Welcome to a weekly feature where we have some fun with underlying numbers. We highlight a couple of trends, then dig beneath the surface to get a better sense of what these trends ultimately mean, what's causing them and how likely it is that they'll continue. Think of these analyses as bite-sized deep dives.
In the recent past, we've used this space to look at things like the best lines in hockey, the many advantages of riding shotgun alongside a true superstar and the effects of the Barry Trotz defensive system. This week, we're going to focus in on defensemen by taking a look at the pros and cons of shooting the puck from the point, and the winners and losers of the Jake Muzzin trade. Any data referenced is mined from either Corsica or Natural Stat Trick.
Defensemen shooting the puck: Less is more
When Duncan Keith's slap shot from the top of the left circle snuck past Casey DeSmith for a goal during a game against the Penguins a couple of weeks ago, it was a seemingly innocuous moment for the veteran Blackhawks defenseman.
With Keith now in the final chapters of a career that's been littered with epic triumphs and accolades -- mostly notably including two Norris Trophies, a Conn Smythe Trophy, three Stanley Cup rings and well north of 1,000 games played -- it's quite understandable that a random goal in the middle of an otherwise completely forgettable season wouldn't really register on his list of accomplishments. The thing is: these days, it does.
Though lighting the lamp isn't a particularly common occurrence nor is it a necessary part of the job description for any defenseman, Keith's struggles shooting the puck are now reaching a whole new level. During the past two seasons, he's scored a grand total of three times in 133 games. If you stretch back to the 2016-17 campaign, that mark becomes three in 146.
What makes it particularly wild is that his scoring struggles haven't been for a lack of trying, because his volume of attempts and opportunities are staggering. In that period of time, he's played just south of 3,100 minutes, attempted 580 shots, 366 of which got past a shot blocker and 307 of which made their way onto net. He was eventually supplanted by Erik Gustafsson on the top power-play unit this season, but he's been on the ice for nearly 300 minutes with the man advantage during that stretch.
That means that less than 1 percent of Keith's shots on target have turned into goals, and 99.5 percent of his attempts have either been stopped or missed the target. Even if you factor in that the occasional puck coming off of his stick has resulted in a rebound or tip that eventually led to something, opposing teams must be breathing a sigh of relief every time he winds up for a shot. He's fundamentally been a black hole offensively, where scoring chances have gone to die.
Though Keith is an easy target here because of how particularly egregious he's been in this regard, the reality is that he's hardly alone. Whether it's because of lesser puck skills compared to forwards generally, or whether it's simply a reflection of how difficult it is to beat NHL goalies from that far out, defensemen have proven to be largely inefficient shooters compared to their forward counterparts. Here's how the two have stacked up against each other since the start of last season:
We don't typically discuss Xs and Os from this perspective in hockey the way we do in a sport like basketball, but the idea of catering your approach in the attacking zone around limiting wasted possessions and striving to optimize opportunities is an interesting one that perhaps deserves more consideration.
We've typically equated high shot totals as a good thing regardless of where they're coming from, because it shows that you have possession of the puck more often than not. But it's not quite that simple.
NHL goalies these days are so good that you're generally not beating them on a consistent basis unless you're either getting the puck moving from east to west through the royal road, or funneling it into the prime real estate in the middle of the ice. That's especially true on the power play, where we've already seen many teams adopt the four-forward, one-defenseman approach to increase their chances of scoring. With the additional time and space that's afforded to teams with the extra man, drawing up a power-play strategy in 2019 that revolves around settling for shots from the point feels like it's almost letting the penalty kill off the hook.
With the chasm between forwards and defensemen being as massive as it is when it comes to turning shots into goals, this raises some important philosophical questions. Should defensemen be more selective with the puck, focusing less on shooting it themselves and more on patiently waiting for something better to materialize? And should we as fans and analysts in turn be adjusting the way we look at that paradigm, and the way we discuss those very shot figures?
For all the credit a player like Brent Burns receives for his ridiculous individual numbers, it seems fair to wonder whether him eating up as big a chunk of the shot share pie as he does is actually the best thing for the San Jose Sharks as a team. He's clearly a unique specimen who possesses a wider range of offensive weapons than your typical defenseman, and yet he still poses a lesser threat as a shooter than a league-average forward.
Burns has soaked up a whopping 28.6 percent of his team's total attempts when he's been on the ice this season, which is a league high for defenders. The issue is that only 2.04 percent of these attempts actually wind up in the back of the net. It's great that his nifty, quick release allows him to get the puck through traffic effectively, but the area the shots are predominantly coming from is ultimately something opposing defenses can live with -- especially if it means forgoing a potential look for Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl or Joe Pavelski from a much more dangerous scoring region.
This is something to think about the next time you're watching a game and you hear the fans of the home team impatiently pleading for them to settle for shooting the puck from the point when they have their opponent pinned in the offensive zone.
The biggest winner of the Jake Muzzin trade
While we're on the topic of defensemen, let's unpack Monday evening's trade between the Kings and the Maple Leafs.
The Kings, if it somehow wasn't clear already, are in the early stages of a full rebuild. After Vegas skated laps around them in a first-round sweep last postseason, things have completely unraveled this season. They're ahead of only the Senators in the standings in terms of point percentage, and no one has a worse goal differential. The bigger issue is that there doesn't appear to be a quick fix, because they'll now be paying the tax for winning multiple Stanley Cups with all of the loyalty contracts they've signed to core players from that era. Their current cap situation is unfathomably bad, and only a combination of patience, luck and a life raft in the form of potential compliance buyouts in the new CBA will help them dig out of the hole they find themselves in for the foreseeable future.
This move was an unpleasant one, but it was ultimately a necessary one for them. They don't get a single sure thing back -- even the first-round pick will likely be in the back half of the 20s, which is tantamount to a second-rounder -- but what they do get is a nice combination of lottery tickets. They've done a solid job of accumulating intriguing young talent in recent drafts, having added high-upside forwards like Gabriel Vilardi, Rasmus Kupari, Akil Thomas and Bulat Shafigullin into their system. The likes of Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi only bolster that system, as does the draft pick, regardless of how low it may fall. They don't have too many other particularly intriguing assets to dangle in the faces of contenders, but at this point, essentially everyone on their roster should be available between now and the Feb. 25 deadline.
For the Leafs, the motivation behind the move is equally obvious. Their sights are firmly set on the postseason, where they'll most likely need to finally get past the Bruins in round one, before finding a way to corral a Lightning team that possesses arguably the most lethal offensive attack we've ever seen. It's an unenviable task, but it's also one that this current roster is good enough to legitimately strive toward.
At 30 years old, Muzzin is not the same caliber of player he was a couple of seasons ago when he was seemingly on everyone's list of most underrated players in the league, but he's a logical trade target for the Leafs for a number of reasons. They didn't need to give up any of their premium young assets to acquire him, like they might have had to do for some other comparable defensemen; and he's not a pure rental because he's still under contract for another season beyond this one. With just a $4 million cap hit next season, he'll be a valuable asset for a team that'll once again be expected to compete, especially as a potential Jake Gardiner replacement.
Most importantly, he represents a clear upgrade over what the Leafs currently have on the blue line. Not only does he help shore up their most obvious need, but he helps bump soon-to-be 38-year-old Ron Hainsey off the top pairing and down to a place on the depth chart that's more compatible for this stage of his career.
The biggest winner from this trade might actually be Muzzin's new partner, Morgan Rielly, who has rarely had the luxury of playing alongside a player whom he didn't have to carry. All things considered, it's remarkable that Rielly has had the success that he has had early in his career -- vaulting all the way up to Norris Trophy discussions this season -- because the list of regular defense partners with whom he's played is littered with replacement-level talent. Count how many of the following are now either retired or out of the league largely because they're not good enough to stick around. There's a legitimate case to be made that Muzzin is instantly the best of the bunch, and if he's not, then he's not far behind:
It'll be fascinating to see not only how Rielly does with a shiny new toy, but how Muzzin does now that's been freed from a dire situation and inserted directly into a playoff race. Considering how well Muzzin has performed over the years playing with Drew Doughty, there's no reason to believe that he won't thrive alongside Rielly. Stylistically, the two are very similar in terms of how they play and what they want to accomplish whenever they're on the ice.
Overall, it's awfully hard to quibble with this move from Toronto's perspective. They Leafs are better today than they were a few days ago, adding a true top-four defenseman without having to subtract anything from their main roster. Whether that will ultimately be enough to get them over the hump in the postseason is an entirely different question, but at least they're now better suited to compete in the Atlantic Division arms race.