The Catastrophically-Bad Shooting of the 2010/11 NJ Devils

I'll start with a brief introduction: I've been a casual Devils fan for many years, but this is the first year I've seriously watched hockey (where I watch most games on TV, rather than just watching when they happen to be on). I've found myself utterly mystified by how poorly this season has gone. I decided to delve into how bad the shooting has been.

The Devils are scoring on 5.8% of their shots, which is the worst in the league by a pretty wide margin. But I was curious how this ranked with previous seasons. I complied all the shooting percentages of every team in the league since the lockout In an Excel spreadsheet. That's a data-set of 180 team seasons. Some years, however, have higher league-wide shooting percentages than others. To adjust for this context, I tried to imitate the baseball statistic OPS+: I divided each team's shooting percentage by the season's average, and then multiplied by 100 for ease of use/comparison. (I am lazily calling it Shoot%+.)

First, here's the top 10 shooting teams of that era:

Team/Season - Shoot%+

2009 Washington Capitals - 127.40
2006 Buffalo Sabres - 126.70
2010 Colorado Avalanche - 123.56
2006 Nashville Predators - 120.90
2010 Vancouver Canucks - 118.64
2006 Calgary Flames - 116.88
2010 Detroit Red Wings - 116.29
2006 Pittsburgh Penguins - 115.97
2009 Vancouver Canucks - 115.93
2007 Dallas Stars - 115.81

This squares with intuition, particularly considering how good the Caps were last year. But what about the bottom 10?

Team/Season - Shoot%+

2010 New York Islanders - 85.02
2007 New York Rangers - 84.94
2010 Buffalo Sabres - 84.14
2010 Toronto Maple Leafs - 83.71
2005 Chicago Blackhawks - 83.51
2007 New York Islanders - 82.95
2009 Boston Bruins - 82.66
2005 St. Louis Blues - 81.90
2008 New York Rangers - 79.80
2010 New Jersey Devils - 64.82 (shooting 5.8%)

Needless to say, it's bad. Not only are the Devils the worst since the lockout on this metric, they are more than a full standard deviation below the very worst shooting team since the lockout (the standard deviation on this metric is 9.71).

There are pretty much only two conclusions you can draw from this data:

  1. The 2010 Devils have been incredibly unlucky on their shots.
  2. The 2010 Devils are, by a large margin, the worst shooting team since the lockout.

I judge #1 as more plausible, though I think there is something of a spectrum there; some of it is bad luck, some of it is bad performance. There has definitely been bad luck (Clarkson's non-goal against Ottawa, for starters), but some is probably because of bad shot selection and simply inaccurate shots. But I figured it would be fun to see how many goals the Devils have lost because of their ineffective shooting by simply rescaling the Devils total goals to different levels on the metric. (My goal here is to take the number of shots the Devils have and multiply it by different, more reasonable shooting percentages.)

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Shoot%+ Adj.
2007 Nashville Predators 100.03 9.0% 79 +28
2010 Calgary Flames 95.00 8.6% 75 +24
2006 Los Angeles Kings 90.15 8.1% 71 +20
2010 New York Islanders 85.02 7.7% 67 +16
2008 New York Rangers 79.80 7.2% 63 +12
2010 New Jersey Devils 64.82 5.8% 51 +0

With this table, I'm trying to quantify the "lost goals" due to bad luck or bad shooting. I think the key takeaway is that the Devils are missing between 12 and 28 goals over where they should be, depending if you think the Devils should be at the level of the worst shooting team since the lockout, or about average. (It just doesn't fit, for me, to think the 2010 Devils should be worse than the least accurate shooting team in the past six seasons, not when they have shooters like Ilya Kovalchuk and Jason Arnott.)

Now, a few points:

  1. This discussion completely ignores their defense, which has been a problem.
  2. I think these results imply regression to the mean is forthcoming. There are a bunch of teams in that low-80s range of ineptitude, but none nearly as bad as the Devils (at 64). I think it's far-fetched that the Devils will continue to be so bad.
  3. Even if the Devils were shooting at the league average, they would still have a negative goal differential. (Of all the current playoff teams, only Tampa has a negative goal differential.)

More broadly, it seems those lost goals have put the Devils out of the playoff race; I just don't think there are enough games left to really get back into the race. This implies that the Devils should start making moves for next season. Expiring contracts (Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Johan Hedberg) should be traded for younger players or draft picks, if possible. The broader cap situation should be addressed by unloading useful players who seem to be easily movable (Dainius Zubrus, Bryce Salvador when healthy). It's not about rebuilding; the Devils have a very solid core younger than 30 (Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Kovalchuk, Anton Volchenkov, etc.). But this seems like a lost season, and a lost season, if nothing else, gives you the freedom to start maneuvering for the future.

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