Ignorance, knowledge and shooting percentage

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

  • reidharr35

    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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

        • 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.


  • 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.

  • 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.

    • Yeah, never said those who just watch the game are stupid. I advise reading the post again.

      If it helps, read this first.

      The fact is that we would all be stupider without people like Gabe Desjardins and Vic Ferrari. They contribute knowledge, knowledge that’s obviously been needed.

      And if you want, take a stroll down HFBoards in the summer and fall of 2006. Read what people thought of Pisani. Dig out your copy of tHe Hockey News or McKeen’s or whichever annual you like. Heck, go back and Goole News search his name in that time period and read what Lowe and MacT said. No, it wasn’t assumed that his production was one-off. Not at all.

      Edit to add: Just to clarify – I’m not arguing that people thought he would score 40. But people did believe he should score 25.

          • DSF

            Shooting percentage is shooting percentage in any league.

            In his final SEL season, he scored 12 goals in 49 games with a shooting percentage around 6%.

            For comparison, Canucks prospect Niklas Jensen has already scored 12 goals in the SEL in 30 games and he is only 19.

          • stevezie

            You’re telling a true story without telling the whole story. No one who wants to be taken seriously is arguing we were better off taking MPS than Kulikov. If we can go back in time the Russian is ours. That there wre better picks does not make MPS a bad one.

            You are right that MPS had a bad Swedish shooting percentage, but he produced offence anyway because he was good at generating shots, which is at least an equal part of the equation.
            The kid got picked because he had size, decent stats, a good attitude (“Canada will sh*t themselves…” is a great quote) and the single most important thing a hockey player needs: skating ability. Best wheels in the draft, they said.

            No, he is not going to be a great scorer. He is in range for his draft position though. Call me an apologist but other than Kulikov I think it is too early to close the case on any of the 10-20 picks from his year. He’ll never be a star, that doesn’t make him a bust.

  • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

    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?

    • It’s a tough discussion to have because we don’t know his WHL totals; we know he was a goal scorer and it seems reasonable to suppose he was a high percentage shooter, but we don’t know.

      Personally, I expect he’s a very good shooter. By “very good” I mean in the 14%+ range. Less than 30 guys managed more than 100 goals and a higher than 14% shooting percentage over the last CBA.

      Could he be an exceptional guy – a Stamkos-level guy? Yes, I think it’s possible. But since there’s only one Stamkos-level guy – Stamkos – I think it’s more likely that he’s a very good shooter coming off a great season.

      The longer he’s a high-percentage shooter, the more likely that he’s a Stamkos-level guy. It really isn’t impossible. It’s just so rare – and so many people wish it to be so – that we need to exercise caution before anointing him.

      That’s my view.