As a lifelong soccer fan, I have never been a supporter of the shootout. Watching your team’s fate hang in the balance on something that requires more good fortune than skill can be a stressful situation. A bad bounce or a shot off the post can easily end a squad’s hopes for victory. That’s why I cringed when the NHL decided to adopt it as a way to decide games after the lockout of 2004-05. Ties are no longer in play, and single points for losses make the standings just a little more confusing than they need to be. Nevertheless, many fans like them and they appear to be here to stay.
Although there is considerable luck on who escapes with a victory in shootouts, you can’t deny that some teams are better than others in the pressure packed scenario. The Toronto Maple Leafs are not one of those teams that have enjoyed a particular amount of success when it comes to shootouts. Since its inception, the Leafs are only 29-40 in shootouts, which ranks 26th in the entire NHL. It doesn’t take Professor Frink to figure out that’s 40 points that the Leafs haven’t capitalized on, and that is one of the major reasons they haven’t qualified for the playoffs in almost a decade. With the race for the post-season being extremely tight in recent years and many playoff positions being decided on the final day of the season, shootouts are crucial for success.
Since it began, there has been an average of one shootout every six games. In an 82 game season that equates to 13 a year for the average team, and in this 48 game campaign teams will be looking at about eight. All-time, NHL shooters are scoring at a rate of 32.7%, and you might be surprised to learn that the Leafs as a team are finding the back of the net at a slightly higher pace, at 32.9%. So why has Toronto struggled so much in this area over the years? Well there are a few reasons.
Despite scoring more than the league average as a team, individually the numbers haven’t been as kind. Looking at current Leafs who have taken at least 10 attempts, only Nikolai Kulemin, who is 6-for-18 in his career which equates to 33%, scored better than the league average. Phil Kessel does have 15 career shootout goals, but they came on 50 shots.
On the bright side, Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri are connecting on a rate of 50% and 42.9% respectively, but haven’t taken 10 shots yet in their careers. Perhaps Kadri, who has made a name for himself in AHL shootouts and has a tremendous offensive skillset, is best suited to help the Leafs in this area going forward.
With all the flashy goals that get replayed over and over on YouTube, it’s easy to forget that keeping the puck out of the net in shootouts is just as important as scoring. The Leafs have a .594 career save percentage in shootouts, which is second worst all-time. The New York Rangers are number one with a .741 mark, and that’s a big reason why they have won 50 shootouts over the years. Now the Leafs don’t have Henrik Lundqvist, or even Julie “The Cat” Gaffney for that matter, but James Reimer and Ben Scrivens are going to have to step up and make some key saves in shootouts if the team has aspirations about reaching the playoffs.
As Cam Charron points out in this piece from a year ago, shootouts in a small sample size can really be a factor in a team’s season. This year with 48 games the sample size will be even smaller and points will be at more of a premium. The opportunity to make up for losses in the standings won’t be as large as a typical year. That shootout attempt that just trickles wide or goes off the post, may just be the difference between a trip to the post-season, and a trip to the golf course.