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

  • 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.

  • RexLibris

    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.

  • Craiger

    willis…

    first let me say that i am a huge fan of oilersnation, and indeed hockey in general. this is a great blog with some talented writers, and as die-hard fans like me scavenge the internets for any tidbits of hockey news that isn’t lockout related, the nation has done a fantastic job of creating content in a situation in which there is often little to report.

    i’ve been a fan of the nation since it opened its virtual doors, and have visited the site daily for many years. over that time i’ve come to find a great respect for some of the contributors, and less for others. sadly, i have to tell you that you have of late fallen into the latter pile.

    the nation is a place to share opinions and talk hockey, and any sports fan knows that the passion of the game is not contained solely to the ice/field/court/diamond, but spills over into basements, bars and blogs. i respect that. presenting an opinion and using data or observations to back it up is what the whole thing is about – but when you start acting like a whiny, condescending brat and resorting to name-calling and insults to make your point, the words lose their effectiveness and instead the focus becomes the whiny, condescending brat behind the words.

    the readers of the nation are not idiots. just because we don’t all keep spreadsheets loaded full of data and run statistical analyses and regression models on left handed face-off winning percentages in third period neutral zone face-offs on the road on odd numbered days in january doesn’t mean you are the only person here who understands the game. some of us played it, and can glean as much from watching a sequence as any mathematician can with all the statistics in the world. i appreciate the numbers approach, and appreciate the evidence used to back up your opinions… i just wish you would present those opinions as such rather than with the superfluous superior attitude and patronizing tone. it doesn’t make you right. it just makes you a know-it-all asshat.

    you’re better than that. have some respect for your readers, we’re not all the idiots you seem to think.

    • Wax Man Riley

      I have no idea how someone could take offense to this piece. I did not find it whiny or condescending at all.

      Also, looks like someone learned to prop themselves….

    • I’m astounded by the notion that I’ve insulted anybody in this piece. Really I am.

      Even in the initial draft, you’ll note that I say “we’d all be stupider” – I’m including myself because the only reason I know to look for things like zonestarts is because somebody taught me to look for them.

      No offense was intended, and re-reading the piece for the dozenth time I’m at a loss as to why it’s being taken.

      • I’m with ya, JW. You bring up a valid point. An in-depth analysis reveals more information, that’s all there is to it. No, SH% isn’t the be-all-end-all, absolute determiner in a player’s success, but I do believe that it is a real and necessary part of a scouting report that can be useful in analyzing a player.

        Of course, I’d rather be reading about actual hockey, but given the lack of available content, this will have to suffice. I was actually quite surprised when people took offence. JW wasn’t tooting his own horn here. I didn’t think any arrogance was present in the article at all.

      • GVBlackhawk

        That’s right. You just keep yer fancy edjucatin’ to yerself.

        Seriously though, you can’t open your mouth these days without offending somebody. Reality is, statistics are very useful because nobody can remember all of the nuances that happen throughout a game. Our memories are not that good. There is nothing wrong with trying to educate the masses. People don’t like change and all of the advanced stats stuff is pretty new.

        In addition, some less intelligent folk get offended simply because they don’t understand it.