The Washington Capitals scored two empty-net goals last week– a rare (I think) game-winning empty-netter off the stick of Jason Chimera and another from the world’s greatest scorer, Alex Ovechkin.
Before that, I had casually assumed that the Caps were one of the less productive teams in the league when the opposing goalie was pulled. I was wrong. The Caps are in a four-way tie for fourth place with 10 empty-netters (Chicago has 14, Dallas has 15)*. That’s a result of lots of empty-net time (45 minutes, 2nd highest in the league), not a high goal rate (13.3 goals per 60, at the bottom of the league’s middle third).
Fun fact: The New Jersey Devils, with the most ice time played with the opposing goalie pulled (47.8) also have the lowest goal rate (5.0). Teams should just play the full 60 at 6 on 5 against them.
If it seems like I’m fascinated by empty-netters right now, yes. It’s a fascinating subject. Take, for example, this tweet from the Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg in response to someone asking how many of Alex Ovechkin’s career goals were empty netters.
Per NHL, 26 out of 506 https://t.co/9zlUPVnxNP https://t.co/8l5cyml0Qo
— Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg) February 10, 2016
Only 26 of Ovi’s then-506 (now 510) goals came on empty netters, or about 5 percent. While that’s more than the league’s other established superstar, Sidney Crosby, whose goal total includes just 3 percent empty-netters, it’s way less than certain other guys.
Here are certain other guys, forwards, who have the highest percentage of empty-netters since 2005.
|Players||Empty-net Goals||Total Goals||Percentage|
Notice a theme? Niedermayer and Marchant were in their 30s by 2005, and all of these players were depth forwards, the kind of “defense-first” guys a coach might rely on to hold on to a lead when the other team is attacking with an extra man and an empty net. Boyd Gordon, to Caps fans of yore, is a perfect example.
To me, this suggests that guys whose goal totals depend on empty-netters are predominantly not pure goal-scorers (or pure-goal scorers?), but rather guys who don’t get a ton of opportunities to attack simply based on age and usage.
Now, if you look at raw ENG count since 2005, the picture changes.
|Player||ENGs since 2005|
Mostly a list of elite scorers, plus Eric Staal, these guys are known primarily for scoring, and garbage time is no exception. All five players get big deployments when the opposing goalie is pulled (30+ percent ), and all five have shooting percentages in the 90s, which actually isn’t really surprising since there’s no goalie around to save their shots on goal.
But Ovechkin is special. He has the lowest goals-against rate of the five and a goals-for rate barely behind Iginla. 86 percent of goals belong to the Caps when Ovi is on the ice and the opposing net is empty. Whether a coach who wants to hold on to a lead or increase it, tapping Alex Ovechkin on the shoulder is a no-brainer.
That might seem contrary to conventional wisdom about empty-netters: that they’re the refuge of less-talented, selfish players looking to pad their individual stats.
Which brings me to the players who make sure that every empty-netter belongs to them and them alone.
|Player||Individual ENG||On-ice ENG||Percentage|
I’ve got prejudiced opinions about most of these guys, so I’ll skip editorializing here, except to say that personally owning a large percentage of ENGs might be a function of being a talented opportunistic scorer or the deference of that player’s teammates.
Alex Ovechkin owns 58 percent of the empty-netters for which he’s been on the ice. Nick Backstrom, if you were wondering, owns 19 percent, which is appropriate as hell.
* Stats were current up to February 10.
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