In last night's game against Ottawa, I wrote in my recap how pleased I was with the performance by the New Jersey Devils after the first period. They truly dominated possession. However, when I read the recap at Silver Seven for an Ottawa take on the game, my opinion dampened a bit. Amelia L. posted up a picture of the shot chart from ESPN's stats, which showed the Devils having taken a lot of shots from behind the circles and a bunch right in front. That's not really a good mix. I would have liked closer shots on Ben Bishop when the Devils were constantly attacking. Perhaps it would have led to more goals. While I can't speak to the accuracy of that shot chart or the location data by the league, it got me thinking about the team's shooting distance.
Gabe "Hawerchuk" Desjardens wrote a while back at what is now Arctic Ice Hockey about what drives shooting percentages. Luck in the main driver, but shot location does play a very small role. The Devils can't change their luck, it wouldn't be the worst idea for the skaters to get closer to shoot. As It may not change much but it's something the team can actually do other than just keep doing what they've been doing. Behind the Net tracks the shooting distance (in feet) of players at 5-on-5 play. After pulling that data for all players and removing any shotless players - sorry Matt Anderson - and organizing the team's stats (thanks @SkooterMcGaven for the inspiration) here's how the Devils stack up in average shot distance in the league.
The shooting percentage is different from the 5-on-5 team stat for some reason. One discrepancy I noticed may be due to players moving from team to team. For example, Alexei Ponikarovsky scored two goals with Winnipeg before he was traded to New Jersey, but in the data, those two goals are included in his total New Jersey. The team stats have the Devils at 49, yet here they are at 52 thanks to those two Ponikarovsky goals and I'm not going to parse through 700 players to split shots and goals which Nevertheless, the larger point from the totals still yield the same conclusions.
Among all skaters, the Devils don't do so bad in average shot distance. They're twelfth in the NHL and several of the teams who are ahead of them do have higher shooting percentages. Distance is still only a small part of it and so it's not as simple as "Get closer, score more." Just look at the Rangers, Edmonton, and Ottawa, who are second and even worse than New Jersey at scoring goals. Still, I don't think it'll hurt if the Devils try to get in closer range before firing. Unlike luck, it's something they can control to some degree, even if it's not going to significantly improve their scoring.
Now, the Devils ending up in twelfth is interesting because if you break it up between forwards and defensemen, the team doesn't rank nearly as highly. The Devils are twenty-first in average shot distance by forwards.
Note that the average distance between many of the teams isn't by much. With a shortened season, a few games where the forwards get in closer or the scorer moves them up a bit on their data, and any team can move up in this regard. Anaheim and Boston forwards stand out by averaging two feet from the closest team in the league. Incidentally, the Devils' forwards have a low shooting percentage relative to the other team's forwards. Keep this in mind when you look at the defensemen.
Yes, the Devils' blueline remains unproductive like in past seasons. They also take longer shots than most other teams on average. The D ranks twenty-fourth in average shot distance.
As you would expect from defensemen, they take longer shots on average than forwards. That's due to their positioning by the blueline. A lot of defensemen, namely defensive defensemen, rarely jump up in the play. Even the more mobile and offensive-minded ones may not even shoot when they do so. Ergo, their attempts are usually coming from the points. Just think of the common the dump-it-in-throw-it-back-to-the-point tactic the Devils have displayed.
The larger point is not so much that the Devils don't get a lot of goals from their defense, but the teams who have still have really low shooting percentages. If your D can shoot above 5% - and only twelve teams have done that this season in 5-on-5 play - then you should be pleased. Even the highest percentage on this list would be among the lowest for forwards. In other words, even if the Devils had that Great Offensive Defenseman playing a lot at evens, the majority of goals are still going to come from the forwards. If they're cold, then the team's likely going to be cold. Therefore, I think it's more important that they get closer than the defensemen moving up a few feet.
Of course, this post doesn't tell you anything you don't already know. Closer shots on net are more likely to go in than not. The fifty-footer from the point is a lower percentage shot than the one taken ten feet from the net. Forwards provide more goals than the defense. Shot distance is controllable but it doesn't mean goals will follow it (and if it did, Our Hated Rivals would be far better off so it's not a totally bad thing). I know, I just blew your mind. Still, it's worth having that confirmed by the numbers. I'm honestly not too sure how the Devils as a team combine for a higher ranked average shot distance than forwards and defensemen separately; but if one side should try to get closer more before firing, it's the forwards given their improvement will yield more rewards. Of course, this all may be moot because distance doesn't drive shooting percentage. It's something the team can at least try. And within a game, it could lead to a better shot range than a whole lot of long-range shots and a bunch of short ones.