Even prior to last night’s 5-0 defeat at the soft hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the New York Rangers shooting blanks has been a deep concern. This goes back before this season, and has been the reason the team has looked to upgrade their offense through trades and free agency for several seasons. The debate has been focused on whether or not scoring is largely skill based, or a matter of luck. Take a lot of shots, the thinking goes, and the goals will come.
A friend of mine, a huge sports fan, but not of hockey, recently asserted that scoring goals seems largely a matter of chance, that things were too crazy on the ice to control such details. He also didn’t understand how the blue line governs so much of positional strategy, what a delayed penalty is, or even what constitutes icing in its present form. While luck is a factor in all sports, I love hockey above all else because it is highly skills based. The hand eye coordination required of all sports is here in hyper form, at break neck speed, in a myriad of constantly new situations, and on skates no less. One of the prized skills is being hard on the puck and the ability to control it. Another skill is passing, when to pass, and if you can deliver it on your teammate’s stick on the tape, in perfect position. Why then is the ability to score relegated to luck by some? Is it luck in basketball whether you hit net or not? Is hitting the baseball a matter of just taking a lot of swings? I say not and this applies to goal scoring.
Statistics are used to offer “facts.” Often, they also provide an opportunity for interpretation of facts. The argument is that players who score more take more shots and have a higher percentage of goals because of that, a matter of luck. Taking shots is an interesting variable stat. Does it include missing the net or not? A shot on goal is only registered if a save is necessary, in other words, if the puck would have gone in if not for a save. One of the frustrations of Ranger shooting is they are too often missing the net. You can fire away all day, but missing the net consistently is clearly a lack of scoring accuracy or skill. Yes, scoring also involves getting into a good scoring position, taking a “quality” shot as Ron Duguay recently asserted. So, some of this has to do with good positional team play and not shooting at all. Yet, once in position to shoot, regardless of “shooting percentage,” year in and year out the same players score a lot and others very little. If you flip a coin 100 times, the probability is that with each flip there is an equal chance that heads will come up just as often as tails; that is luck. Scoring is not flipping coins. Scorers are said to have deadly shots, heavy shots, hard shots, and accurate shots. Hockey players have spent much of their practice lives shooting pucks; they don’t want to leave things to chance.
So what are the Rangers to do? Brad Richards is now “sick” of wondering how to hit the back of the net. The fact is that the Rangers have only one proven 30 goal scorer in Rick Nash. They could stand to develop more goal scoring ability, accuracy, and to pursue another goal scorer. In the meantime, the goal scoring accuracy skill, featured in the All-Star game’s skills competition, would be a good practice focus, if it isn’t already. If Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis can pick the corners it is his because of his skill, not how often he shoots. The Rangers would do well to become better at this; they are already getting into decent scoring position.