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The Continued 5-on-5 Shooting Woes of the New Jersey Devils

Over the last six seasons, the New Jersey Devils have regularly had a low shooting percentage and low number of shots for in 5-on-5 situations. What can the Devils do about it?

Left: Zidlicky, 4th in Devils shooting with 101.  Middle: Elias, 3rd in Devils shooting with 118, Right: Salvador, 17th in Devils shooting with 27
Left: Zidlicky, 4th in Devils shooting with 101. Middle: Elias, 3rd in Devils shooting with 118, Right: Salvador, 17th in Devils shooting with 27
Bruce Bennett

It's no secret to anyone that saw the New Jersey Devils in the 2013 regular season that they had trouble scoring goals. Night after night, they would out-shoot and out-attempt the opposition and yet not be able to score the additional goal needed to get a positive result. They were fantastic in terms of possession and limiting the opposition's attempts. However, this led to a lot of low-event games. There were certainly games where the Devils simply pinned back their opponents for large stretches of the game but for the most part, if the opposition was held to about 22 shots, the Devils would only put up 26. This in of itself is exacerbated as a problem if the team's shooting percentage was low. Boy, was it ever so low for the Devils.

Now, I've banged on these points here and elsewhere and I will likely continue to do so heading into the coming season. After all, the Devils need to get more results in 2013-14 and they're going to need to score more to do it. I'm bringing it up again due to this tweet from Bruce Peter, which inspired me.

So far, team shooting percentage has been judged to have been volatile. A good or bad season by one team doesn't necessarily mean they'll be good or bad again in the following season. But Peter raises a good point. Surely, there has to be some reason as to how a team can finish consistently with a relatively low end of shooting percentage? I couldn't tell you what that could be. This did inspire me to pull some 5-on-5 team stats from Hockey Analysis for further perspective. While the Devils weren't in the bottom five, they were rather low all the same.

Season 5 on 5 SF Rk 5 on 5 GF Rk 5 on 5 Sh% Rk 5 on 5 FF% Rk 5 on 5 CF% Rk
2007-08 1624 19 115 28 7.08 26 52.1 7 52.5 6
2008-09 1948 4 147 15 7.55 21 52.5 6 52.5 7
2009-10 1848 11 141 18 7.63 23 51.6 9 50.8 14
2010-11 1855 20 117 30 6.31 30 52.1 8 52.1 7
2011-12 1722 28 139 19 8.07 15 50.4 13 50.3 13
2013 997 25 64 30 6.42 28 55.7 1 55.9 2

Hockey Analysis goes as far back as 2008-09 and since then the following is clear: the Devils have been a good to great possession team (CF% is Corsi For%, which is all shooting attempts by NJ out of all attempts in a game; FF% is Fenwick For%, which is like Corsi For% only without blocks). But they have been on the lower end of shots for (SF) and shooting percentage (Sh%). Only twice in the last six seasons did the Devils finish in the upper half in the league in getting shots on net. The Devils have only once had a shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play in the upper half in the league. That was in 2011-12 and even then it was literally at the league median. The advantage in possession has not yielded much in the way of goals. The only seasons where they had a bottom-third shooting percentage but not a bottom-third goal total in 5-on-5 play were the only seasons where they shot the puck a lot.

In all honesty, I'm not really sure why the team's shooting percentage has been consistently in the bottom third of the league. I can understand the Devils have been undercut somewhat by the home scorer not counting a few shots per game. But even if scorer bias denied the Devils another 100 shots (I would guess it's around 40-50), that would only drive the shooting percentage even lower since the scorer certainly didn't miss shots that went into the net. My best guess as to why it is the way it is would be personnel. We know that players shoot towards their true percentage overtime and it's entirely possible that the Devils just haven't acquired enough guys with fairly high percentages. Therefore, unless several players get warm or hot over a season, the team's not going to be prolific at lighting the lamp unless they fire a lot of shots. For example, Zach Parise was only a 11-12% shooter; he was a volume goal scorer by firing over 300 pucks on net. That said, the Devils did acquire Ilya Kovalchuk, who never shot below 12% as a Thrasher. In the three full seasons since the Devils signed him (note: he shot at 9% with the Devils after the trade), he shot 12.7%, 11.9%, and 8.9%. I can't explain how that was and as such I'm not confident in my best guess.

That's why I think it's more practical to focus on the other end: generating shots. It's been a concern in recent seasons as the team hasn't been all that productive despite having a player or two fire a ton of rubber on net. But those players - Parise, Kovalchuk, and David Clarkson - are gone and it's an open question whether the new acquisitions plus the rest of the team can make up for it. If we're to accept that the Devils will shoot below 8% at 5 on 5 again, then the Devils have to make better use of their edge in possession. This means fewer misses and blocks when possible. This means more shooting attempts when possible. Of course, special teams can certainly help; but 5-on-5 is the most common situation in hockey and this is where the issue really needs to be addressed.

To me, this is the area of the biggest concern for the Devils going in 2013-14. The 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings are a example as to why I feel so strongly about this. They were a fantastic possession team and they even got fantastic goaltending. They still had to scrape for every point possible because they were just awful in shooting percentage. Hockey Analysis had them just above 6% in 5-on-5 play. Even though they were great at allowing only 117 goals and even finished tenth in the NHL in shots for in 5-on-5 play, the Kings only scored 118. If they were more like the Devils in getting shots on net, then they score even less and likely not even get in the playoffs, much less win the Cup. It's really, really, unlikely the Devils will shoot that poorly - though the 2010-11 team rose from those levels, which was what they were at under MacLean. But they need to increase their volume of shots to make up for the lower rate to get more goals. With more goals, the Devils don't need to be among the league's elite in possession and goaltending and other areas to succeed. It would be great if they still were but they'll be far, far better off in the standings with more scoring.

So how can the Devils get more shots on net? I do think Peter DeBoer can certainly play a role. Look at David Clarkson. I honestly believe DeBoer told him to shoot whenever possible, which was apparent to anyone watching #23 for the last two seasons. Not that I want DeBoer to pick out a Devil to do that but he could encourage more players to be a bit more selfish and take shots if they have a lane from the circles towards the net. Additionally, the team could increase their shooting rate with fewer dump-ins. Intuitively, this makes sense: you're going to be able to do more with the puck by carrying it into the zone than playing it away and having a teammate chase it down. This could and - in the case of other teams, such as this analysis for the 2013 Carolina team at Shutdown Line - will lead to more shots and/or scoring chances. I know this is not always an option, but it's something the coaches and players can work on. Lastly, the players just need to get the puck on net as opposed to towards it. This is from late March, but I then noted how the Devils' skaters weren't beating the league average of shots on goal out of attempted shots in 5-on-5 play. Improvement there will yield more shots, which are also more possibilities of goals. The Devils need that because without an increase in scoring, the 2013-14 Devils could very well end up following the same fate of the 2013 team even with a strong possession rate and improved goaltending.

I turn the questions raised from this to you. Why do you think the Devils have been in the bottom third in the league in shooting percentage in 5-on-5 situations for five out of the last six seasons? What can they do to fix it? Can the next Devils squad get out of the bottom third of the league in shots for in 5-on-5 situations as well? How do you think they should go about generating more shots? Do you agree there's something to Bruce Peter's' assertion, and if so, what is it? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the team's shooting in the comments?