A Treatise on Shooting

Ever since I could remember, the hockey players I've followed most closely have been the ones who could fire the puck. Why exactly this is I'm not sure; could be from watching my first games as a kid, could be my fond memories of having the best slapper in the league when I was young (using the ultra-whippy Bauer Supreme, it was black and gold and I scored nearly 50 with it one year, only to graduate to XX-flex sticks after the growth spurt hit) or maybe even playing NHL 94 and unleashing the fury of the Bondra-Iafrate-Hatcher Capitals on an unsuspecting opposition. I don't think I ever lost a game as the Capitals and those slappers were my weapon of choice. The ability to strut in over the blue line and blast the puck by a goaltender who has full view of you and knows exactly what's coming is one of the most fulfilling ways to score a goal, and you can usually see that in the joy on the faces of those in the NHL or even in Atom who do it well. We had a guy on my Midget AA team who could do it with such ease. If he'd been 6'2" instead of 5'10" I'm sure he'd still be playing somewhere.

Shooting is one of the single most misunderstood parts of the game. The problem begins in that newcomers and casual observers seem to think it is the most simple part of the game. Gotta shoot to score right? Taking more shots is always better right? Just fire it at the net right?


These sentiments could not be more wrong. Shooting is one of the most complicated arts to master in the game. I've noticed that hockey moms are often the most guilty of the "SHOOT" disease in hockey rinks, but I don't really blame them for this as it does seem simple. The thing about shooting effectively is that it must be done in the midst of the entire fray of the game. With everything else going on, you must find enough physical room to deploy your selected shot, obtain the space to put the puck through, decipher where to put the puck so that it has the best chance of reaching the net (read: net behind the goalie, not "on net"), how to disguise your intentions, and many other internal calculations within the game if you hope to be an effective shooter. Those who do this well are those able to slow the game down in their own minds and see clearly. Shooters are not panicky. They are calculated. Though the shot often comes off in a fraction of an instant with an utterly violent motion, that motion is controlled and decisive. The best shooters have this procedure so programmed in that the process simply looks like an instinctual and savage movement.

I maintain that Wayne Gretzky was the best shooter ever. It's true that there have been many greats including the Hulls, Bossy, Sakic, etc., but the way Gretzky was able to simply beat goalies at will is undeniable. Watch film of him and you will see how he used the entirety of his skill to position and time shots in order that they find the back of the net. See the Vernon goal in 88 over the shoulder. See his 5 goals to get to 50 in 39. See countless times where he intentionally banked point shots off of his own linemates for goals, or saw a goalie out of position and used his pad, back or skate to score. His combination of accuracy and (when he needed it) power are unmatched from my eyes. Some older observers might dispute it, but he's the best I've seen because he understood when, how and where to shoot better than anyone. You didn't see Wayne Gretzky firing off stupid shots into defenders all the time, or getting checked because he was busy trying to shoot from a bad position. Also, from what I've seen, when he truly needed to score, he went to his forehand, which is another thing I've observed that great goal scorers will always do.

Alexander Ovechkin is probably the best shooter playing today. Watching his wrist shot alone is worth the price of admission. He has a really unique approach and release, but I think this often distracts watchers. Ovechkin is a truly great shooter because he uses the entirety of his game to set up his opportunities. Half of the reason he has a lethal shot is his skating speed. Many observers do not understand the impact that skating speed has on shooting power. It's something that you can't really understand until you've done it I suppose, and they don't showcase it in something like the hardest shot competition. Ovechkin is also the very best at moving the puck so slightly as to be able to do what looks like shooting straight through a defenceman. He's not; he's created his own small lane and uses his quickness to unleash devastating wristers before the defenceman can react. There are not many NHLers that can do this, as it is so much more than skating up to a defenceman and shooting it magically by him.

To bring this discussion back to your favorite team and mine, it has been spouted by so many that the cure to what ails the Edmonton Oilers is simply to take more shots. More shots will magically equal more goals and this team will be fine. There are a number of reasons that this simply isn't true, but more on that later.

The fans that attend live games, many of them anyway, do not seem to grasp the intricacies of shooting. They call for shots on the Powerplay most frequently, missing the whole point of the 5-on-4 situation which is not to get more shots but to get BETTER shots that are of higher percentage chance to score. The point of all that passing it to create a lane to another player collapsing the defensive box and creating a situation where a forward (usually) has an opportunity to shoot at an undefended, possibly screened and hopefully out of position goaltender. Simply taking more shots accomplishes none of this and relinquishes the puck control that the 5-on-4 situation affords you. Your goal is not to blast 100 pucks in the general direction of the net and hope that 4 or 5 go in. If your team somehow manages to score 4 or 5 goals in half your games, you'll be a pretty great team in this league. Doing this requires better chances, not more pucks directed at the net.

Directing a puck towards the net accomplishes absolutely nothing in and of itself. It can in fact be a negative because if you do not score, create an offensive rebound or cause an offensive zone faceoff, you've turned the puck over to the opposition who can then break out on you. Odds are you're also out of position at this stage.

If you gave a team a goal, and that was to direct 50 pucks at the net in a given game, I submit to you that this team would not win hockey games. The easiest shots to take are often the ones least likely to go in. An undefended shot from the blue line, even when you're Sheldon Souray, is of relative ease to take, but has a very low chance of success for many reasons. The shooting percentage that teams have is not simply because they direct pucks at the net, but is because they direct some of the right pucks at the net.

The Edmonton Oilers of 09-10 have many problems in the offensive zone right now. The desire to shoot is not one of them despite the howls of the peanut gallery. When this team has been in position to take effective shots, they have not been shy at all about taking them. Gilbert Brule is a great example of a talented shooter who's made a lot of his chances so far this year. I wish we had 3 of him (ideally one that was 6'3", but those kinds of guys go first overall). What has occurred lately is that this team is not getting itself into the positions required to take effective shots, and not corralling rebounds in high percentage areas where goals are had. There have been many games this year where we've had an obscene number of pucks blocked after they were poorly directed at the net. This needs to stop. Our game in the offensive zone has become much less fluid despite our roster which is structured to play a very fluid offensive style. There are teams that can play the table-top hockey style game, stay in place and fire shots. We are not that kind of team. We need rushes (Hemsky, Penner), passing plays (Gagner, Cogliano), players in position for rebounds (Comrie, O'Sullivan), and room to fire shots (Brule, Moreau). We are a perfectly capable offensive team that is more than capable of getting into ideal shooting position and taking advantage. We simply do not create these opportunities on enough occasions.

This process should be the focus of our efforts as a team. Simply focusing on directing pucks will not lead to wins, only to frustration.


David S said...

Wow! I sure hope Patrick O'Sulivan isn't a fan of this site. Dude shots a crapload of muffins and has little to show for it. After reading this, his confidence would be sure to take a downward spiral.

David S said...

I mean "shoots"

LMHF#1 said...

I love Patrick's skill in all zones, but they need to have him drive to the net and go to high-percentage scoring areas where his shooting is of use.