File this observation on "soft spots" under "Purely Anecdotal" for the time being.

File this observation on “soft spots” under “Purely Anecdotal” for the time being.

I have this distinct memory of being in my late teens and watching Mario Lemieux sit on the powerplay, as so many players do today, with his stick cocked above waist height, inviting his teammates to get him a puck. Basically, just stuff a bullet in this gun, and I promise to shoot it and shoot it well. Ovechkin does it, Stamkos does it, just about everyone playing the point on the powerplay does it. …The thing was, Mario Lemieux was on the goal line.

Lemieux’s skates used to essentially touch the icing line on the left side, his right-handed stick sitting a foot or two above it. Sometimes he was deep enough to touch the boards in the corner if he reached. He didn’t have the game’s hardest shot, but goddamn if he couldn’t place a one-timer accurately enough to kiss the inside of the far post and put one on the board for his team. Whether that was a skill other players didn’t have, or whether they just lacked the confidence to try it, you didn’t see it much around the league then.

This isn’t the one I’m thinking of, but you can see where he’s shooting from.

Of course, there was a reason Lemieux liked to park over there, and it wasn’t because he thought it was the best place to score from. It was because nobody defends there, and like Ray Allen in the NBA, he had the skill to do damage, assuming he was somewhere – anywhere – he could get a clean shot off. He went to a soft spot, as coaches call it.

“Soft spots” are the patches of ice that are less-defended. The most common spot is the one the high forward tries to occupy while his other two teammates cycle. He’ll be covered in front of the net, he’ll be covered in the slot, so he lurks around the top of the faceoff circle because d-men rarely chase out that high and wide (even if they’re aware the guy they’re covering is there), and if his linemates get solid possession, he’ll be able to get off a bomb.

In the NHL today, shots are harder. I can’t overplay the immense difference sticks have made on hockey as we know it. Young kids can bomb slapshots with these uber-light, flexible, trampoline-style hockey sticks. The blades are crisp and easy to wield, so the talented monsters using them in the NHL have basically learned how to make a mockery out of the hockey puck. Some guys in the NHL can one-time slapshots into the same quadrant of the net from the blueline with relative consistency. What I’m saying is, everyone now can do what Lemieux did then.

And, they’ve started to.

That’s from last night, as a passing example. Sedin doesn’t even hit that puck well. I’m telling you, a Sherwood PMP does not launch that into the top corner.

I’ve been noticing this more and more lately, and what used to be looked at as harmless shots seem to be finding the back of the net with regularity.

I can’t be the only person around hockey to notice this, and I’m wondering if it’s not affecting how teams attack and defend. I’d certainly be coaching my forwards to look for soft spots farther from the old staples, and I’d also be coaching my defenseman that simply standing between a player and the net is not really covering him anymore. It may draw defenders farther out from the net than you’d like, but I just don’t believe you can allow clean shots from distance as frequency as teams used to.

I’ll be keeping my eye on this going forward, and you should too – more and more players are going Lemieux, and capitalizing on their great shots by using the more obscure sweet spots.

Comments (12)

  1. I remember watching a sens bruins game, alfie scored tow goals back to back from this exact spot. Cant find the highlights, but it think it was against boston last year. I have definitely noticed guys using these poor angles more often though, helps that they can pick the corner and get the shot off in a split second.

  2. I remember a goal that Lemieux scored from the goal line like that. It always stuck with me as one of his most memorable goals. The most amazing thing about Lemieux was his patience. He’d slow the game down to a crawl, and then suddenly, from out of nowhere, he’d do something magical and the puck would be in the back of the net. He’s easily one of the best players ever to play the game.

  3. I’m an Oilers fan and grew up watching Gretzky play, but I’ll stand firm that Lemieux was better. I’ve never seen anyone dominate the way he did.

    • I agree. With better health, Lemieux is right up there in the stats category with Gretzky. Lemieux was better in non-offensive facets of the game than Gretzky ever was.

      • I can’t find it now, but I remember the stat that before Lemieux came back from cancer, he was the only player with a >2 ppg average. (w >100 games I believe)

        And he’s still second in the league all time.

  4. Chris Kreider actually scored in a similar way tonight against Ryan Miller…

  5. I’d really like to see some of the advanced stat geeks come up with some maps to explore stuff like this, I am sure the more progressive teams would be interested in this kind of analysis if they aren’t doing it already.

    I remember seeing graphs of where players score goals from, is that a lot of manual labor to compile? The NHL has all the shot data in terms of X-Y coordinates, but I don’t know if they release it in a form that’s easy to tabulate on a big scale.

    • There is a website called Super Shot Search that was created by a fan. It pulls the data from the NHL game sheets and plots it. But there are many missing entries and the data provided by the NHL game sheets is notoriously unreliable with respect to the shot locations and distances. But it is very fun to look into.

      Here’s that site:
      http://somekindofninja.com/nhl/

      • The closest you can get about shot location is focused on save percentages depending on areas: http://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/introducing-the-shot-quality-project-part-ii/ .It s a2 year study on Carey Price I think

        The heat charts are great, you could see the location has a slightly higher chance to go in than a random shot but not that much. The slot is still much higher percentage. He does not take defensive coverage into account though, so it s difficult to say anything about that soft spot thing

  6. Patrick Sharp loves that goal-line back door shot

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