NHL Defensemen and Shooting Contributions back to 1967-68

File:Defenseman Ray Bourque 1979.jpg

Photo by Dave Stanley via Wikimedia Commons

I have kicked around this data in the past, most prominently in my theoretical post on offensive systems, but I really wanted to get further into the intricacies of defensemen and their historical place in team shooting (among other offensive contributions). By looking at how much a defenseman contributes to a team’s shot generation (expressed as a percentage of team shots in the games a player played, or %TSh), we can draw some interesting comparisons across NHL eras, but I haven’t yet explored how the role of the defenseman has (or hasn’t) evolved from the Expansion Era to the present, nor have I taken a look at some of the more exceptional defense shooting teams. Let me correct that now.

First of all, just how has defense %TSh evolved league-wide from 1967 to today?

Interestingly, defensemen were more involved in the offensive heyday of the 1980s, a period where we know for certain that shooting percentage increased:

Though forwards were still the primary shooters (and thus were a larger part of the change in shooting percentage), defensemen also saw an increase in shooting percentage. Just as interesting is that that uptick seemed to sustain itself better than had forwards’. Running a quick correlation, I found that, sure enough, there was a slight positive correlation (0.13) between percentage of defense shooting for a team and their shooting percentage. In other words, forwards bear the brunt of the blame for decreased shooting percentage (which almost goes without saying), but more interestingly teams that do have more shooting from the blue line must be getting a slightly above-average bump in defense shooting percentages that offsets a forward shooting percentage hovering around average.

I was interested when I saw a slight positive correlation (0.13) between the percentage of defense shooting a team received and their overall team shooting percentage. I wanted to see, then, if teams that had defensemen shoot more also typically received above league-average shooting percentage from their defensemen. It’s very noisy, but it does seem to trend that way.

It’s really noisy, but it does trend that way. Just for the hell of it, I also wanted to see across this sample if there was any relationship between my historical possession metric, 2pS%, and %TSh by defensemen.

Doesn’t appear so, but just for kicks I wanted to see if maybe this has varied by decade. So, breaking that correlation down:

Interesting…it sure seems like defensemen could possibly have played a bit greater role in driving possession at both ends in the 1980s, and maybe the 1990s. In many ways, though, most of the charts above suggest that we are roughly in the same place we were in the 1970s in regards to the shooting contributions of defensemen. Out of curiosity: with the shooting percentage charts above, we have a good idea of goal contributions, but what if we took the %TSh equation and applied it to team assists?

This one has actually remained remarkably steady since 1977 (not the only contemporary NHL practice to stabilize around that year), with maybe a slight upward trend last year but not anything to get excited about.

Okay, so now time to get to the goods: who were the defense shooting “dynamos” since 1967-68?

The Ray Bourque-led defensive units of the Boston Bruins certainly staked their claim at the top, as did the powerful duo of Kevin Hatcher and Al Iafrate for the Washington Capitals. It’s also hard not to notice how many strong 2pS% teams are in the top table. The Edmonton Oilers stick out, not surprisingly, in the top defense shooting percentages, scoring at levels above the current NHL overall shooting percentage (9%). And let’s take a closer look at these two top teams and their defense units…first, Washington in 1992-93:

Pre-Gonchar yet, the Capitals were nevertheless driven by a young, dynamic defensive corps that simultaneously reached its prime. They helped make the 1992-93 Caps a 53.5% 2pS% team. As for the Edmonton Oilers in 1983-84:

The top 4 for the Oilers was reaching its prime as well in their best year (by Sh%). Coffey was still over a year away from his 48-goal season, but 40 ain’t bad. Edmonton was a 49.9% 2pS% team that year, but their high shooting percentage was more than enough to get them the best record in the NHL (as well as the Stanley Cup).

For the novelty of it, I’ll close with the lowest shooting defense units; I don’t guarantee surprises.

You can definitely see the “Orr transition” in the above tables; most of the teams are in the earliest era of our data. Yet, in more recent years, some team shooting contributions have come up meager…in some cases, reflecting the talent of those teams’ defensive corps. Certainly the Oilers have not had a particularly strong crew the last couple of years. And then there’s Colorado, whose shooting futility was truly extraordinary (and just as surely a result of a 48-game sample).

By mining and getting creative with historical data, we can level inquiries like the ones above to tell us some pretty interesting stories about the game of the past. That the role of defensemen in their team’s offense has evolved pretty substantially over the years is one such story; I find it intriguing that some of these percentages and rates have regressed while others have held pat.

As per usual, feel free to ask about any individual players or teams (1967-68 to present) and I’d be happy to share the data.

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