By: Owen Kewell
There’s something beautiful about scoring a goal.
Goals are the building blocks that make up hockey success, both on the individual and team level. They are a single moment in time, a culmination of a series of plays that ends with one team’s attack successfully defeating the other’s defense.
Teams are forever searching to add goals to their lineup, and for good reason. Goals win games, playoff series and, eventually, championships.
Goal-scoring is a repeatable talent, and while certain NHLers are far better at it than others, each player does it their own way. Each scorer exhibits unique tendencies of shot type selection and shot location.
Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, and Patrik Laine are five of the best scorers in the game. Of the 10 goal leaders for the 2017-18 season, these five players possess the highest career goals per game rates. They are the elite of the elite when it comes to putting the puck into NHL nets.
I wanted to explore how they each do it differently.
The above visualization separates by shot type to show how each player scored their goals in the 2017-18 season. Overall, the most popular shot type was wrist shot, followed by snap shot, slap shot, and finally backhand.
It should be noted that the ‘AVG (10+ G Forwards)’ represents a weighted average of the relevant shot rate among all forwards who scored 10 or more goals, weighted by the number of goals that they scored. It’s a way to quantify ‘normal’ rates for the league’s goal scoring forwards.
Let’s take a more detailed look at each of these five players.
It’s no secret that Alex Ovechkin is really good at scoring goals. Since breaking into the league, he’s won the scoring title 7 times and no one else has won it more than twice. Sitting at 607 career goals, Ovi continues to propel himself further up the list of all-time greats. His 0.605 goals per game ranks first league-wide, beating out all other forwards by at least 0.08 G/GP.
Ovechkin loves slap shots, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched Washington’s power play operate. His 17 slap shot goals were an uncontested 1st league-wide, with Steven Stamkos being the only other forward to score more than 7. Ovechkin’s slap shot is so powerful that it beats goalies clean even whey they know it’s coming, meaning that it can be unleashed without needing to be disguised.
Equally noteworthy, Ovechkin scored just 31% of his goals by wrist shot, which represents the lowest rate among all 32 players who scored 30+ goals.
The red areas in the above heat map show where Ovechkin shoots more frequently than the rest of the league. Ovechkin makes an absolute killing at the top of the left faceoff circle, often referred to as the ‘Ovi Spot’. This area lines up with Ovechkin’s average shot distance of 32.3 feet, which ranked in the 80th percentile among the league’s forwards.
Although it’s not reflected in the heat map, much of Ovechkin’s damage is done with the man advantage playing the left point. Of his 49 goals, 17 were scored on the power play, which ranked 2nd only behind a player further down this list. His remaining 32 were scored at even-strength, which again ranked 2nd in the league. Elite scoring across both special teams and even-strength situations throughout his career has propelled Ovechkin to the status of the league’s premier goal scorer.
Despite being the second-best player on his team, Malkin has put together the resume of an elite goal scorer. He’s scored 75 goals in 140 games over the past two seasons, which converts to 44 goals over an 82-game season. His career goals per game of 0.472 ranks 6th among active forwards, placing him in elite company.
What makes Malkin dangerous is his offensive versatility; he can score from anywhere on the ice. Equal parts power and precision, Malkin possesses a variety of weapons. His snap shot goal rate clocks in at roughly double the league average (his 11 snap shot goals ranked 4th), but his middle-of-the-pack rates for wrist shots, slap shots and backhands speak to his balanced toolkit. Malkin does not rely on a single shot type to score goals, meaning that defenders must respect all shot types that Malkin credibly threatens.
Did I mention that Malkin can score from anywhere? The sea of red is the beauty of Evgeni Malkin. He’s one of the most complete offensive players in the league. In addition to his heavy shot, his slick puck-handling ability and power forward frame allow him to generate shots and scoring chances at elite rates in the low slot area. His shot distance ranked just inside the upper third league-wide, influenced both by his crease-area chances and his shot activity in the high slot.
Malkin joins Ovechkin as the only two players in the league to finish top-10 in both even-strength goals and power play goals. He scored 28 times at evens, ranking 7th, and 14 times with the man advantage, ranking 6th. Malkin is one of the game’s most dangerous players in the offensive zone, and his goal scoring abilities rank among the NHL’s elite.
At this point, not much more needs to be said about Connor McDavid’s offensive game. His 108 points were enough for a second consecutive Art Ross (but not Hart) Trophy. He’s the been the league’s best forward for the last two years, and he’s only 21 years old.
But is he a goal scorer? While it’s true that McDavid has been viewed more as a set-up man than a finisher thus far in his young career, in 2017-18 we saw a transformation in McDavid’s offensive role. Compared to the year prior, McDavid scored 11 more goals and took 23 more shots. He became more of a trigger man, electing to attempt shots more often instead of looking to pass. This development calls to mind a young Sidney Crosby, who recorded seasons of 70 and 84 assists before breaking out for 51 goals in 2009-10.
McDavid prefers to score goals with his wrist shot. His 25 wrist shot goals ranked 3rd league-wide behind only Nathan MacKinnon and Eric Staal, while his rate of 61% ranked 9th among the 32 players who scored 30+ goals. He hardly ever takes slap shots, registering just 7 of these shots during the entire season, of which just 1 beat the goalie. Rather than rely on strength to generate power, McDavid creates offense thanks to generational skating and elite-level hands. He’s able to create and navigate space better than anyone else on the planet and puts himself into positions where a quick and accurate wrist shot is more than enough to beat the goalie.
McDavid has figured out hockey’s (not-so) secret formula: if you get close to the net, you’re more likely to score. He's extremely effective at using his speed, hands, and vision to attack the most dangerous area of the ice. McDavid’s sub-20’ average shot distance is a testament to his elite ability to generate scoring chances from the crease and low slot area.
McDavid’s special teams split is intriguing. His 35 even-strength goals ranked first in the entire NHL, but his 5 power play goals tied him for 96th among forwards. This latter can be explained both by Edmonton’s league-worst power play and also McDavid’s primary role as a puck distributor on the top unit. If Edmonton’s power play improves, which is likely given regression to the mean, McDavid’s special teams goal-scoring could very well take a step forward and supplement his elite even-strength scoring totals. He is already the game’s best forward and he poses a legitimate threat to become the game’s best scorer sooner rather than later.
A late 2nd round pick, Nikita Kucherov has emerged from relative anonymity to become one of the league’s most dangerous forwards. His 79 goals over the past two seasons place 3rd league-wide, and he was one of just three players to break 100 points in 2017-18.
While Kucherov’s absurdly accurate wrist shot remains his primary weapon (4th in wrist shot goals with 24), he is equally dangerous on the backhand. He scored 8 times (21% of all goals) on his backhand, ranking 2nd among 30+ goal scorers to Brad Marchand in both raw total and rate. Kucherov’s ability to score using wrist shots and backhands is all the more impressive considering that he shoots from further away than 93% of other forwards. He can be successful from this range without relying on the power of slap and snap shots due to his innate ability to find and exploit tiny gaps that goaltenders leave open. His shots are precise and accurate, and he excels at finding any available daylight.
An incredibly versatile player, Nikita Kucherov generates shots at elite rates all over the mid and high-slot. Rather than favour a specific shooting location, he elects to test the goalie from all areas of the offensive zone. This makes Kucherov unpredictable, which helps explain why his quick-release wrist shot and backhand are so devastating. He doesn’t shoot much from the crease area, but driving the net really isn’t part of how he creates offense.
Kucherov was more of a goal-scorer at even-strength than on the power play in 2017-18. He recorded 31 ES goals, one of just four players to crack 30, compared with 8 on the man advantage. He played more of a set-up role on Tampa Bay’s 3rd-ranked power play, registering 28 assists as he regularly sent cross-ice passes to Steven Stamkos (15 PP goals). Kucherov’s outstanding season cemented his status as one of the most dangerous goal scorers in the NHL, and at the prime age of 25 he’s as good a bet as any to repeat his offensive dominance next season.
At just 20 years old, Patrik Laine is already among the game’s premier snipers. His 44 goals ranked 2nd league-wide in 2017-18, fueling the Jets to their franchise-best season. Laine’s biggest asset is his shot, which may very well be the best in the league. Among current NHLers with 50+ career goals, Patrik Laine’s career shooting percentage of 18.0% ranks 2nd behind only Paul Byron. Byron, meanwhile, had an average shot distance of 19.3 feet in 2017-18, least of all eligible forwards, while Laine’s average shot came from 36.1 feet, ranking in the 97th percentile. The kid can shoot the puck.
Laine’s weapon of choice is his snap shot, which he routinely uses to one-time pucks into the back of the net. His quick release and accurate shot placement resulted in 14 snap shot goals in 2017-18, which tied for the league lead with Phil Kessel. He also is a fan of the slap shot, with his 6 slap shot goals placing him in a tie for 4th among all forwards.
Here we see Laine’s favourite shooting locations. A right-handed shot, Laine loves to one-time pucks from the high slot. The fact that he’s able to beat the goalie so consistently from so far away speaks to his talent as a shooter. Like Ovechkin, Laine’s shooting locations lack variety, but he’s so good from his spots that goalies have difficulty stopping the shot even if they can anticipate that it’s coming.
The triggerman for the Jets’ 5th-ranked power play, Laine lead all NHLers with 20 power play goals in 2017-18. He would routinely patrol the space between the left half-wall and left point, making himself open to cross-seam passes and one-timing his quick snapshot on net. His 24 even-strength goals tied for 20th in the league, so he’s no slouch at 5-on-5 scoring either.
Since breaking into the league, Laine has used his generational shot to pick apart opposing goalies. The odds-on favourite to inherit Ovechkin’s throne as best goal-scorer is the league, the sky’s the limit for a kid who potted 44 goals in just his second season in the league.
So there we have it; the modus operandi of five of the game’s elite. While Ovechkin, Malkin, McDavid, Kucherov, and Laine possess a shared gift for putting the puck in the net, they achieve it with vastly different sets of techniques, skills, and strategies. There is no uniform way to score a goal across the league, but all that matters is that it goes in.
With goals representing the currency of the NHL, goal-scorers are among the most valuable assets out there. Scoring goals wins you games, playoff series, and, as 32-year old Alex Ovechkin and 31-year-old Evgeni Malkin know, Stanley Cup championships. Kucherov (25), McDavid (21), and Laine (20) have not yet won hockey’s ultimate prize but given their relative youth and their otherworldly ability to put the puck in the net, they might not be far away.
Shot heat maps courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy’s wonderful visualization website HockeyViz (https://hockeyviz.com).