Crashing the Crease: Long-term Shootout Shortcomings

We’re all Flyers fans here. Given that, we know the areas where the Orange and Black have consistently come up short. One of those, pardon my French, most damnably obvious areas has to be the shootout. The reality of just how bad this team is after the 65-minute mark may not be grasped by all, but a quick look at the stats reveals that the Flyers are very comfortable basement dwellers here.

Image Courtesy of Paul Bereswill / Getty Images North America

Thanks in large part to Winnipeg’s only having played in eight shootouts since re-expanding into the league, the Flyers sit firmly in 29th place in shootout wins. Their 35.9% win percentage plants them second only to Florida’s 35.2% for worst all-time.

Why? Well, to go all John Madden on you as I sit here eating Reddi-wip and peppermint marshmallows, they’re simply not great at scoring or stopping the puck in the shootout. For those that fell off your chair in shock and awe, please accept my apologies.

On the scoring side, this is a team that’s had Claude Giroux, Danny Briere, Mike Richards, Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne, yet their all-time scoring percentage of 29.6% has them sitting in 25th. Teams like New Jersey (42.3%), the Islanders (37.1%) and PIttsburgh (36.2%) are sitting near the top of the league in win percentage. Even the Rangers (31.2%) are ahead of the Flyers. In looking at that disparity, however, I would say that there has to be a more significant contribution from the goaltending side, as outside of the Devils, you’re basically looking at a 1-in-3 chance of putting one home.

Evaluating the netminding effort for these same teams, the difference is a little more apparent. The Flyers, with their 57.3% save percentage, sit in dead last. The Devils, meanwhile, have the imposingly impregnable Martin Brodeur to thank for a 69.9% save percentage (8th place). The Islanders (yes, those Islanders) are rocking a 68.1% (13th). Then, of course, there are the Penguins, who are posting a 73.6% (2nd), second only to the Rangers and Henrik “Gaudy” Lundqvist, with a 74.1%. The one positive to take away here is that this is the same Lundqvist who the Flyers beat with Brian Boucher in net to make that improbable Cup Finals run in 2010, so it’s fair to say that nothing is impossible.

Still, despite the one positive, there is a huge negative to be found here, and that is that if the Flyers go four rounds in a shootout, there’s a high likelihood they will have given up two goals while having scored one goal. In most forms of math I’m familiar with, that’s a loss. If the Rangers go the same number of rounds, they’re probably going to give up one goal and score at least one goal. In short, even if you take a conservative approach, teams getting near-70% save percentages from their netminding crew will have a much better statistical chance at winning, even on an off night.

Let’s look at the numbers for each Flyers goalie since the dawn of the shootout era.

Goalie Shots Against Goals Save Decimal
Michael Leighton 2 0 1.000
Ray Emery 9 2 0.778
Antero Niittymaki 68 22 0.676
Brian Boucher 27 12 0.556
Martin Biron 40 20 0.500
Ilya Bryzgalov 25 13 0.480
Sergei Bobrovsky 25 13 0.480
Robert Esche 10 6 0.400

I’m going to make the choice to disregard Leighton, Emery and Esche, as their sample size is relatively small when compared with the others. Restructuring this table to focus on the five remaining goalies, I think I can start to explain what we’re seeing.

Goalie Shots Against Goals Save Decimal
Antero Niittymaki 68 22 0.676
Brian Boucher 27 12 0.556
Martin Biron 40 20 0.500
Ilya Bryzgalov 25 13 0.480
Sergei Bobrovsky 25 13 0.480

Before going further, let’s take a second to understand the basics of stopping breakaways and shootout attempts. The keys to doing it correctly are:

  • Challenging to the proper initial depth — Coming out too far will cook your goose and staying too deep will expose a lot of net for easy pickin’. Brodeur is my role model here. He rarely makes a poor depth selection, even in his twilight years.
  • Matching the speed of the attacking forward — After getting proper depth, you need to judge how quickly to retreat. Doing so too quickly will negate the good work you did, leaving you exposed for a quick snipe and giving the shooter too much time and space to move you laterally. Doing so too slowly will leave you vulnerable for an easy tuck of the puck into the net behind you.
  • Forcing the shooter’s hand — Holding the top of the crease forces the shooter to commit to a deke or shoot it at you, in which case you make the save. Once the shooter has been forced, you track back to the right or left post, appropriately matching speed (I find this typically requires an explosive push back) and staying in front of the puck. The nice part here is that you can sell out and fully extend, stack the pads or whatever works simply because there are no rebounds to worry about. This is referred to as the inverted ‘Y’ theory, where the goalie starts at what is usually the bottom of the ‘Y’ and moves back to one post or the other.
  • Understanding and reading the vertical angle of the shot — If the shooter is in close, just getting a pad as close to the release point as possible works. Think about how Lundqvist will go spread eagle and extend his body backwards. His goal is to get the pads in the shooting lane and as close to the release point as possible. If he can be right on top of the shot, he’s essentially prevented the puck from having enough distance to clear his pad regardless of the angle it’s shot at. If the shooter is further out, remaining big and square will take away the shot options well.

Of course, there are some wrinkles, like the shooter who comes in incredibly slow and walks along the goal line (east-west) or the shooter who adjusts his release position with an extended reach (Forsberg or Henrik Zetterberg are known for this move).

In analyzing the Flyers goalies off of memory, the major differentiating factors between Nitty and the other four on the list as I recall are his footwork and ability to match speed on the breakaway. His flexibility was also a great tool, but when compared with a guy like Bobrovsky, who was at least equally as flexible, he was able to challenge and retreat with more proficiency. Even at his shorter height, his skating and understanding of depth enabled Nitty to be effective in the shootout, and I think it was due in large part to the coaching he received in his native Finland, which is actually known for its highly skilled and knowledgeable goalie coaches.

In contrast, the footwork and skating of Boucher, Biron and Bryzgalov, in my opinion, are average, at best. They lack fluidity and their transitions from coming out of the crease to tracking back with the onrushing forward are choppy. This sets them up poorly right off the bat, forcing them into more of a desperation mode once the shooter reaches the slot.

On the speed matching, I would say that Bryz, in particular, seems to have difficulty with matching the speed of the attacking forward and forcing the shooter’s hand due to some less-than-great skating. Multiple times, he seemed to get caught in a narrow butterfly at the wrong depth or slightly off angle and get beat wide and low or, coupled with his lacking stick discipline, just straight through the five hole. Watch Bergeron’s goal using the link below (starts at the 3:57 mark).

Flyers – Bruins Highlights

Around the 4:10 mark on the replay of his tally, you can see Bryz’s choppy skating. He’s wasting strides and he’s balancing his weight forward. Around 4:13, he crouches to get ready for the save and his backward momentum slows as he shifts his weight to his heels. He’s practically dead in the water, which Bergeron recognizes. He essentially catches Bryz flat-footed as he deposits the puck a little too easily.

Bergeron came in with a lot of speed, and in this situation, I think Bryz could’ve challenged a little more and worked to track with him better. Yes, this is one example, but I think it’s pretty representative of the repeated issues I saw with Bryz that stemmed from his skating.

If this is really the case, it likely leaves one wondering how they rectify this. The answer is, in my simple mind, to practice it more.

Bryz clearly has some bad habits and since he’s clearly the guy, it would make sense for Lavy to dedicate practice time to this. If he can’t or won’t, I would say that Bryz and his coach need to put in extra time with some shooters. Regardless of how it’s done, additional practice with proper technique needs to happen.

Given proper coaching and then actual implementation on-ice shortly afterwards, he can enhance his skating and tracking of the shooter while building muscle memory and the instinct to do it correctly on a regular basis. With minimal or no practice, however, he will continue to instinctually revert to his old tricks, which will keep him stuck at 50-55%, and as discussed up front, it will also keep the Flyers firmly entrenched in the lower ranks of the shootout.