An in-depth look at the Panthers’ shootout success

From the time the shootout was first introduced back in 2005 until the end of the 2014-2015 season, the Florida Panthers have lost an incredible 72 shootouts, an average of seven per season. Their win percentage in the NHL’s game-deciding coin flip was only .405%, the second lowest in the league over that time span (side note: the Philadelphia Flyers, the worst shootout team of the past decade, only won .326% of their shootouts; they somehow lost almost 70 percent of the games that went past overtime).

Their incompetence in the shootout stemmed mostly from poor shooters. On average, skaters will convert on 33% of their shootout chances. Panthers skaters only scored 26.3% of their attempts, the lowest total in the entire league over the past decade. As a fan, this type of futility gets rather depressing, and one gets used to simply turning the television off everytime that overtime ends and the Panthers are still fighting for an extra point.

This year, however, the story has been entirely different. The Panthers have scored an absurd 61.9% of their shootout attempts, the third highest percentage in the history of the shootout. The insanely high conversion percentage has carried the Panthers to a 5-1 record in the shootout this year, a stark contrast from their record in seasons past.

The fact that they’ve scored on 62% of their attempts this season is incredible, simply because it’s so improbable. If we assume that the Panthers have league average shootout scorers, the chances of them scoring on 13 of their 21 shots are .45%, or about 1 in 220. Over the past decade, 282 NHL teams have taken at least 21 shots, so we could expect at least one, and maybe even two teams to have hit the 62% mark.

Sure enough, the 2012-2013 St. Louis Blues have matched what the Panthers are doing this season. The odds were small, and the Panthers are defying them; after all, only 11 other teams have even scored on more than 50% of their shots. This type of thing just doesn’t happen often, and if the Panthers are using league average shooters, they’ve been one of the luckiest shootout teams of the past decade.

That doesn’t really mean the Panthers are working with league average shooters, though. The shootout is mostly a coin flip, but there are some skaters and some goaltenders that are able to give their teams slight advantages over the rest of the league.

When it comes to shooters, the most intriguing way to convert on a high percentage of shots is explained to us in the excellent article by Jack Han. Essentially, most shooters will commit to a move before they even hit the blueline; coming it fast from the left-side means a forehand shot, slow from the right means a backhand shelf, and so on and so on. The best shooters are able to have several different moves that consist of the same startup, so that goaltenders are forced to make a reactionary save on the puck.

For shooters that may not be incredibly skilled, and can’t come up with multiple moves, the situation changes. They can instead develop one “go-to” move that beats goaltenders with consistency, and a “change-up” that looks similar to the go-to, but that catches the goalie napping. As an example, here’s Radim Vrbata’s go-to move (the back-hand shelf), and here’s his change-up.

By having the same run-up, and by having one killer move and one change-up, Vrbata is able to keep goaltenders guessing. Is he going to go to the backhand? Or is he going to fake it? Forcing the goaltender to guess which move is going to be used essentially makes the shootout a coin-flip for the shooter, and 50/50 odds are much greater than 33/67.

The Panthers have two forwards who have really excelled at the shootout this season, and have scored on 90% of their attempts: Aleksander Barkov (4/4) and Brandon Pirri (5/6) (Note: One could even argue that Pirri is 6-for-7, as he scored on a penalty shot as well). Both have developed shootout moves that put them in the driver’s seat, though Pirri in particular appears to have really figured out how to score in the shootout.

Even then, what the duo has done this year is quite incredible. If we assume that they’re both elite shooters with a talent level that allows them to convert on 50% of their shots (there are only 10 skaters in the league who have taken 15 or more shots and scored on 50% of them), the probability of them scoring 9 of their 10 shots is about 1 in 100. The chances of them going 10-for-11 (counting the penalty shot goal) are about 1 in 186.

It would take some incredible luck for the duo to convert on this many chances in the shootout, even though we have reason to believe that both players are talented shooters.

Pirri has developed a Patrick Kane style shootout run-up, moving in slowly on a goaltender, stickhandling quickly, waiting for an opening to appear. All 7 of his one-on-one matchups this year (remember, he’s taken one penalty shot) look incredibly similar.

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Swings left, swings right, gets into the high slot, slowly moves in on the goalie, goes five-hole.

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Swings left, swings right, gets into the high slot, slowly moves in on the goalie, goes five-hole.

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Same move, even though he didn’t score.

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I’m starting to see a pattern emerge here…

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The exact same move, five different times. Pirri’s “go-to” move is the five-hole shot. It’s sneaky, deceptive, and incredibly difficult to stop.

Circling back to the concept of making the shootout a 50/50 coin flip, here’s what happens if the goalie tries to shut down the five-hole, and leaves open space on either side of the net.

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Frederik Anderson clams up, and Pirri snaps it past him while on his forehand.

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Ryan Miller leaves a gaping hole to his left, and Pirri exploits it by going to the back-hand.

The goal against Miller was the most recent shootout attempt for Pirri, and it’s clear that Miller knows what Pirri wants to do. All of his previous attempts have consisted of him shooting the puck on his forehand. Miller tries to take this away.

Shane Pirri

Because Pirri is moving so slowly, however, he’s able to adjust, and get a backhand shot off. Miller can’t get over in time, and the puck ends up in the back of the net.

Pirri’s shootout prowess is interesting, because it forces to make the goalie to make a decision while Pirri is coming at him. If any part of the net is left open, the 24-year-old sniper has the hands and the shot to quickly rifle the puck into the net. No matter what the goalie chooses to do, he’s still stuck making a reactionary save. The deck is stacked in Pirri’s favor every time, and though he might not score on all of his chances going forward, there’s reason to believe that Pirri could be a 50-60% shooter in the shootout over the course of his career (he currently stands at 58%).

Then there’s Aleksander Barkov. It’s taken the youngster a while to get going, but he’s finally figured out a couple of moves that really work for him.

He’s always been insanely skilled in the shootout, but, like so many other skilled shooters, would give away his intentions based on the way he skated into the zone. Coming into the 2015-2016 season, Barkov only converted on 3-of-13 (23%) of his attempts.

This year, he’s used the backhand shelf to his advantage. Barkov has insanely quick hands, and can punish goaltenders that don’t keep up with him.

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He’s also shown the ability to change things up this season, going with a five-hole move with one of his shots.

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Given his lightning quick hands, and affinity for going to his backhand, it will be interesting to see how Barkov turns out in the future; does he become a consistent shootout scorer? Or does he end up as yet another average shooter? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Again, even though Barkov and Pirri may be elite players when it comes to the shootout, this doesn’t mean that they’ll be scoring as often as they have been, or that they even should have scored this often in the first place. Assuming that they’re both in the NHL’s elite for converting on shootout chances, they have a 1 in 186 chance of going 10-for-11, like they have this season. Those odds are miniscule.

Crazy things can happen in sports though, and that’s really why we watch them. No one wants to see what is supposed to happen; they want to see the unlikely. Dramatic upsets and tremendous comebacks become the stuff of legend, and not just the better team winning. If the better team won everytime, then games would be quite boring, and sports are nothing more than entertainment.

Brandon Pirri’s shootout success is uncanny, and it looks to be repeatable. It’s hard to say the same thing about Barkov, even if he has been wildly successful this year. Regardless, both players have Lady Luck on their side, and sometimes, that’s all you need. Even if the success isn’t sustainable, the Panthers sure have been fun to watch this season, and as a fan, that’s all you can really ask for.

One thought on “An in-depth look at the Panthers’ shootout success

  1. Is it possible that larger goalies do better in shootouts, relative to smaller quicker goalies. This might be, because only the first shot counts, and any greater agility of smaller goalies counts mostly on the second shot/rebound scramble. Jonathan Quick certainly seems to have a poor shootout record compared to his regular performance.
    It would be interesting, and perhaps fairly easy, to rank shootout save percentage (as a percentage of regular game performance), listed by size.

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