Last week in this space I wrote all about Patrik Laine’s hot start and why I see it being something he can keep up.
What I didn’t talk about is that Laine is scoring all these goals despite the fact that his possession numbers are flat-out not very good. He’s been outshot in his 5-on-5 ice time to this point, and he’s not particularly close to 50 percent. To reiterate the point made several times last week: He has a talent level that will allow him to outperform his expected-goals number in much the same way Alex Ovechkin always does.
But what that doesn’t mean is that Laine should in any way rest on his laurels. You can be assured Paul Maurice is looking to Laine and his entire top line to continue improving the effectiveness of its process because while it’s nice to be able to outscore your opponents through sheer force of talent and despite a shots deficit, wouldn’t it be even better to outscore those opponents by a wider gap by also taking more of the shots?
That’s how good players, or extremely skilled ones, become greats. They not only use their skill to their advantage, but also use it to keep the puck away from their opponents. Sidney Crosby, for example, outperforms expected-goals numbers more often than not, but he also does it with an elite corsi-for percentage, further broadening his goals-for advantage.
In one sense, you can say Laine is a bit of an analog to teams like Colorado or Calgary, in that he gets pretty badly outshot but still outscores the opponent. His expected-goals percentage is in the low 43 percent range, but actual goals is up around 56 percent. The comparison to over-performing teams is a bit iffy because he has a true talent level that no whole team could possibly match, but you’d rather not have to overcome the problem of getting outshot in the first place.
Then on Thursday, I wrote all about Auston Matthews’ recent scoring slump, which has seen him struggle to produce but also led to some reassuring quotes from the Maple Leafs’ decision-makers that suggest they’re not particularly worried about a three weeks for a kid who’s barely 19.
This, of course, hasn’t stopped people from fretting about his lack of scoring despite the fact that all his other underlying numbers are very good. Now, you can argue this is because he’s being used as something of a third-line center and power play specialist, based on a number of factors, but I think that boils down to responsible talent management by a savvy coach. This isn’t a “Matthews can’t even score against middling competition” thing, but rather a “Let’s see how he handles this.”
That’s the thing: Matthews is destroying middling competition everywhere but on the scoreboard. His expected-goal percentage is in the mid-52 percent range. His actual goals percentage is about 10 full points below that. Which do you expect to last?
People worry about the slump, even if they know it’s undue. We’ve learned a lot about what drives goal differential (and therefore wins) in the NHL over the past decade and we’re learning more all the time. Expected goals are a really good predictor of real goals over the long term. As such, anyone who expresses surprise that the Matthews line has gone on something of a scoring binge two or three months from now is either full of crap or not paying attention.
I’ve been thinking about this whole issue of process versus results and what that ultimately means a lot lately, not just because of these first two picks in this year’s draft — one so apparently successful and the other apparently struggling despite the fact that their fortunes “should be” transposed — but because we’ve seen a bit of discussion on the predictive power of various metrics in the past few weeks.
It started a few months ago when Barry Trotz began opining about how guys are “trying to game” the shot-tracking system by shooting from the neutral zone and going off for a change so they could get a plus-1 in their corsi column. He reiterated that again in a nonsensical USA Today column about how shot metrics are applied in the league, published Thursday (or was it 2009?).
Here’s Trotz on what some guys apparently try to do on a regular basis:
“They don’t get a scoring opportunity and we get the puck back, and all five of my guys get a minus because a guy makes a poor play at the red line. Plus, he and his teammates get rewarded for that.”
This is the old saw by which doubters stand relentlessly. “Guys will shoot from anywhere they can.” What that ignores is that the number of times you would have to do that every game for an entire season, to have it make any sort of sizable impact on your shot share, is incredible. It really is. We know just from observation that this doesn’t happen.
But let’s say it does: How often do you think this nightmare scenario happens to any given line? Let’s say it’s two times a game, right? Even that seems extremely high — even eight attempts from the neutral zone per game would add up to a surprisingly big chunk of your entire season — but let’s say it’s two a game. Using Jay Beagle as an example, that would mean 1 in every 7 shot attempts he saw both for AND against last season were on these kind of dumbass dump-ins. Again, it just doesn’t happen.
Okay, it’s a shot-quality argument to some extent. Not all shots have an equal chance to go in. Sure. Well christ, if my third line were giving up like 25 percent of all its shot attempts against from the neutral zone I’d be doing backflips in the street. Unless you’re Steve Mason in the playoffs, those aren’t going in the net.
Just this week, Mike Sullivan talked about how the Penguins evaluate scoring chances for and against, and how it’s tailored to the player’s talent level. To use another Caps-centric example, the Penguins would say that a shot from certain parts of the ice is more dangerous coming off Alex Ovechkin’s stick than Beagle’s. Stands to reason. One can also extrapolate that Ovechkin is going to be able to get the puck to high-percentage areas on a more regular basis than Beagle. That, too, stands to reason.
This is why expected-goals is such an important change. It at least sets a league-wide average saying “All attempts like this, from this X/Y coordinate on the ice, have a Z percent chance to go in,” and that too is based on things like shot type, whether the shot is a rebound or rush chance, and so on. We have so many factors to measure at this point that just worrying about a player’s raw shot-attempt totals is archaic and not worth listening to. Hell, at least adjust the numbers for score, zone, and venue.
Are some players savvy enough to do the dump-in? To quote Jordan Staal directly, “probably some players might shoot a couple extra.” Probably they might. Again, even if players are doing this, the difference it will make for them — as “businessmen,” to use Trotz’s terminology — is marginal. And any team signing them will probably not be dumb enough to have their decision to slide a guy an extra $250,000 a year pivot on 40 extra shot attempts from the neutral zone per year.
This isn’t a team-wide issue, either. No coach in the league would ever instruct his players to do this. Jeff Blashill saying, “Shots are more of a byproduct of how you play rather than a driver of performance,” is of course right on the damn money.
All of it circles back to how players are evaluated in this league. The final example of coaches really not having the firmest grasp on indicators of future success comes from Philadelphia, where Shayne Gostisbehere got the Auston Matthews treatment Thursday night. He hasn’t scored in a while, and his hallmark is scoring.
Last season Gostisbehere averaged 0.72 points per game, and this year it’s “just” 0.59. (Believe me, very few defensemen get to 0.6 to begin with.) So Dave Hakstol benches him as some sort of punitive measure. The fact that his expected-goals number is actually improved tells you implicitly that his play has too. He is doing more to help his team get good shots and limit bad ones.
But because Gostisbehere is not scoring — something over which he has little direct control — the Flyers decided to sit him. In his place, they played Andrew MacDonald, a player so bad they would rather eat a huge chunk of his cap hit and keep him in the minors for the majority of the past two seasons.
This isn’t even an “eye test” thing at this point. Watch a random Flyers game and try to convince anyone that Gostisbehere isn’t one of the most active and involved players on either team. He got a little overrated because of all the scoring last year while other aspects of his games were lacking and now he’s paying for it despite being better.
Life in the NHL can be tricky to navigate in this regard. You’re not always going to have things viewed rationally. A Gostisbehere-for-MacDonald lineup decision from a well-compensated hockey lifer speaks volumes in that regard. Meanwhile, the Leafs aren’t dumb enough to bench Matthews for their 13th forward just because he hit the skids scoring-wise. Maybe that’s the difference between a great coach and an inexperienced one.
There’s a fundamental difference between being skeptical or simply cautious when it comes to applying these kinds of numbers to your analysis of the game whether you’re a GM, coach, player, media member, or fan. But go back to what Blashill said: Shots follow dominance and not the other way around. Over a long enough time period, you appear to dominate games only because you are. Worrying about five or 10 games without a goal, or whether a dump-in ends up on goal doesn’t really suit anyone in and of themselves.
In hockey, everything is contextual. The “hockey people” who have been telling “stats people” to watch the games for a decade ought to know that better than anyone.
(All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)