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Shooting lots and shooting smart: How are the Maple Leafs doing?

Who has been shooting the puck, who hasn’t, and who’s getting dangerous chances when they do.

Detroit Red Wings v Toronto Maple Leafs
Is that the blueline I see behind you?
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Monday night game against the Vegas Golden Knights was an interesting one. After the breakneck first period, where the Leafs looked really good, I looked at the shot heat map Natural Stat Trick has live in-game, and thought there were a lot of point shots for the Leafs. Maybe they weren’t as good as they looked.

When trying to figure out what’s wrong with Tyler Bozak a few days ago, I showed that last year when he’s on the ice, the left defender is shooting more and a lot of the shots (some of them likely from forwards) are coming from the left point. This is markedly different to Auston Matthews. When he’s on the ice, all the shots seem to be dangerous.

Last year Nikita Zaitsev did a Russian interview which was professionally translated into English. One question was about Zaitsev’s shooting, something he was known for in the KHL:

AS: You mostly didn’t shoot, but dump(ed) the puck in.

NZ: The fact is that you don’t have much time to get a good shot. Yes, I understand what you’re trying to say, but we had another plan to get the puck close to the crease faster, and it didn’t include shots from the point.

This has seemed to be an intentional strategy to get the puck to the forwards, or the defenders who are playing in a forward’s location, and to shoot it from there. There’s very good reasons why that is an excellent idea. But the game on the ice doesn’t always go to plan.

Digging into the five-on-five numbers from the Vegas game after it was over, this is what happened on the ice, not the whiteboard (unadjusted and from Natural Stat Trick):

  • The defence accounted for 19 of a total of 38 shots (shot attempts or Corsi, not shots on goal)
  • The Bozak line with Mitch Marner and Matt Martin led the Leafs in Corsi For percentage at ~60%, but had three shots in total from the forwards
  • The Matthews line had ~45% in CF percentage, but had nine shots between them
  • Zach Hyman had five of those shots, William Nylander had one.
  • The Dominic Moore line with Connor Brown and James van Riemsdyk were terrible, with only one shot — van Riemsdyk’s goal that came when he was on the ice with other players
  • The Nazem Kadri line with Patrick Marleu and Leo Komarov each had two shots in a night when their Corsi percentage hovered around the 50% mark
  • Out of 19 defender shots, Connor Carrick and Andreas Borgman combined for four of the 15 total Scoring Chances, and Morgan Rielly with one, make the total of five Scoring Chances generated by the defence
  • Zach Hyman also had four Scoring Chances, leading the team

So two things happened in that game. The defence did half of the shooting, and the Bozak line wasted pretty much all of their time in the offensive zone on ineffective play/were well defended by the Golden Knights. The Kadri line were at least somewhat potent, but the two on one rush with Kadri and Komarov where Komarov took the shot is symbolic of the wrong players shooting the puck way too often.

We should expect the Matthews line to be better than the rest. They are the best line on the team. But are they carrying the team offensively? They sure did in that game, with some assistance from Kadri’s line, but in general, who is shooting what and how well?

I looked at all the individual shooting data for this season to answer that question, with no games played minimum. There are some results that you need to take with a huge grain of salt. Josh Leivo has played less than 20 minutes, Kasperi Kapanen less than 30, and Eric Fehr logged 25 minutes before he was sent to the AHL.

Five-on-five unadjusted data from Corsica Hockey, as of November 7, 2017

Arvind has noticed just from watching the games that Nylander has a lot of his shots blocked which you can clearly see here. He leads the team in shooting rate, but when you look at unblocked (Fenwick) he’s well back of several other forwards.

Generally, you see the good players with a high shot rate, and the fourth liners up at the top. There are some interesting individual exceptions. Bozak doesn’t ever shoot much and neither does Komarov, they aren’t going to change now.

There are some surprises too. Brown never shoots, but Martin and Moore are shooting at third-liner pace. Of course the Leafs don’t really have a third line most of the time, preferring to spread the talent out and roll a top nine making this complicated. Marner is shooting at third-liner pace too.

The comparison between all shots and just the unblocked ones illustrates that defender shots tend to be inefficient in this sense. And obviously, a point shot is much more likely to be blocked. But the defenders are not all performing in the same way. Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner barely shoot, while Rielly, Carrick and Borgman do, and Rielly is likely shooting a lot from a forward’s position, hence his high unblocked rate. Borgman tends in the same direction, while a case could be made for Carrick to stop shooting so much from the point. He’s not getting any more shots through the blockers than Ron Hainsey is.

Gardiner and Zaitsev spend most of their time on the ice with the Matthews line, the guys who don’t need or want shots from the defence messing with their business. Whereas Borgman’s usage is tilted a bit towards playing with the Bozak line. Given the effectiveness of his shooting by this measure, and the tendencies of those forwards, this isn’t a bad idea, and the Bozak line (either with Martin or van Riemsdyk) looked very good on the road trip as Borgman improved and played well.

Now it’s time to leave just shot volume aside and forget the rough designation of Scoring Chance I was using above and look at Individual Expected Goals. That is individual unblocked shots (the red lines above) weighted by shot location and type to show how often they’d go in the net on average).

Five-on-five unadjusted data from Corsica Hockey as of November 7, 2017

I’ve left the sorting the same, so you can see the dramatic effect the weighting has on those defender shots that seemed so wonderful a moment ago. They are all, barring Rielly, about as useful as each other for getting dangerous chances. Some of them likely should shoot less, although a shot that moves the puck into a rebound for a forward is a good shot even if it would never score on its own.

About the forwards:

  • The Matthews line is carrying this team offensively
  • Playing van Riemsdyk in limited minutes (unless he’s still hurt) is not helping with that
  • Komarov adds about as much value as Martin in terms of individual offence
  • The goal of the Kadri line offensively has to be to get Kadri into shooting position, but his results are terrible because he’s doing a lot of shooting from well away from the net
  • Marner has by far the worst record on the team adding to the evidence that he and Bozak are not performing effectively in the offensive zone

Out of the small minute players there are some interesting results that could very easily be explained away by the level of competition in the few games they played. But Calle Rosen looks like he’s got a lot of skill. And maybe we haven’t seen the last of him in the NHL.

Two forward small samples that intrigue are Fehr and Kapanen. Penalty kill value keeps Moore in the lineup, but Fehr seems like a guy who could play NHL fourth line somewhere. Kapanen definitely should get in more games.

Get the puck to the forwards, get it to the good forwards as often as possible, and shoot lots. That’s how you win games. And the Leafs just need to move the needle on those first two things just a little bit and they will suddenly be amazingly better.

At outscoring their defensive weaknesses, that is.