The many varieties of NHL goal scorers and how they get the job done

Watch as Sidney Crosby follows his rebound and bats the puck out of mid-air to score against Sergei Bobrovsky and get the Penguins an early 1-0 lead.

Goal-based analysis is something I tend to not rely on too heavily in analysis, due to its volatile and unpredictable nature. Without proper context and deeper inspection, it can be a red herring.

Just because a player or team is scoring a lot doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll continue to do so.

However, on an individual player level I do think there’s something useful to be gleaned from examining how and why certain player types are finding ways to be productive. It can help clue us in on if there’s a specific reason why they’re successful, whether they’ve stumbled upon a formula that’ll work for them and other similar players, and if it’s something that can help us explain the unexpected.

One important contextual wrinkle that needs to be accounted for in discussions like this is opportunity. Whether it’s raw ice time, the teammates you’re most frequently playing with, or the competition you’re squaring off against, there’s no question that usage can influence a player’s capacity to produce. Aside from the few extreme cases, most players need to be put into a position to thrive and ultimately the coach has more impact on that than the player.

Sometimes the usage factor can be taken for granted. We tend to just assume the league is a meritocracy – a place in which a coach is incentivized to use everyone properly and divvy up the minutes fairly based on who’s playing well and who isn’t. But take a quick look around the league and you’ll realize that’s not always true.

For instance, how do you reconcile the fact that Andreas Athanasiou is 12th amongst Detroit Red Wings forwards in 5-on-5 ice-time, despite being one of the most productive players in the entire league?

He’s obviously an extreme example, but most teams tend to have a similar type of imbalance throughout their depth chart. Pre-existing biases about how someone looks or a coach with a preference for conservative play may be getting in the way of regularly icing an ideal lineup.

The list below shows the league’s top 5-on-5 scorers this season, and as you can see the art of goal scoring is a curious one because of how it can manifest in different shapes and sizes (all data via Corsica):

AUSTON MATTHEWS 18 16.5 5.82 35.29 22.04
SIDNEY CROSBY 17 12.05 3.81 31.58 20.82
MICHAEL GRABNER 16 12.64 4.25 33.64 28.33
PATRICK MAROON 16 9.7 3.72 38.32 23.56
RICKARD RAKELL 13 10.6 2.76 26.04 25.5
DAVID PASTRNAK 13 14.25 2.54 17.81 29.22
BRANDON SAAD 13 13.26 4.06 30.66 25.62
BRENT BURNS 13 12.7 0.99 7.78 46.77
TJ OSHIE 12 9.54 3.76 39.47 23.37
CONOR SHEARY 12 11.7 3.98 34 18.69
PAUL BYRON 12 6.45 3.06 47.37 18.93
JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK 12 12.12 3.6 29.73 24.02
ANDERS LEE 12 11.17 3.14 28.16 21.76
CHRIS KREIDER 12 12.56 3.76 29.91 23.41
JUSTIN WILLIAMS 12 12.02 4.43 36.84 28.04
JASON ZUCKER 12 12.26 2.61 21.31 24.34
FILIP FORSBERG 12 13.57 2.54 18.71 26.23
ALEX OVECHKIN 12 15 3 20 33.42
KYLE TURRIS 12 8.06 1.61 20 27.23
EVGENI MALKIN 12 10.14 3.19 31.48 20.29
MAX PACIORETTY 12 14.34 3.23 22.5 29.24
VINCENT TROCHECK 12 10.77 2.38 22.05 26.94
CONNOR MCDAVID 11 11.04 4.2 38.03 20.33
PATRIK LAINE 11 9.68 1.12 11.58 35.21

The names and statistical profiles of the players on here are a great reminder of how there isn’t just one way to put the puck in the net. Players who wildly differ in age, experience, ability, and tendencies are all finding great success doing it their own way.

Take Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine for example, who will surely always be closely linked because of their shared draft class and how they’re forcing us to recalibrate our expectations of what young players are capable of from the moment they step into the league.

Stylistically, they couldn’t be more different in how they go about their business. Based on what we’ve seen from Laine early on, I suspect he could wind up being the rare type of one-shot scorer that always throws our expected shot and goal rate calculations for a loop (think prime Ilya Kovalchuk or Steven Stamkos when he’s been healthy). It’s also worth noting that cutting out power play goals from the equation like we’ve done here does a disservice to Laine’s game, considering how devastating a weapon his shot is with the added time, space, and puck possession the man advantage affords.

Matthews, on the other hand, looks like a volume machine. He leads the league in unblocked shot attempts and individual scoring chances, and if those kinds of underlying rates continue and he can stay healthy there’s no reason to believe he won’t be able to join the short list of teenagers who have scored 40 goals in a single NHL season.

You’ll notice Alex Ovechkin generally shoots from farther out than most of the other top scorers and as a result, a smaller share of his shots register as scoring chances. The difference between him and most others — and the reason why he’s still able to make it work — is how often he shoots the puck. His rate of attempts has actually come down a bit this season, but he was so far ahead of the pack to begin with that he’s still got a ways to go before it becomes a real concern.

On the other end of the spectrum , you have Sidney Crosby. For all of the various praiseworthy skills he has, the thing that makes him truly great and separates him from the pack is his uncanny ability to continuously add new wrinkles to his game. He’s like a mad scientist who goes back into the lab every summer, spending day and night trying to discover new ways to stay ahead of the curve and tilt the scales in his favour.

That’s why it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s seemed to make a concerted effort to move closer to the goal, presumably in an attempt to maximize his chances and increase his odds of scoring. When he’s on the ice, the Penguins have notably dominated the juicy region in front of the other team’s net:


The move has been a smashing success for Crosby thus far. The near goal-per-game rate he was chugging along at for a while obviously wasn’t going to last forever, but he’s still on pace to score more than he has since that binge between 2009 and 2011 before the head injuries started.

Part of what makes him so effective around the net in tight quarters is that he’s also got arguably the best hand-eye coordination in the league.

He’s made a habit of catching the puck in what, at first blush, appears to be a compromising situation while it’s whizzing past him in mid-air and make something of it with growing regularity this season. It’s impossible not to marvel at how effortless he makes it all look:

There’s also some unexpected names sprinkled throughout the leaderboard here. There’s Rickard Rakell and David Pastrnak, who are blossoming into legitimate stars after showing tantalizing signs of promise in years past. It’s surely helped both of them that they’ve received top line minutes, but they’ve also got the type of dynamic puck skills that both the Ducks and Bruins desperately lack.

Similarly, Vincent Trocheck might be surprising to some, but he’s a player I highlighted before the year as a legitimate breakout candidate. Now he leads the Florida Panthers in goals, points, and will be representing them at the All-Star Game.

You’ve also got guys like T.J. Oshie, Patrick Maroon, Conor Sheary, and Anders Lee who have benefitted from playing with superstars. The other thing they have in common is they’ve been doing a lot of their work from in tight around the net, which has helped them produce at higher levels than their skill as shooters would indicate. I imagine a lot of that has to do with the extra space their linemates are creating for them and the positions they’re getting the puck in.

Then there’s blazing speedsters like Paul Byron and Michael Grabner, who in the very recent past have been available to any team in the league for cheap. They’re obviously going to slow down once their sky high shooting percentages dip, but pretty much anything they do from here on out is found money for the Rangers and Canadiens.

One final thing: there aren’t enough superlatives in this world to adequately contextualize Brent Burns’ performance to-date. He’s currently on pace for roughly 33 goals, 82 points, and 320 shots on goal. Those are all marks which would put him amongst the historical greats like Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, and Ray Bourque. The last time a blueliner even reached the 30-goal plateau was Mike Green in 2008-09, but even he did most of his damage on the power play (Burns has already exceeded the 12 even strength goals Green had that year).

How has Burns done his damage? While you can see from the average shot distance that most of it has come in a conventional manner from the blue line, with his patented quick-release wrist shot, he’s also capable of occasionally flexing his offensive muscles with power moves like this:

He’s putting up what look like video game numbers, and reaching heights we haven’t seen from a defenceman in ages. That makes sense, because he also plays and looks unlike anything we’ve really ever seen at that position.

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