November 22, 2019

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Opinion

Jets' scorers dangerous from 'safe' areas of the ice

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES  

Winnipeg Jets' Kyle Connor (81), Patrik Laine (29), Mark Scheifele (55), Blake Wheeler (26) and Dustin Byfuglien (33) celebrate after Laine scores.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Winnipeg Jets' Kyle Connor (81), Patrik Laine (29), Mark Scheifele (55), Blake Wheeler (26) and Dustin Byfuglien (33) celebrate after Laine scores.

While writing about the difficult challenges the Winnipeg Jets face on defence this season, one thing I mentioned about the style the team plays and how they’re able to function in that style is that the Jets — more than most other teams in the league — often score from areas that aren’t considered "dangerous."

There are a few things that create that, but the results that drive the process more often than not are filtered through two players — Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine.

Scheifele and Laine are two of the best goal scorers in the NHL today, but unlike most others in the league, their goals aren’t that heavily weighted towards the most dangerous area of the ice — the inner slot between the two faceoff dots.

NHL forwards have scored more than 18,000 goals over the last three seasons and of that number, nearly 10,000 have come from that tiny area right in front of the goalie. That leaves little to do from outside that area, so it shouldn’t be surprising that over the last three seasons teams have dramatically shifted their shot locations closer to the net.

While defensive schemes shift even harder towards boxing out the net front and blocking shots in tight, a lot of room has been left on the perimeter and in the high slot. Most teams don’t have the talent to take advantage of that and, in fact, most forwards score on just four per cent of their shots on net from the perimeter and 11.6 per cent from the high slot, compared to a 21.4 per cent chance to score on shots from the inner slot.

The Jets’ two elite shooters have sky-high shooting percentages, but where do they stick out most relative to league average?

Both Scheifele and Laine see greater-than-average shooting percentages from all areas of the ice, but both see their biggest jumps in different areas.

Laine scores on more than 30 per cent of his shots from the inner slot, a nearly 50 per cent increase over league average, and he nearly doubles the average shooting percentage from the high slot, as well.

Scheifele’s increased expected scoring rates from the slot are much more modest, but while Laine scores at twice the rate of an average forward from the perimeter, Scheifele scores at nearly triple the rate, converting on his perimeter shots at the same rate the average forward scores from the high slot.

Both players possess deceptive releases and powerful shots that they can get off quickly, but shooting percentages like these don’t really sustain for most players over multiple seasons unless their shots are heavily tilted towards the inner slot, and theirs aren’t.

For example, Laine has scored more goals from the perimeter (33) than he has from the inner slot (22) in his career, because he prefers to shoot where he has more space, and uses his shooting talent and volume to overcome poor shooting position instead of jockeying for position more aggressively and risking not getting the shot off at all.

Scheifele is more balanced in his approach; he crashes the net effectively, but isn’t afraid to shoot from anywhere. He scores half his goals from the inner slot and half from outside it, but his shot volume is rarely as high as people think, he’s just extremely dangerous from all over the ice.

There’s no denying that these two players are special talents insofar as their shots alone, but there’s got to be something else going on here as well in order to maintain this level of production above expected rates, right?

Well, there’s more to being a goal scorer than being able to shoot the puck, and even more than being able to release it quickly and accurately. Half the battle or more is being able to get lost in coverage, and these two players are able to manage that better than almost anyone, utilizing the one-timer to great advantage.

Last season I wrote a lot about one of the team-level talents the Jets had: controlling the passing game, both defensively in blocking dangerous passes, and offensively in sneaking passes through to set up more dangerous shots. It’s one of the ways the Jets manage to overcome the lower volume scoring chance game they play.

Scheifele and Laine are two large cogs in the machine for this, along with playmakers such as Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, precisely because of their ability to shake coverage and get open.

Comparing them to average forwards in the NHL, the percentage of their total shots on goal that were released via a one-timer is absolutely ridiculous, with Laine, especially, now firing off more than half of his shots in that fashion.

Sacrificing tactical position on the ice in favour of superior puck movement prior to the shot has allowed these two players to score at extremely high rates that shouldn’t be sustainable under current models.

How long the Jets can continue that strategy is definitely a question; teams are always adjusting to new strategies and forcing plays closed. They may need to push Laine to take advantage of shooting from closer in considering how crazy his shooting percentage gets in tight, but for now, this is a method that has been effective across three seasons at least, and gives the Jets a look that most teams don’t.

You can close off the inner slot against most teams and shut down a majority of their offence, but not the Jets.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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