If I had to pick a mainstream hockey article niche that is most likely to pull a collective eyebrow-raise out of the analytics community, it is the “shot quality” piece. You know the drill; a team scores goals despite underwhelming shot attempt / possession / Corsi / whatever you want to call it metrics, the finds a roundabout way to argue that his team is playing eight dimensional snakes and ladders and has figured out how to cheat the system, everyone bickers, the team usually goes cold later that year or early in the next, and no one learns a lesson because the argument has immediately jumped to the next gang of hot sticks.
On that note, Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post published an article on Wednesday talking to the Washington Capitals about their success, which, true to form, is titled “The Capitals preach quality over quantity when it comes to shots. Here’s what they mean.”
Rather than roll my eyes at this one immediately, I decided to give it a read; in large part because I find Khurshudyan to be one of the league’s most consistently good single-team-focused beat reporters, which led me to believe there’d be a bit more nuance in this than the usual article of its kind.
As it so happens, that hunch was correct; I’d highly recommend giving the piece a read. There’s lots of meat from the coaching staff, the front office, the players, and outside analysts. Lots of community work is cited. Rather than being an article justifying a struggling team through “quality”, it explains the thought process behind trying to compensate for a Capitals roster heading towards the end of its window; losing some pieces, having age turn a little against them, and having a few players whose sticks were due to cool a little bit from the season prior (hello, TJ Oshie).
Whether you believe it’s possible to cheat Corsi or not, there’s no doubt that teams should systematically be looking to optimize their shots. Coaching staffs work tirelessly to try to create the best pathways, best openings, best screens for their offence, the best visibility for their goaltenders, the most structured and controllable plans for their defencemen. A team that gets outshot by a bunch will likely not be able to compensate for that with more opponent shooting ability of their own, and gambling on your goaltender to be the only hot one in those cases is a recipe for disaster, but a team that is good at controlling the flow of play while also knowing how to exploit their chances will go a long way.
So here’s the question: are the Capitals a team that does that? Thankfully, to figure that out, we don’t need to re-invent the wheel: We can grab a basic 5-on-5 shot rate sheet from Natural Stat Trick, split it into offence and defence, reverse-engineer a couple of numbers, and see where they compare to the rest of the league.
This, for lack of better words, seems to be a bit all over the place. The Capitals don’t generate very many scoring opportunities, though they generate a higher ratio of them in the home plate area (see next image) than most teams. Even still, their rate of generating those is only a bit above average, sitting at 12th in the league. That advantage appears to go away as they get closer to the front of the net, as they fall back into the bottom third of the league in terms of frequency and a middle of the back team in terms of ratio.
Defensively, there’s even less to be excited about. As alluded to by Barry Trotz in Khurshudyan’s article, the team is very much aware that they were still conceding scoring chances by the boatload; Washington seems to be better than most at preventing attempts from becoming shots against, which appears to stem from the fact that teams missed the net entirely on a higher percentage of their shots against Washington than any other team in the Eastern Conference (with only Arizona doing better in the West).
Some would say there’s some luck at play there, some would say the Capitals are better at keeping shots to the outside than most teams. Or maybe teams were watching the tape on Washington, realized they could recover those missed shots, and get a little closer, based on the volume they were giving up in front:
If I had to guess, it’s probably a combination of all three, but with luck / random distribution coming into play the strongest. What I noticed when looking at teams’ efficiency in controlling what type of shot attempts they were conceding (gaining or limiting quality) is that the gap in ratio wasn’t that significant.
As an exercize, I took the best and the worst from the offensive side of the “_____ per shot attempt” lists and used the difference to figure out how many shot attempts it would take to get a gain of +1 in that shot type. It looks something like this:
So roughly, being the best at converting a shot attempt into a particular type of shot, offensively or defensively, gives you the benefits of that shot type one in every 10-15 shot attempts over the team that’s the worst (let alone at the median).
A lazy math way to get an idea of how much of an impact of being an elite shifter of quality could have on the goal sheet would be to play with shooting percentages. I gathered the league average shooting percentages of each shot type at 5-on-5, and weighed it against the shooting percentage for all 5-on-5 shot attempts (4.2%) from there, I took the league averages in volume, divided it by the above +1 shot type requirements to give us an estimated gain of volume by being an elite shot-type shifter, and put that all together to figure out how many goals a team stands to gain by being the best at turning attempts into that type of shot while shooting at an average frequency.
It’s not a lot of difference over a full season. In fact, in every case, an average shooting talent stands to gain more from taking one more / conceding one fewer shot of that type per game over the course of the season than they do from being the gold standard in quality control rather than the worst.
With all of that in mind, I don’t know if this shift really gives Washington a leg up. If there is a “shot quality” factor to them, it’s in the actual talent that they still have; Alex Ovechkin’s combination of shot frequency and accuracy is arguably the most lethal of all time (and likely the cause of the Scoring Chance / High Danger chance discrepancies: the “Ovi spot” is in home-plate territory, but not in the slot), and players like Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and TJ Oshie have always been above the league average in shooting percentage.
As well, there’s zero harm in trying to make your chances better. In fact, there’s a lot of upside to doing so. Every single team, whether they trust their eyes or their spreadsheets more than the other, is always trying to find the best places and best ways to put the puck in the net, which is why we’ve seen such an emphasis on moving opportunities to the front of the net, creating screens, generating deflections, and similar skills and tactics. As alluded to in Khurshudyan’s article, quality is a lot more than just whether you can get the puck on net and where you shoot it from, though a team that applies good, modern tactics will typically have those types of results align with their efforts.
But again, there’s a difference between being a team that both dominates the puck and finds spots to score from, and a fortunate team that has made the most of the opportunities it does get. The former is a safe bet to be a contender, while the latter is a gamble that has the upside of letting you stick around a little longer than you should, which appears to be the Capitals’ goal right now. To remain almost as successfully offensively as last year is a pretty solid accomplishment, and now that it’s playoff time, who knows where it may take them. It probably has more of a chance of blowing up in their face than their previous teams did, but given how those runs somehow always found a way to end, I don’t think they’ve got a ton to lose anyway.
One last chart dump before I go: Who is shooting closer at 5v5, anyway?