Monday, December 5, 2011

NHL Trends That I've Spotted, November Edition

I like JaredL's Power Rankings, though they do take some of the wind out of my monthly column about NHL trends. Since this column is just a hodgepodge of stuff I notice, I'll just focus on the player level. Today's edition will involve forwards.

Predict The Future And Win The Praise Of Basement-Dwelling Bloggers Everywhere, aka Finished Or Not Finished

Shots on goal trends are starting to emerge - information-wise with regard to shots, we begin the NHL season with chaff and build slowly up to wheat. A decline in shots on goal rate can have many causes - the biggest one, it seems to me, is shifting ice time. Since shot rates increase on the power play, less time on the power play and more time on the penalty kill is going to take a bite out of a player's shot rate. Still, we're at the point where we can begin to make pronouncements about a player's direction.

#1: Jarome Iginla

Finished or Not Finished? Finished.

Iginla's ice time has been cut slightly, but his shot rate is lowest since 98-99. With over 1100 games at the age of 34, it's hard to imagine Iginla's numbers coming back up, but perhaps a change of location would help him out.

(Naturally, Iginla had an 8 shot game in between when I first wrote this and when it will be published. Still, I think Iginla will not be a 30 goal scorer for much longer.)

#2: Brad Richards

Finished or Not Finished? Not finished.

Richards's shot rate has to be worrisome, but right now his shooting percentage is making the issue. His shot rate is a full shot below his career mark, and nearly a shot and a half below last year. My suspicion, however, is that linemate Marian Gaborik is 'taking' his shots - he's a full shot higher than last season. Richards has 13 5 on 4 shots according to behindthenet - last season he was credited with 108 - he essentially went from a shot and a half per game on the PP to a half-shot. Sometimes tactical changes can reduce a player's shot rate.

#3: Alex Ovechkin

Finished Or Not Finished? The jury's out.

Alex Ovechkin came into the league and led the NHL in shots on goal for 6 straight years. He's still shooting nearly 3.5 times per game, a rate which most NHLers would envy. Still, at his peak he shot over 6.5 times per game.

Let's see if we can't identify some causes.

1: Ice time reduction. Ovechkin's career average ice time is nearly 22 minutes a game, but he's only averaging 19 minutes a game so far this season. Assuming the decline to be linear between power play ice time and even strength ice time, that should result in a reduction in his shot rate - in fact, assuming that Ovechkin and his linemates still have the same true talent, we'd expect him to shoot 4.51 shots per game instead of his career 5.22. Still, that doesn't explain the decline completely, as he is below 4 shots a game.

2: Linemates. As we saw above, his linemates may be taking shots away from him. This doesn't seem to be the case - Ovechkin shot just over 1 time per game on the power play last year, and while he is shooting less often than that this year, it's the entire Washington power play that seems to have fallen. Last season, it generated 59.1 shots per 60 minutes, good for 3rd in the NHL. This year it's generating 48.2 shots per 60 minutes, which ranks it solidly in the middle of the pack. The difference is only 1 shot per 5 power play minutes, which doesn't seem like a lot, but over the course of a season, it adds up to 8 expected goals.

3: Shooters have a peak, perhaps Ovechkin has passed his. If we look at the careers of pure scorers, like Paul Kariya, Brett Hull, and Phil Esposito, we can see that they had a clear prime. Kariya had 6 years where he was top 10 in the league in shots, and a 7th year where he would've led the league in shots had he not both held out and been injured. Brett Hull led the league 3 straight years, then finished 2nd in the league 3 straight years, and was never again top 10 in the league in shots after his 33rd birthday. Esposito had 5 straight years where he had 5+ shots per game, but never had a season where he approached that number either before or after. This is sobering news to Ovechkin and Washington Capitals fans, but it's entirely possible that Ovechkin will never lead the league in shots on goal again. We can't make that pronouncement for sure, but players have leveled off at his age from being a top 5 player to being a top 20 player.

Wayne Gretzky said that 100% of the shots you don't take don't go in, and it's a truism that NHL fans don't quite understand. When your favorite player isn't generating as many shots as he once did, it's a sign that he probably won't return to his previous level of play.