The problem with record-keeping in sports is that the records have the nasty habit of tracking the results of plays, and not the process. If I’m a baseball player, I could hit a hard line drive right at the shortstop and make an out, and in my next at bat dribble a ground ball between the first and second baseman. The second plate appearance counts on my record as a “success” but I got much better contact on my first attempt. It was a much better display of my ability to hit a ball hard, but if I don’t get on base, it’s like the at bat never happened.
I may remember the good feeling of a hard-hit ball until the next game, but after a while it will wash off along with the dirt, grime and sweat accrued during a day at the ball field. I never played hockey competitively, but I get the feeling a well-executed slapshot or tip play feels similar. For a moment, you know you connected, and the hours of practice paid off, and the next moment, the goaltender’s glove is right in the way of the puck.
We can respect, as outsiders to the National Hockey League, that each play won’t necessarily benefit the team that executed the best. We’ve seen a set play off the face-off thwarted by a hot goaltender, a stretch pass skip off a desperate defenceman’s stick, or the puck-carrier held up just slightly at the blue line, forcing a promising three-on-one to an offside call. Between every face-off, if there was not a goal scored, a week later it’s almost as if the invisible plays that led to the potential for scoring chances fade even further into obscurity.
In Sunday’s game between the Ottawa Senators and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the NHL.com play-by-play sheet counted 374 different events in three periods and overtime. It counted just two goals, by James Neal and Colin Greening, the other 372, face-offs, hits, blocked shots, collected in some record somewhere used only as reference to strengthen a conclusion rather than used to shine light on a player evaluation problem. Those 372 events don’t include puck battles or passes. Over the course of a game there are thousands of little things, little individual one-on-one battles that are won and lost and never recorded.
It’s just the goals that get counted, and never the successes in execution that don’t matter on the scoresheet, but slowly add up over time to equal thousands of pieces of marginal goals that theoretically should have been scored.
Phil Kessel is tied for second in the National Hockey League in shots. Jarome Iginla is tied for 20th along with Alexander Steen. Drew Stafford is just behind them, tied for 37th while Keith Yandle and Ryan Johansen are tied for 44th.
The theme here? These are players on the NHL’s shot leaders page who have yet to score a goal, and we know it isn’t for lack of attempts. Each shot is, in theory, the result of a well-executed play by multiple teammates that resulted in a generally good offensive player getting the puck on his stick in a good position to take a shot on the net.
Until Toronto’s awful loss to the New York Rangers on Saturday, Kessel had been Toronto’s most dangerous player in each of their games (yes, I watched them all, beginning to end). He’s still scoreless, but his puck-luck has been atrocious. In one instance, he had a backhanded shot for a late tying goal blocked by a sprawling Buffalo Sabres’ defenceman. On another instance against the New York Islanders, Keith Aucoin picked his shot off the goal-line from mid-air and the puck bounced perfectly parallel to the goal-line and remained out.
Iginla is traditionally a slow starter. He had two goals in his first ten games last season two in his first fifteen in 2010-2011 and two in his first eight games in 2009-2010. Drew Stafford came out with guns ablazing with three goals in his first four last year, while Phil Kessel’s hot starts have been discussed this weekend to great examination. With Kessel, it seems as though it’s a negative for a player to score goals in the first week of the season when he dries up at the end of the year, but a slump in the first week is no less forgiving.
Even Steven Stamkos last season had a four-game stretch where he went goal-less (really, four games was the maximum?) and he recorded 15 shots in those four games, not exactly without scoring chances. Evgeni Malkin, second in the NHL with 50 goals last year, went through a six-game goal-less stretch last season, tallying 26 shots on goal. Those slumps weren’t a failure to execute, it was that the execution was no longer leading to positive results, either by chance or by defensive adjustments. Once the subtle shift in variance was made, each player went back to scoring like their respective abilities.
Of course, the shot on goal isn’t the desired end result of a string of positive plays working in succession. The most a hockey team can hope for is a good scoring chance, but rarely does the scoreboard at the end of the game truly reflect team talent disparity on the ice. In the Leafs’ 5-2 win over Pittsburgh last week, I counted the scoring chances at 19-14 in favour of Pittsburgh. Despite outplaying an inferior team, Pittsburgh lost the game, and the mainstream snap analysis of the game focused on the result and not the pace of play that benefit the Penguins.
At some point, if you can accept the premise that the absolute result of a play isn’t a black-or-white indication of how well it was executed, you can accept that the outcome of a game is determined sometimes by chance and by luck. Once you come to that conclusion, you can accept how sometimes hockey teams spend whole seasons playing with an undeservedly great or poor record. It’s just most of the time, the luck balances out. Sometimes it doesn’t, but most of the time it does.