There were really two seasons this year for veteran forward Ryan Smyth.
There was the October/November season, where Smyth played tough opposition and spent a lot of time in his own end. He fired the puck 65 times in 25 games (2.6 shots/game) and scored a remarkable 12 goals. People lauded his effort, his performance, and the general awesomeness whenever he stepped on to the ice.
Then there was the December-April season, where Smyth played tough opposition and spent a lot of time in his own end. He fired the puck 129 times in 57 games (2.3 shots/game) and scored a remarkably bad seven goals. People decried his lack of effort, his poor performance, and the general miserable mediocrity whenever he stepped on the ice.
The simple fact is that Ryan Smyth didn’t forget how to score goals. He didn’t suddenly decide every shot had to be off a wraparound – he was doing that earlier in the year too:
The answer lies in no small part in shooting percentage. Here is Smyth’s shooting percentage, month-by-month:
Ryan Smyth is not a guy who will score on one shot in five over the long term (i.e. 20.0 SH%). He is also not a guy who will score on one shot in 20 over the long term (i.e. 5.0 SH%). He will have and has had good months and bad months. He will have and has had good years and bad year.
In 1995-96, Smyth’s first full season as an Oiler, he scored two goals in 48 games. He didn’t shoot as much in those days – just 65 shots – but at the end of the year his shooting percentage was a miserable 3.1%. I’m guessing there was significant concern about the sixth overall pick’s offensive game at the time; I’m also guessing it was erased the next year when he scored 39 goals (establishing his career-best in his second NHL season) and fired at a 14.7% clip.
In 2006-07, Smyth’s last year in his first tenure as an Oiler, Smyth scored 31 goals on 161 shots for the Oilers. He slowed a little bit after finishing the season with the Islanders, but still converted shots at a 17.1% clip.
We’ve seen these variances before. They’re a simple part of a complex game – sometimes the puck goes in, and sometimes it doesn’t, for reasons that don’t always have a lot to do with the shooter.
On his career, Smyth is an 11.6% shooter. The last four seasons – including this one – he’s finished within 2.0% of that mark. If I were guessing what his shooting percentage is next year, I’d guess it’s that.
The point is that a huge chunk of Smyth’s decline in performance is directly attributable to simple variance in shooting percentage. He was never going to be as good long-term as he was to start the year. He’s almost certainly not going to be as bad long-term as he was to finish the year. Shooting percentage bounces around; it always had and always will, for players both better and worse than Smyth. Sidney Crosby’s an 11% shooter this year. Last year, he was a 20% shooter. On his career, he’s a 15% shooter.
The dip in shooting percentage is a good thing for the Oilers, as long as they take advantage of it. It helped a going nowhere team finish as low as it did. It will drive Smyth’s contract demands down. It also means that he’s probably going to surprise a few people when he starts scoring at his usual rate next season. If the Oilers are smart, he’ll be doing it for them at a reduced salary.