For some reason, it seems to me that you rarely see interviews with hockey players in which they talk about playing hockey. I’m not talking about cliches dropped between periods about what the team has to do to get back into it, but more philosophical stuff. One of the curious things about soccer coverage is that players and coaches seem to be simulatenously less available that hockey players/coaches and more available. They’re less available for the banalities that make up a lot of hockey stories but there’s an awful lot of soccer stuff that gets churned out that contains some fascinating thinking from the player or coach.
Take Xabi Alonso, the Spanish Real Madrid midfielder who also spent some time at Liverpool. He had a conversation with Sid Lowe of the Guardian in which he touched on the perversity of the importance that the English attach to tackling:
“I don’t think tackling is a quality,” he says. “It is a recurso, something you have to resort to, not a characteristic of your game. At Liverpool I used to read the matchday programme and you’d read an interview with a lad from the youth team. They’d ask: age, heroes, strong points, etc. He’d reply: ‘Shooting and tackling’. I can’t get into my head that football development would educate tackling as a quality, something to learn, to teach, a characteristic of your play. How can that be a way of seeing the game? I just don’t understand football in those terms. Tackling is a [last] resort, and you will need it, but it isn’t a quality to aspire to, a definition. It’s hard to change because it’s so rooted in the English football culture, but I don’t understand it.”
England is, of course, not the only country to invent a sport and proceed to spend a century lost in its own navel, deifying a willingness to perform acts that might not be the best way to go about things: tackling’s good but having the ball yourself and not needing to make a tackle is better.
So it is with shot blocking. I’ve noticed, from afar, that shot blocking seems to have become something of a story about these playoffs. It’s how you win now, letting the opposition have a big possession edge and absorbing it. ASIDE: hey, remember in the first round, when everyone was copying the Bruins and fighting to protect themselves because the NHL won’t do it? Boy, that story sure seems to have disappeared, eh? Funny, that.
But shot blocking is different than fighting. This is undoubtedly a REAL trend that’s been identified. Well, except there’s an excellent argument from Rory Boylen at the Hockey News that it isn’t. OK, so it probably isn’t. Watching the discussion of this online, a number of sensible people seem to be in broad agreement on some points.
1. Shot blocking isn’t innately good; it’s a least bad, in that it’s better than letting the shot go through on net but not as good as having the puck.
2. There hasn’t been an inordinate amount of shotblocking in the playoffs.
This seems obvious. I think there’s a couple of additional points that should be made.
3. Measuring shot blocking as the league does is insane. The league, of course, mashes together PP/ES/PK in their shot blocking stats. More critically though, shot blocking is a function of opportunity. You can’t block a shot if you spend the whole game in the other team’s end. A more sensible way of looking at this is by looking at the proportion of shot attempts blocked.
I took the 501 guys who played at least 10 minutes a night at 5v5 and 40 games this year and came up with some benchmarks. 53.5% of shot attempts league wide ended up as shots this year. 20.7% missed the net and 25.8% were blocked. Some Rangers are, in fact, notable blockers of shots – Stu Bickel, Brandon Prust, Ruslan Fedotenko, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Brian Boyle all ended up in the top nine in terms of percentage of shot attempts against their teams blocked when they were on the ice, ranging from Bickel’s 30.8% to Boyle’s 32.3%.
Just out of curiosity, I looked at the mix of shot attempts against the Rangers when Brad Richards was on the ice: 51%/21%/28% (on net/missed/blocked). I’d suggest that the inference to draw here is that this isn’t really a team wide thing – the Rangers are pretty close to the NHL norm when Richards is on the ice. He, of course, can also play hockey.
4. There’s not an awful lot to all of this shot blocking that the Rangers are allegedly doing. Let’s take Brian Boyle. There’s no player in the league whose team blocks a greater proportion of the shots when he’s on the ice than Boyle. 47.6% of shot attempts became shots on goal. 20.1% missed the net. 32.3% were blocked.
What does this mean? Well, out of 100 shot attempts, the average player sees 53.5 of them become on shots on net against. Boyle sees 47.6 of them become shots on net. Boyle was on the ice for about 926 shot attempts this year. In Boyle’s case, about 441 of them shots on goal; the average player would have seen about 495 of them become shots on goal while he was on the ice. So we’re talking about 54 shots.
5. If those shots that are turned into blocks all have an 8% chance of going in, which is about the average at 5v5, then you’re talking about 4.32 goals prevented. Except…I doubt it’s sensible to think of them as shots with an average chance of going in. I tend to agree with Rory Boylen about where shots that are blocked tend to come and disproportionately, they come from a long way out relative to other shots I think. It’s probably more like 3 goals prevented. Keep in mind, this is over a full season, for the player with the most extreme on-ice shot blocking number in the league. It’s going to be less significant with other players.
6. The Rangers have currently played about 900 minutes of 5v5 TOI in the playoffs. If they lose to New Jersey, they’ll likely end up with a number very close to Brian Boyle’s total TOI for the year although, again, Boyle obviously isn’t playing all of that. Lots of the time is being eaten up by guys who are less committed shot blockers. I’ve put together a table of the shots/missed/blocked for the 17 Rangers who played at least 40 regular season games as well as their playoff numbers to give people a sense of what it looks like.
A word of caution: I’m hesitant to compare these numbers directly. As you get further from stats like goals, the subjectivity of the individual scorers matters more and more. You can address this in the regular season by being cognizant of bias and looking for signs of it (according to the NHL, the Devils blocked twice as many shots away as they did at home this year). You can check yourself by looking at road stats only. In the playoffs, this doesn’t really work as well, because the mix of scorers is different.
Nevertheless, I think you can draw some tentative conclusions here.
a) I have no idea what is going on with Stu Bickel, who has seen a massive decline in the share of shots blocked when he’s on the ice.
b) The meat and potato guys like Boyle and Prust have seen pretty tiny increases in their shot blocking shares in the playoffs, which probably makes sense; they have to do that stuff in the regular season to stay in the NHL.
c) The defencemen tend towards being clustered in the middle in terms of the change in their shot blocking numbers which, again, seems sensible. If the big change is skill forwards throwing themselves in front of shots, guys who don’t do it in the regular season, their numbers will show this most, defencemen who split time between them and the regular season shot blockers second most and you won’t see a big change in the numbers of guys who block shots in the regular season.
d) The real change seems to be in the proportion of shots that are missing the net. 15/17 Rangers have seen a greater share of shot attempts against them miss the net when they’re on the ice during the playoffs. In many cases, it’s a substantial change. I don’t watch the Rangers too much in the regular season but watching them in the playoffs, it’s been extraordinary to see the extent to which they basically just camp in front of goal. If this is something new (or something that’s accentuated in the playoffs), players trying to shoot around them might account for this.
7. Back to the main point: taking all of the above into account, if you wanted to come up with an estimate of how much the Rangers taste for blocking shots has saved them in terms of 5v5 goals in the playoffs (relative to the average team in the regular season), you probably come up with an answer of somewhere between 0 and 3 right now. That’s not nothing, but it’s not all that much. Is it the reason that the Rangers are in the third round? Seems unlikely but I guess you sound more sophisticated if you talk about that than you do if you say “Lundqvist is awesome” and certainly more sophisticated than you sound if you say “Lundqvist is handsome.”
8. The Rangers are awful to watch. It’s terrible hockey. At the risk of making up a phony trend of my own, I wonder if this has something to do with the relative CBA created closeness of teams in the playoffs. If nobody is really confident that they have the better team, bunkering and playing for a one shot game makes a sort of sense.
That’s the worst thing about this shot blocking praise. I don’t think it’s hugely significant and, frankly, the style that lends itself to blocking lots of shots is awful. Sag back around the goalie. Don’t aggressively challenge puck carriers on the outside. Don’t take risks. Just bunker down and let shots, which are being taken from low percentage places anyway because you’re clogging the front of the net, hit you. Ugh.
Those of you who follow my Twitter feed will be aware that Blackpool just lost the promotion final to West Ham, much to the delight of West Ham/Swansea/ Burnley fan Chris Jones, who seems awfully comfortable labeling others as fake fans for a guy who cheers for the same number of teams as the average nine year old boy. West Ham plays a brand of soccer that isn’t particularly nice, although it wins. After the game, Alex Baptiste, a defender for Blackpool, had this to say about how West Ham plays:
“We were the better side. It was embarrassing at times. They just hoof it long and hope for the best. It’s a foul on me for the second goal, so the ref has done us no favours. I suppose everyone got what they wanted. Everyone wanted West Ham to win because they’re a team from London. Congratulations to them, they won the game, but I know who I would rather play for.”
Can you imagine a hockey player saying something like this? It’s the complete opposite of what you’d expect to hear in hockey, where you get things like Friedman’s Apocrypha, in which the Capitals turning themselves from an exciting team into a team that is worse BUT WITH ADDED BORING! is praised. Friedman wasn’t alone in saying so; Brooks Laich also spoke about how much better things are now that the Capitals are worse BUT WITH ADDED BORING! It’s systemic.
Hockey doesn’t seem to have a lot of room for the idea that the aesthetics matter. It’s a shame. Not only does hockey not seem to have room for aesthetics, but, like the English with tackling, the media (and I have no doubt that they reflect the people within the game on this) lionize stuff that should be something you resort to, which doesn’t even seem like it has a particularly significant impact on the game, relative to all of the other things that go on. The Rangers shouldn’t be praised for their shot blocking, which was a little bit more significant for them than it is for most teams in the regular season. They should be criticized for not being interesting to watch. You can’t choose to win the Stanley Cup. You can choose not to play a passive sort of game that sees you block a bunch of shots and isn’t all that interesting to watch.