How well an NHL team shoots the puck isn’t a question that gets asked all that often.
Most teams have some good shooters at the top of their roster and average and poor ones sprinkled throughout and shot quality – as measured by shooting percentage – fluctuates fairly randomly throughout a season.
There have been dozens and dozens of articles written over the last five or six years on how shooting percentage tends to regress to the mean, so we won’t spell out in great detail all of the specifics again here.
The basic concept is that, if a team is scoring on a significantly higher or lower percentage of its shots than the average (which is roughly 9.2 per cent in recent years), that number will likely come back closer to the average over a full 82-game season.
Shooting percentage also has a pretty low correlation from season-to-season, with teams often coming back to earth after a particularly dominant year.
The 2009-10 Washington Capitals, for example, had the highest shooting percentage of any NHL team the last six seasons at 11.7 per cent and scored 45 more goals than any other team that season.
The very next year, however, they scored on just 8.5 per cent of their shots, which helped explain why they suddenly scored 94 fewer goals.
And that brings us to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Leafs are, in short, probably the closest comparable we have to that Capitals team. They had the second highest shooting percentage in the last six years last season at 11.5 per cent and scored a pile of goals despite having very low shot totals.
That’s really uncommon.
Like Washington, which got out to a hot start their next season, so far Toronto is shooting lights out yet again this year. After their 4-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday, a game in which Phil Kessel showed some obvious shooting ability in recording his fourth career hat trick, the Leafs are second in the NHL with a 12.3 shooting percentage.
Now, it’s really, really early. And it’s probably worth pointing out that the Leafs had a 12.5 per cent shooting percentage to start the 2011-12 season and ended up down at 9.8 by season’s end.
But rather than simply pile a whole bunch more numbers in here on a topic that is well worn, what is probably more interesting is to get a player’s perspective on the issue.
Could Toronto simply be a high percentage shooting team, similarly to maybe the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have averaged around 10.1 per cent in recent years thanks to their stars?
Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk was riding shotgun alongside Kessel for his big night, and after the game, he said that he was well aware of the concept of shooting percentages and their sustainability.
And he’s skeptical those rules will apply to this team.
“We just have guys who can finish their chances when we get in the slot,” van Riemsdyk said. “I know you always hear people asking about those advanced statistics and shooting percentage and all this crazy stuff. But if you can create those chances and bury your chances that’s all that matters. Percentages and whatnot doesn’t mean much if you just bury the chances you get and find ways to win the game.”
Where exactly has he been hearing about these statistics?
“I’ve just been asked about it over the last couple years and I know that’s one of the things about it: The shooting percentage and how it’s hard to keep a shooting percentage up,” he said. “What’s the average? Like 15 or 10 or something?”
Closer to eight (at even strength) or nine (overall) actually. And the Leafs are up over 12 per cent again.
“Oh, it’s eight. Wow, okay,” van Riemsdyk said. “Well, we’ve got one of the guys with the best shots in the league so he’s going to put it in more than 8 per cent of the time, I can guarantee you that.”
And Kessel certainly does that. He has scored on 12.5 per cent of his many shots on goal over the last few years and the fact he generates roughly 13 per cent of Toronto’s shots obviously helps.
The curious thing, though, is if you take Kessel out of the mix, the Leafs shooting percentage remains basically just as high going back to last season, and that’s where the problem might come in.
Can Joffrey Lupul keep scoring at a more than 20 per cent rate? Can Tyler Bozak? Can Dion Phaneuf stay over 10 per cent? The list goes on.
One thing the Leafs have not done well under Randy Carlyle, meanwhile, is produce shots on goal. They were tied for second last in that stat last season and are again hovering under 27 a game this year, which is one of the reasons they are often outshot in games.
That’s okay if you can score on 11 per cent or more of your chances and get good goaltending, but if that shooting percentage number falls to 10 per cent or less, it’s much more of a problem.
And whether the Leafs are one of the game’s best shooting teams in years or this is just a really strong 58-game stretch could go a fair way in determining how well they do this season.
Get all the latest Globe and Mail hockey coverage on Twitter: @globehockeyReport Typo/Error