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?