I have a few beliefs about hockey, and one of them is that most players have an intrinsic level of scoring ability, as measured by shooting percentage. A lot of outside factors can cause it to fluctuate from year to year – injuries, line-mates, powerplay time, psychological factors, etc. – but at the end of the day there’s a centre point and while players may stray from it because of those outside factors, they can’t sustain numbers that are either too high or too low over the long haul.

G.M.’s tend to get in trouble when they sign or trade for players on the basis of shooting percentage fluctuations. I’ll use some examples from the Edmonton Oilers, since I’m most familiar with that team. Fernando Pisani’s a reasonably talented shooter – he has a career average of 13.1% – but in the 2006 playoffs he took it to another level, scoring 14 goals in 24 games on the back of a 28.6 SH%. He was a pending free agent, and was signed to a long-term, big-money deal – and promptly reverted back to his true level of ability. Raffi Torres struggled through an injury-plagued 2007-08, firing at a career low 5.7 percent (his previous career low was 9.7%). Edmonton traded him away, and while injuries are still a problem, last year he converted at a 16.2% rate.

With that in mind, I thought I’d look at the league’s current top-ten goal-scorers, and see who I think can keep up the pace. We’ll revisit these predictions at the end of the year. Naturally, all predictions assume perfect health (and with Kovalchuk out 2-4 weeks, that isn’t going to happen). Additionally, all statistics are from prior to last night’s games.

Anze Kopitar: 10 goals, 34 shots (29.4 SH%)

  • Current Pace: 68 goals
  • Career High: 32 goals
  • Career Shooting Percentage Range: 10.4% – 15.9%

As it stands, Kopitar is poised to more than double his previous career high in goals, while taking the same number of shots as last season. He’s on fire right now, without doubt, but right now his shooting percentage is almost twice his previous career high. I don’t doubt that he’ll score at a career-best rate this year, but that’s more likely to mean 40 rather than 70 goals.

  • Prediction: 40 goals

Alexander Ovechkin: 9 goals, 67 shots (13.4 SH%)

  • Current Pace: 74 goals
  • Career High: 65 goals
  • Career Shooting Percentage Range: 10.6% – 14.6%

Ovechkin led the league last year with 528 shots, and he’s poised to bump that number up to the 550-shot range this season. His shooting percentage is easily within his career norms, and because the increase in the number of shots is so modest, he could very well carry this pace on until the end of the season. Seriously: this guy could score 70 goals this year.

  • Prediction: 68 goals

Patrick Marleau: 9 goals, 37 shots (24.3 SH%)

  • Current Pace: 61 goals
  • Career High: 38 goals
  • Career Shooting Percentage Range: 10.3% – 17.4%

Marleau’s on pace to take just two more shots than last year, but he’s firing at a tremendous clip right now – put another way, goalies facing his shots have a .757 SV%. Obviously, he’s very talented, but that’s also very unlikely to continue, and we’ll probably see him drop back to his career shooting percentage levels – around the 15% range, numbers that would translate into about 40 goals on the season.

  • Prediction: 40 goals

Ilya Kovalchuk: 9 goals, 27 shots (33.3 SH%)

  • Current Pace: 92 goals
  • Career High: 52 goals
  • Career Shooting Percentage Range: 12.0% – 18.4%

Kovalchuk’s taking shots at the same rate that he has the past two seasons, but his shooting percentage has more than doubled from last year’s 15.6%. He’s likely to be in the 50-goal range at the end of the year, just like he is every year, when his shooting percentage reverts to his established level of ability.

  • Prediction: 50 goals

Marian Gaborik: 8 goals, 44 shots (18.2 SH%)

  • Current Pace: 60 goals
  • Career High: 42 goals
  • Career Shooting Percentage Range: 8.2% – 19.1%

Gaborik has a wider range in shooting percentage than most of the players on this list. Before the lockout, he’d ranged between 8.2 and 13.6 percent; since the lockout, he’s been between 15.1 and 15.3 percent every year but last year, when he played in only 17 games. The 15.2% mark is probably around where his true ability level lies, and he’s only slightly ahead of that this season. He’s taken more shots the last two years than he has in years prior (although he’s generally between 200 and 300 shots). If he stays healthy, 50-60 goals seems like a reasonable target.

  • Prediction: 55 goals

Dany Heatley: 8 goals, 29 shots (27.6 SH%)

  • Current Pace: 55 goals
  • Career High: 50 goals
  • Career Shooting Percentage Range: 12.9% – 18.3%

As it stands, Dany Heatley is on pace to set a career-low in shots over an entire season. His previous low (202) came in his rookie year, when he scored only 26 goals. In fact, if we adjust for his career average shooting percentage and he continues firing shots at the same rate, he’ll score only 35 goals, his lowest total over a full season since his rookie year. It’ll be interesting to see if this continues, although I imagine Heatley will be right around the 40 goal mark at season’s end, just like he has been for the past two years.

  • Prediction: 38 goals

Dustin Penner: 8 goals, 32 shots (25.0 SH%)

  • Current Pace: 60 goals
  • Career High: 29 goals
  • Career Shooting Percentage Range: 11.4% – 14.2%

Dustin Penner will not score 60 goals. He does, however, have a good chance at passing his previous career high, as he’s getting more ice-time and shooting the puck more than he ever has before in his NHL career. Extrapolating with his current shot totals, he’ll finish the year at around 35 goals – and I’m sure the Oilers would be thrilled with that total.

  • Prediction: 33 goals

Steven Stamkos: 7 goals, 35 shots (20.0 SH%)

  • Current Pace: 64 goals
  • Career High: 23 goals
  • Career Shooting Percentage Range: 12.7%

Given that Stamkos is a sophomore this season, it’s very difficult to know where his level of ability truly lies. He probably isn’t going to finish at the 20% mark, since most of the league’s best have difficulties reaching that level (Ilya Kovalchuk is probably the closest). That said, a substantial increase on last season wouldn’t be a surprise, and he is shooting the puck a lot more. 40 goals isn’t out of the question.

  • Prediction: 35 goals

Devin Setoguchi: 7 goals, 35 shots (20.0 SH%)

  • Current Pace: 52 goals
  • Career High: 31 goals
  • Career Shooting Percentage Range: 10.5% – 12.6%

Like Stamkos, Setoguchi has a limited track record at the NHL level, and it’s hard to know where his true level of ability lies. Still, it’s likely not at the 20% mark, for the same reasons as Stamkos. But shooting percentage alone isn’t the only reason for Setoguchi’s fast start, as he’s firing the puck more too. As with Stamkos, 40 goals isn’t out of the question.

  • Prediction: 35 goals

Ryan Malone: 7 goals, 27 shots (25.9 SH%)

  • Current Pace: 64 goals
  • Career High: 27 goals
  • Career Shooting Percentage Range: 12.8% – 21.0%

Malone’s a remarkably efficient scorer – over the last two years he’s gone from the 13-16% range to 17.0% and finally 21.0% last year. That has to be near the peak of his ability; 21.0% is an incredibly high mark to keep up consistently. That said, he’s never fired the puck as often in previous years as he has this year – he’s on pace for 246 shots well above his previous career high (159).I don’t expect that to continue, and at the end of the day Malone may very well set career highs – say between 30 and 35 goals – but he won’t be keeping company with Ovechkin and Kovalchuk.

  • Prediction: 30 goals