This late night rant will play an odd game of connect the dots between Hurricanes players Bryan Bickell, Jeff Skinner and Sebastian Aho.
Bryan Bickell entered the Hurricanes fold as a side note in a deal to obtain a young player with a high offensive ceiling in Teuvo Teravainen. When obtained, it was unclear if Bickell would even stick at the NHL level after spending the majority of the 2015-16 season at the AHL level in the Chicago Blackhawks organization. But Bickell had a strong preseason and also brought the needed element of size, physical play and maybe most importantly a net front presence to the Carolina Hurricanes roster. Despite being a fourth-liner who played limited minutes, Bickell very quickly carved out a role on the power play. He had a very simple job which was to go to the front of the net, create havoc in/near the crease and most significantly to screen the goalie. That last part is incredibly important and is largely something that the Hurricanes lineup and power play have missed since the team traded Tuomo Ruutu to the New Jersey Devils in March of 2014. In a short run before Bickell was sadly lost to the injured list with his multiple sclerosis diagnosis, he had a goal himself and was the screen on at least 2 (if not 3) more shots finding the back of the net.
Screening versus trying to tip the puck
Bickell’s success makes sense. While the ability of NHL players to deftly tip pucks from the point and score is a sight to behold, it is incredibly difficult and takes a tremendous amount of hand-eye coordination and to some degree luck. While that difficulty makes it incredibly good when it works, it also makes it a low probability way to try to score relative to the better option.
My math goes like this:
Odds of beating goalie with point shot
* A player shooting from the point or closer on the power play probably has about a 50 percent chance of getting the puck on net.
* But if the goalie cleanly sees that shot coming, the chance of it winding up in the net is something less than 5 percent.
* The result is that an unscreened, not deflected point shot probably has a 2-3 percent chance of netting a goal.
Odds of scoring with a deflection
* If tipped on net, the probability rises immensely to maybe 15-20 percent. This might suggest that players should be trying to tip more shots.
* But the chance of making contact with the puck at all is probably less than 50 percent and then the chance of a deflection actually being on net is probably less than 15 percent.
* When you do the math, I think the chance of a player successfully tipping a shot, getting it on net, actually hitting the net and then having it go in are actually very low with a bunch of steps and a relatively low probability for each step.
Odds of scoring with a screen
But if a player makes a conscious effort to simply screen the goalie and not necessarily try to tip the puck, I think the odds of scoring increase significantly. As stated above, a shooter taking a regular shot has a much higher probability of hitting the net relative to a deflection. And if the goalie is screened successfully, the odds of him him stopping the shot plummets. Instead of him having the ability to make a save, it really just comes down to if the puck hits him and is basically a percentage calculation of what percent of the net his body covers.
The arrival of Bryan Bickell quickly highlighted how valuable it is to have traffic of the ‘my objective is to stay right here and screen the goalie’ in front of the net. The loss of Bryan Bickell quickly highlighted how little of this the Hurricanes get.
Jeff Skinner’s maturation and resulting consistency
From the drop of the opening face-off in his first NHL game, Jeff Skinner had a dynamic ability to score goals. He netted 31 goals in his rookie season in 2010-11, a total he has only surpassed once since then. But during that rookie season and in the years since Skinner has been streaky and encountered some dry spells. While there is a bit of randomness and luck to scoring goals at the NHL level, the single biggest driver of Jeff Skinner’s scoring success over the years has been his willingness to play games in which he consistently goes with and without the puck to places where goals happen. His slumps are often characterized by his play being forced to the perimeter. With the puck on his stick entering the offensive zone on the rush, he is pushed to the outside. Without the puck on his stick, he could have a tendency to float around the outside in places where even if the puck did arrive, the scoring chance was low probability. By contrast, when Jeff Skinner hangs out in the slot and near the crease, the puck shows up enough and he scores. And off the rush, when he avoids being pushed to the outside and instead tries to carve a path to the net, it does not work every time, but the offense he creates increases.
Jeff Skinner’s path of getting to scoring areas has been a gradual 1 that has intermittent setbacks, but at this point Skinner is able to right his game pretty quickly if he strays a bit.
Sebastian Aho’s initial foray in the NHL
Now 25 games into his NHL career as a 19-year old, Sebastian Aho reminds me of Jeff Skinner’s early career. Thus far, Aho has not been the instant dynamic goal scorer that Skinner was pretty much out of the gate in his NHL career, but Aho has demonstrated both skill and smarts beyond his years.
But Sebastian Aho is still learning how to adapt his game and skill set to excel against NHL defenses just as he has at lower levels. And when I watch Aho play, I think 1 area for significant improvement is for Aho to push his way into the dirty areas where goals happen more regularly both with and without the puck.
With the puck, Aho has become prone to enter the offensive zone and then quickly either stop or do a quick tight turn just inside the blue line to then look for a passing option coming through the middle of the rink. While that has worked for Aho on a few occasions for pretty scoring plays, his game has become a bit predictable in that scenario and opponents are starting to slump off of Aho just a bit to take away passing lanes knowing that he is pass-first off the rush and can be funneled to the outside.
One step in Aho’s development will be finding a comfort level attacking on offense with defensemen back and not allowing much of a gap with which Aho can work. Even if some attempts fail, with the puck, Aho needs to begin pushing pace in a straight line at least sometimes to keep defensemen honest. And without the puck, Aho needs to make it a regular habit to go to the dirty areas where goals happen just like Jeff Skinner learned over the years.