Veteran Devils Forwards Marching On to Respectable Shooting Percentages

Something Ilya Kovlachuk (a.k.a. Trollvalchuk) didn't yell here "16.1% in January! 18.4% in February! On my way to 16% in March!" (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Back near the end of November 2010, I took a look at how the veteran forwards on the Devils were shooting - and it was mostly awful. Only one veteran forward was shooting above 10%, Jason Arnott at 11.6%.   At that point in the season, the team as a whole had a shooting percentage of 5.9%, 43 goals over 729 shots.  It was beyond bad.

However, the Devils as a team turned their season around in January and performed like a competitive hockey team. I took a look at the same veterans for shooting percentage to see how big the change was.  Among other findings, three forwards cracked the 10% threshold - an improvement over 1 from the first look.  The number of active forwards were putting up a career low season shooting percentage dropped from 5 to 2 in this second look. The team's shooting percentages improved by the end of the January to 6.9% (99 goals on 1,425 shots); still the worst in the league, but not historically low. 

The New Jersey Devils run of results have now continued through March.  While it's not exactly halfway through the month in terms of games played - 6 completed, 8 more to go - I figured it's a good time as any to look at the percentages one more time before the end of the season.  This will show whether any of the veterans rose up in February and who's looking good (or bad) early in terms of shooting percentage in this month.  If you want the Devils to keep putting up wins, it's imperative that you hope these percentages get better (or there are enough shots to maintain them).

Let's begin with the team as a whole.  As NHL.com has it, the Devils have 143 goals scored from 1,960 shots on net.  That's a team shooting percentage of 7.30%.  Yes, the Devils finally cracked 7% as a team over all situations.  However, they remain in last in the league.  Ottawa is ahead of them at 7.75%.  The gap on them is closer than it was in January; but the Devils are one of three teams still below 8% as a team (Florida is the third team).   Incidentally, the league leaders are Vancouver at 10.09% and the league average is about 9.02%.   While the Devils have improved, they're not going to be shooting up the league in this stat as well.

It really shouldn't be all that surprising.  The Devils have been reliably scoring a goal or two in most games as of late, and they done well to get a winning goal in overtime should the game require it.  Still, it's been 9 games since the team put up 3 or more goals in regulation.   They may be a good team at puck possession, but goals have been hard to come by all season.  I doubt that will change dramatically in the next 14 games.

Anyway, let's look at the veterans. With the injury to Zach Parise and the trades that sent Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott elsewhere, the list as a whole is down to 7 active players. Since Arnott was traded at the end of February, I still included him on the list - but grayed out since he's now a Capital.  As with the last two posts, I focused on veteran forwards to see where their current shooting percentage stacks up with their career season-by-season.  Younger forwards don't have the experience to truly judge whether what we're seeing this season can be sustained. They have a history for comparison's sake that younger players don't have.   Using the splits stats data from Yahoo! Sports for each player, here's the updated chart for all 7 remaining Devils veteran forwards.

Devils_vet_fwds_2010-11_3-14-11

The yellow cells in the middle highlight percentages below the player's career low in shooting percentages.  Ilya Kovalchuk is finally above that 12.0% threshold with an excellent February.   The green cells in the right table mark  their highest monthly percentage for each player this season.  Kovalchuk was the only one to surpass his January percentage, though Dainius Zubrus came quite close.  Travis Zajac is currently at a high with 20% (3 goals on 15 shots) this month, but since there's 8 more games to play in it, it would be a rather large assumption to think he'll keep that up.  So I haven't highlighted that yet, though I hope I'll have to at the end of the season.

In the last post where I did this, I expressed concern that the Devils would regress in February.  That unfortunately happened for everyone on this list except for Ilya Kovalchuk. Some had it worse than others. Brian Rolston's and Zubrus' fell but they put up 5 and 6 goals, respectively so it's not so bad. They remained above 10%.   Patrik Elias' and David Clarkson's shooting percentage dropped like an anvil from a cliff.   Elias' drop is forgivable in that he had a hand in several of the goals scored by Zubrus and Rolston.  He shot quite a bit on that line in February (1 for 35) and right now (1 for 14), so his season's percentage dropped below 10%.  David Clarkson just stopped being hot and being stuck on an offensively-impaired fourth line didn't give him many opportunities to shoot a lot, much less score.  He's just above his career low in shooting percentage this season.

Speaking of the fourth line, at least Adam Mair was consistent. Mair went goal-less again and so his season's percentage decayed below that 2.7% threshold.   Mair isn't guaranteed a regular spot in the lineup anymore and when he does play, it's usually with non-offensive players like Clarkson and Rod Pelley.  Short of a few strikes out of nowhere, it wouldn't surprise me if he hits a career low in shooting percentage.

The only other Devil who appears destined for a new career low in shooting percentage is Zajac. He's been at a career low for this season in each of the three times I looked at percentages.  Even with the recent 3 goals from 15 shots, he's still below 9% for the season.  Either he needs to get hot, or he'll remain in that 8% range through the rest of the season. 

Still, only Mair and Zajac have that unfortunate mark of a career low in shooting percentage this season.  The other 5 active Devils forwards are still above their respective lows, with Kovalchuk pulling himself out of it in February and these first two weeks of March.  Curiously, only two Devils have avoided setting a new low for their careers this season: Arnott (who was traded) and Dainius Zubrus.  Zubrus is yet to score this month, but if percentages hold, then he should be able to pot a couple in over the next 8 games. Don't misunderstand me, I do expect his shooting percentage to drop. It's highly unlikely for him to earn a percentage over 20% for a third straight month, especially after going goalless in this first 6 games. 

So what now?

I also expect some other players to bounce back from February, which saw quite a bit of regression.  Already, Elias, Clarkson, and Zajac are on pace to do just that.  While Rolston's percentage slipped in February, it may slip further since 12.2% for February is still quite good - especially on this team.  Zubrus has regressed, though I think he'll get something this month.  My doubts on Mair are clear, since just playing every night is no longer a guarantee.   The big wild card is Kovalchuk.   He's currently at 16% for March and his season percentage is still on the lower end compared to the rest of his career.  Staying around 16% in March is an impressive enough feat by itself.  I don't think it's outlandish to think Kovalchuk might be able to sustain a high percentage for the rest of the season given his career so far.

All the same, the team - veteran forwards as well as everyone else - has improved with respect to shooting percentage among so many other parts of the game.  It's unclear as to why it has.  When Matt did a recent look at the team's shooting locations, he found that the percentages shot up but mentioned the distances have only slightly increased.  So it's not like they are getting closer to fire them in.   Perhaps the Devils are just luckier now after suffering from horrible luck for the first three months?  Perhaps they didn't run into hot goaltender after hot goaltender? A definitive answer remains hidden; but the progress cannot be denied.   For the Devils' sake, let's hope it's also sustainable if not able to be further improved upon.

What do you think of the shooting percentages of the veteran forwards in this third look at their season so far?  Do you think most percentages will bounce back up in March after some regression in February?  What about Ilya Kovalchuk, do you think he'll be able to maintain his high monthly percentages?  Do you think Mair will score another goal this season?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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