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Is a Shootout Specialist the Answer for the Bruins?

The Bruins, apart from their shootout victory on Monday night, haven't exactly impressed in shootouts this season, with a 1-3 record.  Maybe the shootout is disfavored by NHL purists, but it's not going anywhere.  And since it's a good way for a team to earn those crucial extra points that can mean the difference between hitting the golf course early, and going to the playoffs (see: 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers), whether Boston can do much to improve that record is a valid question.

Shootout success has two elements: shooting and goaltending.  In theory, the easiest way to improve a team's shootout success would be to improve the goaltending.  If you could acquire a shooter who buried every single shot attempt, or a goaltender who stopped every single shot attempt, which would win more shootouts?  The goaltender would, because given enough opportunities, your team will eventually score.  (Yes, that holds true even for the 2009-10 Boston Bruins.)  In practice, however, the Bruins would find it all but impossible to upgrade in goal.  They have both the NHL's best goaltender to date, and the NHL's best backup.  What's more, Tim Thomas has a very respectable .738 save percentage in the shootout, placing him 11th among active goaltenders.  If you narrow it to goaltenders who have faced at least 50 shots, he jumps to 7th.  It is safe to say that if the Bruins want to improve in the shootout, the focus must be in the shooters, and not the goaltenders.

Our Fearless Leader already profiled the ineptitude of Michael Ryder's shootout attempts, and indeed, one suspects that Claude Julien has caught on; the shooters for Monday were Tyler Seguin, Blake Wheeler and Nathan Horton.  Ryder was, at least for the first three rounds, stapled to the bench.  That was good news.  The bad news is that the Bruins aren't exactly bursting with great options:

Recchi 14.29 14
16 25


The above is a list of every current Bruin with at least three attempts in the shootout.  For reference, the NHL average is 32.78%.

The guys topping the list, Seguin, Chara and Wheeler, all come with some asterisks.  Seguin has just four attempts, which isn't exactly enough of a sample size to say that he's a shootout ace.  Given his skills and pedigree, it's likely, but we're going to need more attempts to say for sure.  You can arguably make the same argument with Chara, and his 9 attempts.  As for Wheeler, he started out 4 for 7, looking like an ace, and then last year, went a dismal 2 for 13, ultimately falling out of the rotation before earning his way back in Monday night.  Which is the real Wheels?  Did he have a slump in 09-10, or did he have a hot start in 08-09?  Either way, it's hard to say with  certainty. 

We can say, with a pretty high degree of certainty, that Krejci is a mediocrity in the shootout, that Bergeron and Horton are subpar, and that Ryder and Recchi are genuinely bad. So, to that end, the situation isn't all that promising.  This leads to the next question: would it be worthwhile for the Bruins to go pick up a shootout ace?

It started with a thought experiment.  I asked my friend Nick, a statistician by trade, if a 10% increase in shootout percentage would lead to a 10% increase in shootout wins.  That is, if a team upped their shootout percentage from 33% to 36%, would they win 10% more shootouts?  In fact, my initial belief was that shootout ability was undervalued as a skill, and could be exploited by a statistically-savvy front office to gain points in the standings.  The short answer is that it did not translate on a 1 to 1 basis.  I'll save you the math; if you're interested, drop me a line, but a 10% increase in team shootout translates to 8 or 9% more wins, depending on where the team's shootout percentage begins. Not bad.

So what would the impact of upgrading a single shooter be?  Assuming league-average shooters for the Bruins' other 2 guys, and assuming 3 league-average shooters for the other team, here's a table of the Bruins' chances of winning, given the various shootout percentages of our "shootout specialist":

0%: 39.1%
10%: 42.4%
20%: 45.7%
25%: 47.3%
30%: 48.9%
35%: 50.6%
40%: 52.2%
45%: 53.8%
50%: 55.5%
70%: 62.0%
100%: 71.9%

The average NHL team has 10 shootouts per season.  So a team of league-average shooters would win half of those shootouts, picking up 5 points in the standings.  Replacing one of those league-average shooters with a robot who buried every single shootout attempt would add 2.19 points over the course of a season.  But that's a prospect as unrealistic as it is awesome, so let's look for someone a little more attainable.  Replacing them with a 50% shooter, of which there are only 14 in NHL history (minimum 10 attempts), would be worth an extra 0.55 points.

Of course, it's not a league-average shooter the Bruins would be replacing.  It's Michael Ryder, that dummy who shoots a wrister from the same damn spot every time.  That must change things, right?  It does.  If you're talking about the oft-vilified Ryder, replacing him in the lineup with a 50% shooter would lead to about 1.1 points over the course of a season.  That's not a huge boost.  And the upgrade from Horton or Bergeron to said shooter would be worth less still.  In fact, just taking Ryder out of the lineup and replacing him with Horton gives the Bruins an extra 0.37 points over the course of a season.

I suppose 1 point is nothing to sneeze at.  Again, last year's Eastern Conference Champs would have been out of the playoffs without it.  But it's nowhere near the dramatic improvement one would hope for by getting a shootout specialist.  If the Bruins were looking to pick up a player, opting for one with some shootout skill wouldn't be a bad idea, but ultimately, picking up a pure shootout specialist who brought little else to the table would prove counterproductive.