So I guess we’re doing this again.
The Washington Capitals are winning fewer games and winning by narrower margins than they had in previous seasons. This drop-off mostly comports with the team’s lessened ability to out-shoot and out-chance their opponents. But on a several occasions, Caps coach Barry Trotz has implied that the team is deliberately forgoing overall shot volume so they can take more high-quality shots. Most recently, Trotz described his thinking to the Sports Junkies on Wednesday morning.
It’s… well, it’s meh is what it is.
— Rob Carlin (@RobCarlinNBCS) February 7, 2018
I can see where Trotz is coming from here, and he seems to be meaningfully informed about how shot context can drive shooting percentages, but he gets one big notion wrong. Here’s what he says about how overall shot volume aligns with goal scoring:
The analytic community and the goaltending community have really dived into this and just throwing volume of pucks – what you’ll see with the trend in the league – the team that probably has the highest shot percentage, Carolina, Columbus is up there, if you look at their goals-per-game average, they are all at the bottom of the league. The teams that have shot less, they seem to have the ability to have a higher goals per game in the league, and that’s not [true] for all teams through the league.
The implication is that teams like Carolina and Columbus have lots of shot volume, but they’re failing to score because they don’t have shot quality. This is not right.
Here are different offensive rates for every team in the league, color coded by rank (red is bad, green is good). I think you’ll see what I see.
The teams who take lots of shots overall also tend to have lots of high-danger shots as well. Carolina is ranked 4th in shot attempts and 5th in high-danger chances. Columbus is ranked 14th in shot attempts and 12th in high-danger chances. There’s variation and a handful of interesting outliers (Rangers, wow!), but there’s also a distinct pattern: Teams with lots of overall offense tend to get lots of quality chances too. There do not seem to be any teams that “game their corsi.”
For the record, Washington is ranked 22nd in shot attempts and 23rd in high-danger chances. They do not have much offense overall and they do not have many high-danger chances either. But they’re scoring, and that’s the heart of the matter.
Trotz’s implication is that goals follow shot quality, but that’s just obviously not the case – or at least it’s not the case within the first two-thirds of this season. While miserable teams like Buffalo have few high-danger chances and low goals, and while creative teams like Toronto have tons of high-danger chances and tons of goals, it’s not those high-danger chances that are driving goal totals so far – it’s volume. (And volatility in shooting/saving percentages.)
Carolina underperforming (28th in goals) is not evidence of their failure to generate quality chances, and Washington’s overperforming (7th) is not evidence of their genius at generating quality chances. In addition to having better volume, Carolina actually gets more of their chances from high-quality areas than Washington does. The gap in goals is mostly due to Carolina scoring on 6.5 percent of shots (27th) and Washington scoring on 9.2 percent (2nd).
Why Washington is winning and Carolina is not is a worthwhile topic, and in one sense it is the ineluctable appeal of sports in the first place. There’s some kind of magic there, but it’s not what Trotz is describing, and it’s not clear if the Caps’ magic will last.
At the end of the interview, Trotz makes a curious reversal.
That’s kind of old-school thinking in terms of, you think about every coach in the last 50 years you’ve heard, “hey, we’ve got to get more pucks to the net, more traffic.” That is true. You still have to have traffic, you’ve still got to have more pucks. But where you get those pucks to the net are probably more important than anything and trumps everything else.
The way Trotz puts it, those old-school coaches are probably right. NHL hockey is still a volume game. It’s possible a team that deliberately sacrifices volume for quality would succeed, but we have not seen it, and the Caps are definitely not that team. They have neither volume nor quality, and I start to wonder if this philosophy is self-defeating.
RMNB is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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