Jason Blake: When More is Less

Tonight, over at Pension Plan Puppets, in the Leafs/Bruins live game thread, mf37 posted some numbers about Jason Blake’s shooting percentage.  Essentially, the stats indicated that, between 2003 and 2007 (i.e. during his final seasons with the Islanders), Blake’s shooting percentage doubled (and in ’07 nearly tripled) over his then current career average.  Since joining the Leafs (and signing a hefty five-year contract – curse you, JFJ!) his shooting percentage has dropped to a number so low, you’d think it was expressing a person’s chance of getting hit by lightning while winning the lottery, being abducted by our alien overlords and riding a three-legged dog backwards to a nineteen length Triple Crown victory.

It got me thinking…

Observed phenomenon: Jason Blake takes a lot of shots from “the perimeter”, which is a polite way of saying that he was standing in the parking lot and unable to directly observe his intended target at the time of launching.

Known facts, and important (but blindingly obvious) inference to be drawn from them: NHL goalies (with the lamentable and all-too obvious exception of Andrew Raycroft) are not blind.  Most of them (again, except for Raycroft) have the ability to exert some amount of control over the movement of their extremities.  As a result, NHL goaltenders only infrequently whiff on shots taken from different continents.  Shooting from long distances is not, therefore, an effective strategy of scoring goals.

Statistical evidence:

This is what hockey-reference.com has to say about what Jason Blake has done in his career, in terms of offensive performance:

Season Team GP SOG/G S Pct. AVG TOI
1998-99 Los Angeles Kings 1 5 20 17:13
1999-00 Los Angeles Kings 64 2.05 3.8 11:17
2000-01 L.A./NY Islanders. 47 2.13 5 13:40
2001-02 New York Islanders 82 1.66 5.9 12:54
2002-03 New York Islanders 81 3.12 9.9 17:38
2003-04 New York Islanders 75 3.24 9.1 18:49
2005-06 New York Islanders 76 4 9.2 18:47
2006-07 New York Islanders 82 3.72 13.1 18:09
2007-08 Toronto Maple Leafs 82 4.05 4.5 17:49
2008-09 Toronto Maple Leafs 13 4.07 3.8 16:35
Career 3.08 8.1 16:22

Legend: GP = Games Played, SOG/G=Shots on Goal per game, S Pct.=Shooting Percentage, AVG TOI=Average time on ice.

Throw out the ’98-99 season (small sample size) and this year (small sample, incomplete data), and you’re left with 8 (more or less) complete seasons to consider.  Here’s what I noticed:  beginning in 2002, Blake’s average time on the ice per game goes way up – increasing by almost 40% from about 13 minutes a game in ’01/’02 to almost 18 minutes a game in ’02-’03.  Also in 2002, the goals start to bang home for Jason, as his shooting percentage jumps to 9.9%;  prior to that, Blake was lighting the lamp at something like a 4 to 6% clip.  Blake’s average ice time stays pretty steady, from then on, in the 18-19 minutes per game region.

Now look at what happens to his shots on goal per game.  That figure jumps from a career low 1.66 per game in  ’01-’02 to 3.12 per game the very next season – the same season his average icetime increases by 40% per game.

What the numbers show is that beginning in 2002/03, Blake was spending about 40% more time on the ice than he had before, but he began shooting the puck about twice as often as in the past.  That’s a lot of extra shots, proportionally, to fit into the extra ice time.  For a few years with the Islanders, it seems to have worked out because he was scoring goals roughly twice as often too, at the 9 – 13% clip.

Consider these numbers in the context of a hypothesis:  a tired skater is more likely to shoot the puck from a long distance. Rather than skate and drive towards the net, a fatigued player will – more often than not – elect to shoot from where he is when he receives the puck.

Blake is playing about just a bit less now than he did in his final years with the Islanders (the years of 9-13% shooting success).  He is shooting the puck about the same number of times, on average, if not a little bit more.  We have observed that – since he’s been in Toronto, anyway – he frequently shoots the puck from long distances.  It is unlikely that Blake was shooting from these distances while in Long Island;  it simply beggars belief that they’d be going in as frequently as they did for him;  it would take a major league marathon of sustained and repeated whiffage by a series of goaltenders, over a period of four years, for that to be true.   The key point is this – the long shots we’ve seen Blake take as a Leaf aren’t being taken in addition to the blasts he habitually took when he was an Islander.

Rather, I think the data suggest that Blake is currently replacing shots from closer in to the net  (i.e the quality shots he took as an Islander) with long distance bombs that have little or no chance of success.  One obvious explanation for that phenomenon is related to the “tired players take long shots” theory.  In short, the numbers suggest that  – now in his mid 30s, and with well-documented health concerns – Blake may well not be up to the challenge physically, and that fatigue or lack of conditioning is preventing him from scoring at the rate he previously did.

Discuss.  Am I missing something?

By junior

Guitar owner and silly person.

6 comments

  1. This is where the secret coach’s database would come in handy. If we could see where exactly his shots were taken from in each season and/or scoring opportunities, we would be more likely to prove your point.
    I do point out that shooting from long distance can result in a goal as long as you have 2,3 or even 4 other guys in front of the goal keeper and are lucky enough to bounce it off of one of them.
    That brings up another question though. Are these considered shots on goal when it hits someone on the way toward the net? Are these the type of shots that old guys are relegated to? Is that bad hockey?

  2. @Doug:

    Shooting from long distance can also result in a goal when Vesa Toskala in net; recall that our favourite Finn was beaten from 195 feet last year (to be clear, I bring this up only to point out that I haven’t forgotten about it – I still think the fellow Spouse calls “Vishnu Turpentine” is a good goaltender, that one was just a BIG mistake.)

    I think the NHL has kept track of the approx. distance from which shots were taken for the last few years. Check nhl.com under the stats tab for “rtss reports”. I have half a mind to go through these, game by game, for both ’06/’07 (Blake’s 40 goal year with the Isles) and ’07/’08 (his first campaign with the Leafs) to see what I can see. Of course, I’d have to quit my job…

  3. Interesting stuff.

    An addtional piece of evidence for the “tired player” theory: from watching him the past two years, Blake must lead the NHL in shots that result in a whistle. His long shots, almost without exception, are easy glove saves that result in a faceoff. He doesn’t even shoot low, it’s always chest-high floaters.

    Maybe he’s trying to get a whistle. Maybe he’s not even trying to score anymore, at least a lot of the time.

    It would certainly explain a few things.

  4. Blake’s time in Toronto has been a nightmare, from the moment he signed. It’s been downhill, from the cancer, to the very difficult season last year, to finding himself now on the fourth line this year.

    Sometimes things just don’t work out, and Blake’s confidence is clearly at an all-time low.

  5. [Islanders fan enters…]
    At the time, when it was clear Blake would receive crazy money from some JFJ type, I remember being at peace with letting him go, but more importantly: stunned that no one noticed the red flag of his spct. taking that anomalous jump in his walk year while other variables remained the same. He has always taken shots that make you go “hmmmm,” but he hasn’t always stayed on the perimeter. In his 40-goal season he had his typical sniper goals (that will happen when you have a decent shot and are allowed to shoot at will), but he also had several nose-around-the-net/good bounces goals that frankly, are going to come and go from year to year.

    Entering the subjective area here: It was Blake’s fifth year on the team, and it seemed in the final couple seasons teammates had finally accepted his rumbled-about quirks, so he was in a place where “he belonged.” As you noted, his role had steadily increased (mostly more PP time), and people put up with his “I shoot constantly” trait because: a) It was the freaking Isles, someone had to try to score; b) he truly did skate like a madman (not just the perimeter) on the Island; and c) sometimes his shots went in.

    I think Blake is the case of an average player with speed and shooting ability working his way into the perfect storm of having an important role on an average team, aided by a purely fortuitous increase in his shooting percentage in his walk year. Had he been traded early that final season, I don’t think there’s any way he scores 40 goals in a different environment. It was only happening on the Island, and it was only happening once, and that is why it was so surreal for this Isles fan to watch Blake’s market “value” multiply thanks to that fluke, despite the surrounding red flags (including age).

    I bet he could be a serviceable player in Toronto, but the contract (and unrepeatable 40-goal season), the diminished role, the fact that he takes getting used to — all of that was destined to work against him even if he busted his tail. I heard he whined about not having a Yashin to set him up anymore: the thing he should really miss about Yashin is that when Yashin was on his team, fans and media focused their ire at Yashin and let Blake’s lapses slide!

  6. @DGB. Agreed re: whistle-provoking shots. There must be a way to confirm this through the RTSS reports.

    @eyebleaf: You speak the sooth.

    @ Dominik:

    Thanks for the perspective from the Island; your comment reminded me that one of the things I used to notice about Blake was his hustle. You’re right, he did charge around the ice quite a bit; now that I reflect upon it, I would have to say that it’s my (subjective) impression that he hasn’t been doing that, if at all, for quite some time in a Leaf uniform. Very helpful contextual info.

    Thanks everybody for stopping by!

Comments are closed.