NHL Teams Are Blocking More Shots, and It May Not Really Matter

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistMarch 31, 2014

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 22: T.J. Oshie #74 of the St. Louis Blues looks to block a shot by Wayne Simmonds #17 of the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on March 22, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers won 4-1. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Ask just about anyone who follows hockey at the NHL level, and they’ll say that shot-blocking is on the rise. More often than not, that’s followed by an expression of distaste for how prevalent blocking shots has become.

“It’s driving me crazy,” ex-NHL general manager Craig Button told the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk. “Bloody maddening” was the descriptor used by The Hockey News' Ken Campbell. The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek went so far as to suggest drastic rule changes to diminish the ability of defenders to get in shooting lanes.

Now, granted, those comments came after the second round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, which featured one of the dullest series (the seven-game contest between the Capitals and Rangers) played in recent memory. But even so, the perception that shot-blocking is sucking the offence out of the game is common among fans of the NHL.

It’s a perception that has some basis in fact, as shot blocks have climbed significantly since the NHL became a 30-team league in 2000-01. At that point, teams were averaging a little under 12 shots per game, whereas they have topped 14 blocked shots per contest in each of the last four seasons. All told, the number of blocked shots recorded by the league has increased by more than 20 percent in that 13-season span.

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(Note: there’s a clear problem with the 2002-03 real time data from NHL.com—it undercounts blocks/misses by about two-thirds on the NHL website, and so it’s excluded from this chart.)

Now for the weird part: The total number of unblocked shots has increased over the same period.

In 2000-01, NHL teams averaged only 27.7 shots per game. They first hit 30.0 in 2005-06, after new rules were introduced (and the number of power plays increased dramatically) and while there have been some minor fluctuations up and down the total sits at 30.1 this season.  

How can it be that NHL teams are getting more shots on net than ever before if it is also true that more shots are being blocked than in previous seasons? The answer to that question is two-fold.

First, NHL teams are firing more pucks than they have in years past (or at least being credited with more shot attempts than in previous campaigns). After years of languishing around the 51 shots-per-game mark, teams jumped to 55.1 shots per game in 2005-06 and have stayed consistently high. This year, teams average 56 shots per game.

The other reason is that while shots and blocked shots have increased, misses are becoming less common. In the NHL’s first two seasons as a 30-team league, on average 23.3 percent of all shots attempted went wide of the net. That number dropped to 20.9 percent in 2007-08 and has hovered within 0.1 percent of that mark ever since.

The end result is that the percentage of all shots that end on net has been remarkably steady over the NHL’s existence as a 30-team league:

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The data lends itself to a few different interpretations, but here are some of mine:

  • The rule changes prior to the start of the 2005-06 season saw not just a temporary increase in power plays, but have also resulted in a remarkably permanent increase in the total number of shots taken by all teams. It seems reasonable to think that the crackdown obstruction has worked beautifully in that regard.
  • NHL teams are emphasizing shot-blocking to a bigger degree than ever before, but as Tyler Dellow points out at SenatorsExtra.com, shots by defencemen are more likely to be blocked than shots by forwards, which means that a bunch of shots that would have ended up going wide are now being credited as blocks.
  • The increase in shot-blocking probably isn’t suppressing goal scoring, because it isn’t having a major impact on the total number of shots made on net and the shots that end up getting blocked tend to be disproportionately low-percentage shots from farther out.

Data courtesy of NHL.com and current through March 31 unless otherwise noted.