Anyone who’s ever been to a hockey game is familiar with the “SHOOOOOOT!!!” fan. To a certain extent, we all of have a little bit of that fan in us. When we see a player who appears to have a clean look at the net from a good location, the natural instinct is to hope the player tries to score. And if the player instead attempts a pass that doesn’t result in a shot or results in a worse shot, the natural response is frustration and complaints about “overpassing.” This is a theme in every fan base across the NHL and the Lightning’s version is the #onemorepass hashtag that floats through Bolts Twitter.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a discussion on Twitter with Bob Roberts (@BobRbrts), Mike Gallimore (@MikeGallimore) and our own GeoFitz (@GeoFitz4). Bob is one of my favorite follows on Twitter and I mentioned to him the tendency of Lightning fans to be critical of the Bolts’ overpassing. Mike and Geo clarified that while the overpassing criticism is frequently misplaced, they feel there are specific instances where the criticism is valid. Geo specifically mentioned Valtteri Filppula, which should be no surprise to Lightning fans. And that made me wonder which players around the league are frequently considered players who “overpass.” So I asked my Twitter friends to give me their teams’ resident overpassers.
The first thing that jumped out to me about the list I received was the amount of talented players that fans sometimes feel pass too much. Joe Thornton, Henrik Sedin, Sean Couturier, Nicklas Backstrom, Mats Zuccarello, etc. These are some of the best forwards in the league. Before last season, we didn’t really have a way of measuring a player’s passing ability. But thanks to the passing project headed by Ryan Stimson (@RK_Stimp), we can look at these players’ passing stats compared to their shooting stats and see what we can learn.
The first table below shows each players percentile rank in the NHL last season in weighted primary shot contributions (wPSC) broken out into their primary shot assists (A1) and shots (Sh). A primary shot contribution is a shot or a pass that leads to a shot. Weighted primary shot contribution factors in the danger level of the shot by including whether the preceding pass was from behind the net, crossed the royal road etc. The second chart shows each player plotted by their passing and shooting metrics. Players in the bottom right quadrant are above league average passers and below league average shooters, which is where we find the majority of the players on the list.
Of the 26 names I received, 16 are in the top quarter of the league in passing. And only 5 show up as better shooters than passers. From this, I take away two main things. First, our eyes do a fairly decent of job of identifying players who stand out as passing more than they shoot.
But second, and more importantly, often when we identify a player who passes frequently, we’re identifying a good passer. That seems like an obvious thing but the tendency is to add a second part to that statement which is, “and they should shoot more.”
And that’s where I generally disagree.
Passing and shooting are two different skill sets. And players who excel in one skill set are naturally going to look to utilize that skill whenever possible. Simply put, if a player is a better passer than a shooter, they are going to look to pass first. And that’s not a bad thing. If a player has a unique ability to see the ice and manipulate space to create the angles needed to set up teammates for dangerous shots, that player should be encouraged to do that whenever possible.
This point is where we arrive at the crux of my argument. If a player is a great passer, the onus should not be on that player to shoot more. The onus should be on the coaching staff to put that player on a line with good shooters. Because we are so lucky to be watching hockey in 2016, we have a chance to see the perfect example of this several nights each week. Henrik Sedin was put on planet Earth to pass to his brother Daniel. And Daniel was put on planet Earth to receive those passes and put them in the back of the net. They have a perfectly beautiful symbiotic relationship that deserves to be canonized in epic poetry for future generations to appreciate.
While other teams can’t perfectly replicate that relationship, coaches should be striving to get close whenever possible. Tampa Bay’s resident overpasser, Filppula, is a great example of what can happen when coaches don’t follow this philosophy. Filppula is a good passer and much prefers to be a creator rather than a shooter. But last year, he played mostly on a line with JT Brown and Ryan Callahan, neither of whom is a particularly good shooter/finisher. Because of that, Val’s numbers looked worse than they probably should have.
Contrast that to this season, where he has looked much better with Brayden Point on his line. While Point hasn’t mastered finishing at the NHL level yet, he does see the game through a similar set of creative eyes to Filppula and because of that, has been able to get to dangerous spaces and receive passes from Filppula that players like Brown and Callahan were not typically in position to receive last season.
Philosophical Musings (with a little math)
At times in the NHL, it feels like creativity is a dirty word and coaches want nothing but north-south get-the-puck-on-net attacks. But finding combinations of players who allow each other to maximize their offensive impact by taking advantage of each other’s strengths should be one of the fundamental goals of coaching.
Don’t encourage players to shoot more. Find someone to put on their line who likes to receive the passes they want to make. On an ideal team, every player would be confident in their own ability to make whatever play they feel is best in the moment. For some players on a rush, that might be a shot on goal. For other players, it might be a slick pass to a teammate they can’t even see but are pretty sure is in a given location because their experience and creative (spidey) senses tell them they are.
But in order to do that, we have to stop reacting to players passing up a shot in favor of a pass as if the shot they took would have absolutely been a goal. In the passing project, we found that a shot that doesn’t follow any sort of unique passing sequence generally ends in a goal about 4% of the time.
Shots that follow royal road passes become goals 15.5% of the time. So if a player passes up a shot to attempt a royal road pass, they are attempting to increase the likelihood of scoring a goal by almost four times. If they complete that pass 1 out of 3 attempts, that’s a good pass to make regardless of whether they complete that specific pass.
Consider the following two plays.
Both involve Nikita Kucherov. On the first play, he passes up a shot on the rush to instead try to feed a royal road pass to Brayden Point. On the second play, he passes up a shot from the slot to slide the puck back post to Ondrej Palat. After the first play, Twitter erupted with calls for Kucherov to shoot the puck. Not so much after the second play. I’m sure you can guess why.
The reality is that both passes are the right play. In both situations, Kucherov passes up a good shot for a great shot. In the first situation, he gives up a rush shot in favor of a better shot for a teammate against a goalie trying to push all the way across his net. And in the second he gives up a rush shot from the slot in favor of a gimme back post tap-in. Suggesting that the first pass was a bad decision while the second pass was a good decision would be basing that assessment on the result (goal or no goal) instead of the process (decision to pass or shoot). Personally, I hope Kucherov never loses the instinct to turn a good shot into a great shot and continues looking to make the best possible play in every situation instead of settling for the safest play.
Efficient utilization of player skill sets should be the primary goal of any coach. Each player is a puzzle piece. Their strengths and weaknesses are the tabs and blanks respectively. Too often, coaches and fans want to cut off the tabs or fill the blanks of the pieces instead of figuring out the optimal way to fit them together as they are. When pieces fit together as in the case of the Sedins, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, or Kucherov and Steven Stamkos (cry emoji), the resulting image is picture perfect hockey.