold no influence on it what so ever. Stats never stay the same and the numbers are constantly changing.

Stats give media something to talk about and track for the sake of news and updates and of course online knowitalls something to talk about and pull out when comparing penises.

Stats only matter if you believe they do. Stats to me are like slutty women-no one really cares about them and they are just something to talk about with your friends.

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#11 David S
December 19 2012, 04:28PM
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Did the Oilers sign Pisani based on the expectation of a 28% SP? C'mon now.

It looked like Pisani had turned a corner during the 06 playoffs. I don't think anybody really took that 28% SP seriously, but it would have been reasonable to expect he'd hit for 20 during a full season, no? In that case, plus the "hometown guy not fleeing the ship" factor was worth $2.5M per.

The reality is he had an ongoing health issue (eventualy ending his career)which no doubt had something to do with his falloff. Would a healthy Pisani have been able to perform to the contract he got from the Oilers? That was the bet, and notwithstanding the concealed health issues, a good one.

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#12 David S
December 19 2012, 04:29PM
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Sanaa Montana wrote:

To say that we'd all be stupider if there was no stat guys is one of the stupidest things I have read on the site.

I watch hockey for the game of hockey. I don't sit there and count Khabi's saves, Eberle's shots or Horcoff's face-off wins.

Stats are irrelevant to the game during the game and hold no influence on it what so ever. Stats never stay the same and the numbers are constantly changing.

Stats give media something to talk about and track for the sake of news and updates and of course online knowitalls something to talk about and pull out when comparing penises.

Stats only matter if you believe they do. Stats to me are like slutty women-no one really cares about them and they are just something to talk about with your friends.

Stats! STATS!!!

#Stats

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#14 reidharr35
December 19 2012, 04:31PM
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i know im just some guy but i have to say im almost positive that Eberle is the real deal. you never see him take a low percentage shot from the blue line in hopes of a rebound. he picks a corner in the slot and he puts it there.

I think Paajarvi will be a 3rd liner of size and speed. hopefully as he gets older and bigger he uses his size more.

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#15 Sanaa Montana
December 19 2012, 04:32PM
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@Jonathan Willis

Are you serious? You need his WHL numbers? Really? What for?

Having his WHL numbers would only make you believe in your assumption more than you do now.?

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#17 RexLibris
December 19 2012, 04:36PM
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Regarding Eberle's shooting percentage, I have a theory that is entirely scientific and can be backed by any number of quantifiable factors: Eberle shook Stamkos' hand at the draft and some of his (Eberle's) mojo rubbed off, thereby endowing young Stamkos with a portion of young Jordan's scoring touch.

Case closed.

If voodoo isn't a science, I don't know what is.

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#20 Sanaa Montana
December 19 2012, 04:38PM
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@Jonathan Willis

Where do I find this fact/stat that we'd all be stupider without Gabe and Vic?

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#22 Olivier
December 19 2012, 04:43PM
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Jonathan

I wonder if part of the shooting % thingy is that it wasn't always that way and still isn't. That is, true shooting % stars are a rarity *in the NHL nowadays*. But go back in time before the butterfly/fitness revolution of the 90's and I wouldn't be surprised to find out that not only shooting % talent was a repeatable skill, but that it was a skill at team level. That means back in the mean old, stacked-pad saves days, talent, a manifestation of puck skills and abilities was shooting %. Obviously, François Allaire, Patrick Roy and the rest took care of that in the NHL.

Dunno about the lower leagues tough.

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#23 Sanaa Montana
December 19 2012, 04:46PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

I've got a quote in a book where Don Cherry explains that video review is only useful to guys who believe in video review. The reason being that he catches everything behind the bench on his first go-around without any help.

Your argument is the direct descendant of that one, and it ain't any brighter than its old man.

Thanks for the insight.

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#24 Sanaa Montana
December 19 2012, 04:47PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

The thing about an evidence-based approach to forming conclusions is that additional evidence leads to better conclusions.

If we knew how high-percentage WHL shooters typically fared when they hit the NHL, and what Eberle's WHL numbers were, we'd have years more data on which to draw a conclusion. Instead we have two (contradictory) NHL seasons and half a year in a lockout-strengthened 'A'.

No matter how many stats you use-you will never be able to gather enough to make your opinion a fact.

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#26 Archaeologuy
December 19 2012, 04:49PM
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Sanaa Montana wrote:

Where do I find this fact/stat that we'd all be stupider without Gabe and Vic?

Perhaps wording is the issue with that one.

Personally, Ferrari and Desjardins havent made me any smarter. They have made me more informed, more knowledgeable, and provided new ways for me to look at hockey.

I would not be "Stupider" without them though.

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#27 Sanaa Montana
December 19 2012, 04:49PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Maybe not you. But certainly the NHL teams that contract Desjardins specifically because he can tell them things they don't know. And everybody else who picked up on things like line matchups and defensive zone assignments from looking at QualComp and zonestarts.

What NHL team do work for? Who exactly were you thinking about when you wrote "we'd all be stupider"?

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#28 The Soup Fascist
December 19 2012, 04:50PM
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At what point does an "anomaly" become a trend? I suspect that the Steven Stamkos and Thomas Holmstroms of the world will have high S.P. for the most productive parts of their careers - for two totally different reasons. One is a skilled sniper and the other bangs in pucks from within two feet of the goal crease.

The highest career shooting % over a career I could find - Craig Simpson 23.7%, who scored much like Holmstrom. Mike Bossy was a pure sniper who scored at over 21% - most of them beauties. A mid first rounder who was not necessarily a speedster nor could he "boom" a puck, but had a quick accurate release .... hmmm.

At what point along Bossy's 10 year career would the "shooting % propeller heads" of today say his numbers were warranted? Over nine years he produced an unbelievably consistent range of 20.2% to 24.7% before his final injury riddled year. Year 3? Year 9? Never? Different era but the point is the same.

Andrew Brunette has maintained a 17.7% pace. Alex Tanguay is at 18.6% for his career. Alex "Freaking" Tanguay! Why is Eberle maintaining an 18% SP so out of reach? IMO he is more talented than these guys and he clearly values not taking low % shots and constantly works on his release. He may drop a little, but I do not see this "shooting % cliff" being an absolute certainty. He is 27% plus in the AHL this year!

Clearly, Ebs has to do it more than one year, but I see him being a high % shooter given his talent, teammates and work ethic - for many years.

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#29 Archaeologuy
December 19 2012, 04:50PM
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Sanaa Montana wrote:

No matter how many stats you use-you will never be able to gather enough to make your opinion a fact.

Please let this morph into a debate on Evolution *crosses fingers*

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#33 Will
December 19 2012, 05:01PM
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I've brought this up before and you said you had no interest arguing a point you don't believe in, which I feel demonstrates biased journalism and a manipulation of stats to back up what you want to show, instead of drawing conclusions from the stats themselves (I should caveat that point with the fact that I know the data suggests Eberle's shooting percentage is unsustainable); however I am more interested in talking about why Eberle or Pisani managed to have such good years, and how to duplicate those factors so they can continue to have good years.

It's one thing to say this is why Eberle will not be as good, but another to say Eberle was really good, why is that, and what does he have to do to duplicate?

Eberle did not get a ton of points because his shooting percentage was high, his shooting percentage was high because he converted on a lot of chances. Why is he able to convert on those chances, whereas Pijaarvi is not?

Answers like accuracy, not just throwing the puck on net, putting himself in high scoring positions, playing with people who allow him to be in high scoring positions are all answers, and that I think is what we should be discussing.

My problem with these shooting percentage arguments is they all boil down to one point: anyone with a high shooting percentage was just lucky. For a stats person, proving that someone was lucky through hard factual numbers seems like a contradiction. Whereas everyone who says this kind of reasoning is stupid and Eberle will continue to get points, is arguing he got points because of skill, and the skill around him.

If anything, I don't see a high shooting percentage proving someone was lucky, I think it proves someone has potential. Not potential to be lucky again, but potential to sustain their skilled performance. Thus in the case of Pisani, did he just become unlucky, or did something else factor into his skill dropping off?

Just like Gagner's 8 point night, was that luck? Can you look at any of those goals and say the only reason that went in was pure luck. Or do you look at it and say, that is an incredible feat and the fact he was capable of it demonstrates a potential for him to be a performer?

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#34 Will
December 19 2012, 05:03PM
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@Will

Sorry about the rant, and this is a well written article that was enjoyable to read.

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#35 The Soup Fascist
December 19 2012, 05:07PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Alex Tanguay is an *extremely* selective shooter - and prior to Stamkos the league's most accurate.

Sidney Crosby's a more talented guy than Tanguay (and Eberle, for that matter) but he's only a career 15% shooter despite the cerebral nature of his game and his high level of skill.

But you're right - what is an anomaly now will be a trend if it continues. But then again, at the same point in his career Andrew Cogliano had a better statistical argument for being a high percentage shooter than Eberle does.

Eberle's great year last year cannot be considered a trend under any circumstance, you are correct. I just see a lot of reasons for up arrows and Eberle maintaining 18% is not necessarily impossible.

"...you'd like to outlaw counting" is a VERY funny line, by the way.

~Who knew a "stats guy" could have a sense of humor?~

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#36 TigerUnderGlass
December 19 2012, 05:07PM
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@Will

You are confusing "luck" with "chance".

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#37 Will
December 19 2012, 05:19PM
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TigerUnderGlass wrote:

You are confusing "luck" with "chance".

As in a high scoring percentage indicates someone was chancy? Or that someone had more chances? Or someone had better chances?

I'm not sure if you're trying to say I made a simple grammatical error, or if because the terms mean something different, the stats prove something more tangible than luck.

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#38 Sanaa Montana
December 19 2012, 05:20PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

Please let this morph into a debate on Evolution *crosses fingers*

Lets talk about will and representation, or maybe subjects and objects.

Nah, #@$% it! Let's talk stats.

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#39 TigerUnderGlass
December 19 2012, 05:28PM
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Will wrote:

As in a high scoring percentage indicates someone was chancy? Or that someone had more chances? Or someone had better chances?

I'm not sure if you're trying to say I made a simple grammatical error, or if because the terms mean something different, the stats prove something more tangible than luck.

Forget it. I can see this will be a waste of time I can't afford today.

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#40 David S
December 19 2012, 05:36PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:
It looked like Pisani had turned a corner during the 06 playoffs. I don't think anybody really took that 28% SP seriously, but it would have been reasonable to expect he'd hit for 20 during a full season, no?

Was that a reasonable expectation?

Why would it be reasonable to expect the 30-year old winger to post the best numbers of his career?

It wouldn't be. The 2006 run wasn't "reasonable." It happened, but it was lightning in a bottle and never should have been taken as a serious indicator that Pisani's career was on the upswing.

I'll give you Pisani was on the back side of his best years, but it would been easy to surmise he'd turned a corner and be able to reasonably produce and fulfill the contract.

Sure there was an element of overpay regardless, but if (IF) he'd been healthy, that was a decent bet. The issue at hand was that his condition was getting progressively worse, which I'll bet very much affected his performance.

All I'm saying was that it's highly unlikely that contract was based on a 28% SP. No doubt the 06 run performance was exceptional, but it could have been seen as an indicator he had more in the tank, or had found a new level - not the same as the playoffs obviously, but enough to warrant higher production the following year. More than likely a gut feeling he'd found the right combination of skill and confidence that would translate into a few decent years.

Unfortunately, circumstances and reality were different.

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#43 stevezie
December 19 2012, 06:47PM
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I don't think most of the opponents actually disagree with Jonathan; there is just some of the most acrobatic dodging of the point I have ever seen.

No one is saying stats will enhance YOUR enjoyment of the game; what they're useful for is predicting the future. If you don't care about doing this than God-bless you. I'm sure no one will fault you for enjoying the element of surprise in sports- different people come to the game to see different things.
No one is saying that all players will shoot around the same percentage, just that even if a player spikes or drops you can count on him to return to what his individual shooting percentage is (unless age and injury are setting in). This is a fact. Mike Bossy and Craig Simpson do invalidate those predicting a drop-off for Eberle, they confirm the theory because both these players consistantly shot high-percentage.
Eberle might be a fantastically high-percentage scorer, but we need a few more seasons to say for sure. "Watching his release" is not as reliable as looking at his career numbers.
He sure is lighting up the A.

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#44 stevezie
December 19 2012, 06:49PM
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I'd be interested to see if there are any difference in shooting percentages between regular season and playoffs for "clutch winners" like C. Lemiuex and Tikkanen. I'd bet that they can will themselves to generate more shots, but cannot suddenly make themselves shoot better.

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#45 Pucker
December 19 2012, 07:01PM
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The Soup Fascist wrote:

At what point does an "anomaly" become a trend? I suspect that the Steven Stamkos and Thomas Holmstroms of the world will have high S.P. for the most productive parts of their careers - for two totally different reasons. One is a skilled sniper and the other bangs in pucks from within two feet of the goal crease.

The highest career shooting % over a career I could find - Craig Simpson 23.7%, who scored much like Holmstrom. Mike Bossy was a pure sniper who scored at over 21% - most of them beauties. A mid first rounder who was not necessarily a speedster nor could he "boom" a puck, but had a quick accurate release .... hmmm.

At what point along Bossy's 10 year career would the "shooting % propeller heads" of today say his numbers were warranted? Over nine years he produced an unbelievably consistent range of 20.2% to 24.7% before his final injury riddled year. Year 3? Year 9? Never? Different era but the point is the same.

Andrew Brunette has maintained a 17.7% pace. Alex Tanguay is at 18.6% for his career. Alex "Freaking" Tanguay! Why is Eberle maintaining an 18% SP so out of reach? IMO he is more talented than these guys and he clearly values not taking low % shots and constantly works on his release. He may drop a little, but I do not see this "shooting % cliff" being an absolute certainty. He is 27% plus in the AHL this year!

Clearly, Ebs has to do it more than one year, but I see him being a high % shooter given his talent, teammates and work ethic - for many years.

Mike Bossy!! There's a guy I though had a good chance of scoring everytime he took a shot. I've always wondered what makes him different from everyone else. Is it just a knack for shooting where the goalie isn't? I know I've seen goalies so bad they'd make saves because they weren't where they're supposed to be. Are these the ones he missed?

I enjoy your articles Mr. Willis. As I do Mr. Brownlee's and everyone else contributing to this site. I'd love to see something on Bossy. I think he might have been an alien.

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#46 DSF
December 19 2012, 07:21PM
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They're $hittie wrote:

wait for it... wait for it......

the paaravi terrible shooting percentage and bust comment is about to come.

Yep.

We now have 5 seasons of Paajarvi's dreadful shooting percentage to draw on.

You think it's going to change?

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#47 SmellOfVictory
December 19 2012, 07:41PM
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@The Soup Fascist

Brunette and Tanguay are both incredibly low volume shooters. Eberle is a mid-volume shooter. This implies that he does not "pick his shots" to the same extent.

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#48 They're $hittie
December 19 2012, 08:37PM
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@DSF

how do you have five, he is in his third season in NA pro.

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#49 David S
December 19 2012, 08:46PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

I don't think we're all that far apart in our takes here. I'm not explicitly saying the Oilers saw his run and said, 'he can do that again' - rather I think they did exactly what you suggest, surmising that he'd turned the corner when what he'd really done was had a hot streak.

Either way, without that playoff run he wouldn't have been a $10 million/four years player.

Agreed on that point. I still think he might have actually turned that corner had Colitis not been an issue, but I suppose we'll never know the specifics. Good article BTW Jonathan. Sparked lots of decent debate. I seriously do not know how you guys are hanging in right about now.

Props!

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#50 DSF
December 19 2012, 08:57PM
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They're $hittie wrote:

how do you have five, he is in his third season in NA pro.

You might want to look at his shooting percentage in the SEL.

No different.

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