One of the biggest factors as to why the Devils are 8-14-2 and sitting in the wrong end of the Eastern Conference is their lack of scoring. Despite a few games of putting up more than 3 goals in a game, the Devils did get shut out 4 times in this past month. Across the whole 2010-11 season so far, according to NHL.com, the Devils have scored only 43 goals, an average of 1.79 goals per game. They're not even close to the next-to-worst team in scoring goals (that team would be the New York Islanders, who have a 2.09 goals/game average). As a team, their shooting remains really poor with a 5.9% (43 over 726 shots).
Clearly, the New Jersey Devils are slumping. What makes that worse, is that at the end of October, the Devils were also slumping on offense. The team was shooting at 5.3% and while they weren't being shutout, getting two goals in a game was a mighty struggle. Earlier in the season, user richer44 pointed out how bad the percentages were then and how the team would eventually have to regress to the mean. Sadly, it's now 24 games into the season and we're still waiting for that regression to happen.
It's important for that to happen so the Devils can get out of the proverbial basement. Unfortunately, luck and regression don't have deadlines. Still, I took a look at the shooting percentages of the veteran forwards on this season's team to see how badly they are shooting. I'll be frank: the percentages are ugly with two, maybe three, exceptions. Yes, there are a few Devils who are shooting as well as expected.
As for the rest, it's been so bad in context to their career and their recent seasons; that it strangely gave me (and hopefully you) some hope that it has to get better. There's a big difference between being truly bad and being unsustainably bad, and I feel most Devils fall under this category. After all, we know the offense is bad, but I think it's best to understand how bad it is with some perspective before going off and demanding a new coach or new players or new tactics or whatever else.
The Current Situation with Shooting Percentage.
For this post, I'm interested in veteran forwards. Andy Greene is shooting decently enough, and the other veteran defensemen aren't scorers anyway. I don't think there's reason to be concerned that Colin White has no goals so far this season; that's not his main job. The forwards were expected to carry the offensive load from the start of the season, and so I feel it's fair to focus on them alone. I'm also not looking at any rookies or inexperienced players, since it's even more difficult to get an idea of whether they are slumping or shooting at about where they should.
That brings me to 10 forwards. Here are their shooting percentages for this season so far.
(Note: All numbers from here on out come from Yahoo!'s sports section.)
The three players names in italics are Devils who have missed some significant time this season. Zach Parise will be out for two more months or so with a knee injury. Brian Rolston missed time with a sports hernia but is now active. Jamie Langenbrunner should be back soon after what he told Gulitti on Monday was possibly a herniated disc in his neck.
Anyway, Arnott is clearly at the top with 11.6%. This should be of no surprise since he's the team's leading goal scorer with 8. Surprisingly, Jamie Langenbrunner comes in second (UPDATE FOR CLARIFICATION #1: This percentage includes an empty net goal. Throw it out and it's 6.45%); Dainius Zubrus finishes third; and an injured Parise remains ahead of everyone else in fourth.
On it's own, it's not pretty. But what can we expect from each? Well, here's their career shooting percentages, with their highest season and lowest season percentages.
When putting this list together, I was surprised at how wide the range in percentages were for Arnott and Zubrus, despite both being different players. It wasn't as if it was feast or famine for either player, they've had a great peak and an abysmal low throughout their many years in the league. Parise and Travis Zajac are fairly young, but it's pretty impressive that their range among seasons is around 9-11 percent. No wonder Parise looks to shoot so much, he knows that they'll eventually go in 10%-ish of the time. Fourth-liner Adam Mair brings up the rear among this group, and the best shooter in the league (as proven by Gabe Desjardins) really has no peer on this list.
Putting the current percentages next to the career percentages really highlights how unfortunate the 10-11 season has been for New Jersey.
I've highlighted seven players because all of them are currently shooting not only well below their career percentage, but below their season low in their careers so far. They are Zubrus, Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, David Clarkson, Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston, and Zajac. That may not say much for Clarkson, as this is still his fourth season in the NHL. As for the other six, this chart just shows bad the slump has been. It's much more than Kovalchuk struggling to score, that's for sure.
The lone exceptions are Arnott, Langenbrunner, and Mair. Given Mair just scored his first goal of the season on Saturday, it just highlights how little Mair has really contributed to goal scoring. That's fine, he is on the fourth line for a reason. Arnott and Langenbrunner, though, they have been doing as well as one could expect given their careers so far. It tells me that the return of Jamie Langenbrunner to the lineup should be a good thing, despite what my criticisms of how he's performed this season. His shooting is reasonable as-is (REPEAT OF UPDATE FOR CLARIFICATION #1: This percentage includes an empty net goal. Throw it out and it's 6.45%, so perhaps it's not so good). As for Arnott, please keep on keeping on.
While that chart compared this season's shooting percentage to their career's, I wanted to see how it compared to their recent performances. Many of these players have played in the NHL for a while and a range can be misleading. For example, Arnott was only a 5% shooter for one season well over a decade ago. That's not really relevant now. Therefore, I took the shooting percentages of each player from their last three seasons, calculated a three-year average, and compared the current shooting percentages:
Yeah, it's still ugly for most players, confirming most of the conclusions from the prior chart. Arnott's percentage is pretty good given that last season was a bit of a "down" season for his shooting. Langenbrunner is up a bit as well (REPEAT OF UPDATE FOR CLARIFICATION #1: Given that it includes an empty net goal. Throw it out and it's 6.45%, so take his listing on the chart with a grain of salt). Adam Mair's percentage is well under what he's done in recent seasons, though. So there's reason to hope that he'll pot in a few more goals.
For me, this chart was the biggest indicator Kovalchuk is the most striking disparity. He's been such a sniper for his whole career, and he's just mired in a slump right from the get-go. Since he is who he is based on being such a great shooter and goal scorer, this explains the perception that he's "not a good fit." Now I know that narrative can't be used honestly. Most of the team's forwards are in the same boat. Patrik Elias' shooting has went into the dirt even below prior "off years." Brian Rolston only played part of this month, but he's still below shooting percentages he had in the last two seasons - seasons where Rolston was a disappointment. What does that make him if it doesn't get better soon? David Clarkson is firing away and he's only getting the occassional lucky break.
Zajac's percentage is especially terrible, the absolute worst among this group. I'm actually a little more concerned for Zajac because his career is still fairly young, maybe he's not going to get close to even 9%. At least with Kovalchuk, history shows that he's way better than a sub-6% shooter. And this is individual. It's not like he needs Parise to shoot. Even Parise was slumping prior to his injury when it came to firing the puck. As nice as it would be to imagine that a suddenly healthy Parise would solve the team's scoring woes, the numbers don't bear that out. (Though he would help immensely in other ways - that might lead to more goals.)
I decided to dig a little deeper into this season's shooting percentages. Fortunately, Yahoo! has split stats readily available so I've compared the shooting percentages and shot totals from each month so far.
Immediately, we can see how the players who have been out were effected. While Parise struggled to score, at least the effort was there with 47 shots on goal. Rolston saw more action in November, and so will get more Jamie Langenbrunner's shooting percentage for the season is boosted by putting up 2 goals on 9 shots (and an empty-net goal) before getting hurt this month. I'm suddenly not as enthused about his return and instead hoping he can maintain that 9.4% somehow.
So Jason Arnott is the only veteran forward on the New Jersey Devils who isn't slumping when it comes to shooting the puck.
Believe it or not, Kovalchuk's slump got worse in November; and his shot total was boosted by a ridiculous 8 SOG performance on Saturday. Other Devils improved in their percentages from slight improvements (Zajac) to larger ones (Zubrus, Clarkson). A few breaks here and there makes the difference when it comes to shoot percentages. Mair's one goal on 17 shots is evidence of it; while also proving that Adam Mair isn't going to be carrying any offense anytime soon.
On additional note: Patrik Elias fired more shots in general and his percentage suffered drastically like Kovalchuk. Though unlike Kovalchuk, Elias did get 8 assists in November, so his slump is only at shooting - he was still contributing.
But overall, I look at the above charts and I can't help but think the veteran forwards eventually have to shoot better. To me, it seems so unlikely that many will all remain as they are and reach career lows at the same time for some indeterminate reason.
Fine, the Veteran Forwards are Slumping - What Can the Devils Do in the Meantime?
On Monday morning, Tom Gulitti had this post at Fire & Ice detailing the team's desire to want to build off their last week of games. While I didn't think they played all that well, it was a good set of results with 3 wins out of 4 games. I fully agree with the desire to do better; and I certainly hope they do so. However, they aren't going to do that unless the team and it's veteran forwards shoot better. If only so the defense and goaltender doesn't have to be near-perfect (or perfectly lucky) as they were in their last two wins.
However, there's little anyone can do about improving a player's own shooting percentage. Gabe Desjardins not only proved that most goal scoring has to do with transient performance (read: luck) at Behind the Net, but he found only one coach in recent seasons to have had a consistently provable effect on shooting percentage. Only that effect was in reducing the opposition's shooting percentage, and that coach was Jacques Lemaire. If I had an easy or direct answer on how a player - and, by extension, the team - can shoot better, then I'd probably be working for the Devils (and keeping it a tightly guarded secret).
(UPDATE FOR CLARIFICATION #2: I stupidly left out that Gabe's analysis was for even strength shots. That said, it shouldn't be a surprise that luck plays some role given the number of uncontrollable factors that can make the difference between a shooting attempt and a goal. Do read on and you'll find that I'm not putting it all on luck; I do state what the Devils can and should most certainly do about the offense as-is, after all. I'm just saying it's a significant portion of the problem and to disregard that is foolish. If you absolutely hate that four letter word, then call it transient ability if it pleases you.)
Of course, the Devils could look at the SM-Liiga as Gabe did at Behind the Net and just aim all of their shots under the crossbar. But that's not always feasible (picture Rolston trying to pick corners and shudder) or even the right spot to shoot at given the goaltender's actions (e.g. if he's going laterally, the 5-hole may be more open).
So the Devils can't just will themselves to shoot better. While shooting percentage can regress to a true mean, there's no guarantee on when and how that will happen - even though I believe it will have to eventually. What can they do in the meantime?
What I do believe the team should do is to make improvements in their process to get those forwards (and the whole team) more opportunities to shoot. Basically, the old cliche of "just having to work through it" for a slump applies. I believe the coaches and players should be setting up plans for dealing with teams in a trap; practicing puck movement through the neutral zone both off the breakout and in transition; and working on different approaching situations (e.g. if Kovalchuk is taking it himself, go wide to give him a passing option).
In short, they need to improve upon possessing the puck and attacking with said possession to literally give the forwards more chances to shoot. I know I've harped on this before, but that's the only way they can do it short of hoping the opposition sleepwalks through a game. As the forwards get the chances to shoot more, they'll have more shots, they'll eventually get the breaks for those shots to go in, and the percentages and the offense will improve. A player can't just "get hot" - if they could, why would anyone not be hot? - but the Devils can certainly make adjustments to try give their entire team more offensive opportunities.
This will not only help at 5-on-5, but on the power play as well. You know, that much-maligned part of special teams. Most of those 10 players have been or are on the Devils' power play units, and I don't think it's a coincidence. I would strongly encourage the Devils coaches to additionally consider a different scheme on the power play on top of what I've suggested earlier. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be an umbrella or some weird half-board cycle, but it's being defended awfully well. Even without Parise, there are enough forwards to at least try an overload approach or even a positional one. Once the power play becomes more successful - especially on the road - that would also go a long way to breaking a lot of these slumps along with the team's overall offensive lulls.
The Devils do have a few days of practice, on top of 24 games and 6 active frustrated forwards looking for answers. It's not an easy problem, despite how simple it seems (the team not scoring); but the team can improve their process and that would be a big step forward to addressing it.
Other than that, we just have to hope there will be some regression to the mean soon. Outside of Jason Arnott, the veteran forwards that are to carry the New Jersey offense are simply slumping relative to their career shooting percentages and recent season shooting percentages. Until that improves, the team's offense is going to be where it currently is - and so will the team's record.
What do you think of the shooting percentages of the veteran forwards? What do you think the Devils should do in spite of their percentages to try and build off of the last week of games? Please leave your thoughts in the comments. Thanks for asking.