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Gajtka: What’s Really Behind Crosby’s Cold-Shooting Season?

It’s arguably the most valuable talent in hockey, but also one of the most variable.

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Goal-scoring. It’s arguably the most valuable talent in hockey, but also one of the most variable.

Due to the nature of the sport, goals are rare, and rare events are harder to predict than more frequent ones. Throw in the odd bounces of the puck and the fact that there’s a member of the opposition whose sole mission is to stop you from scoring — something a basketball player doesn’t have to deal with — and you have several factors out of the shooter’s control.

Hockey players seem to instinctively grasp this, as they often talk about how the puck will eventually start to go in for them if they continue to do productive things and create scoring opportunities.

Count Sidney Crosby as a believer in that process.

“I don’t look so much at shooting percentage, but at scoring chances and what you’re able to create,” Crosby said after Monday’s practice at Lemieux Sports Complex. “Other things kinda take care of themselves.”

Regardless of whether there’s any truth to the theory, the Penguins’ captain can certainly hope his goal-getting fortunes are turning around. After Tuesday’s road date with the Red Wings, Crosby has lit the lamp in four consecutive games, with two of those strikes being virtuoso efforts, like this one from Sunday:

He’s heating up? (Nod if you got the ‘NBA Jam’ reference.)

Trending Downward

For all his recent hot-shooting, Crosby still needs three goals in his final five games to reach 30. The only previous time he hasn’t gotten to that mark in a full season was 2014-15, also the year of his lowest full-season point total (84).

Efficiency has been a particular issue for Crosby this season. His 11.7 shooting percentage is his worst ever for a full season, but that only factors in shots on goal, which can be subjective based upon stat keepers’ biases and tendencies.

If we consider all shot attempts — giving us a more true shooting percentage — Crosby has connected just 7 percent of the time, also a career low if we throw out the 22 games he played at the end of 2011-12 when he was returning from the whole concussion ordeal. (All data in this piece is courtesy of Corsica Hockey.)

Furthermore, Crosby’s rate of shot attempts per 60 minutes are significantly down in 2017-18, both at even strength and on the power play. Since the NHL started tracking all attempts in the 2007-08 season, only once before (2008-09) has Crosby generated fewer five-on-five shots than the 13.1 per 60 he has this season. That’s down from 14.9 per 60 he created last season, when he won the Rocket Richard for the second time.

On the power play, the shot discrepancy is more severe. After averaging over 22 attempts per 60 minutes of five-on-four play over the past two seasons, Crosby is at 19.4 this year. For reference, the only time he’s been below 20 this decade was in the Mike Johnston year of 2014-15.

So, Crosby is not only shooting worse, he’s also shooting less.

Quality over Quantity

On Monday, Crosby denied that he’s consciously shooting less this season, saying that not scoring at a high rate actually makes him want to fire on net more.

“Not always great shots, but you’re trying to put it there and make something happen,” he said. “Sometimes (scoring) comes down to where you’re getting your chances, and execution.”

Fair enough. So let’s look at Expected Goals (xG) to see if at least Crosby is getting to the scoring areas enough to counteract his lack of shot volume. And as it turns out, Crosby actually is doing just fine in the quality-over-quantity battle.

Sid is creating 0.83 xG per 60 minutes of five-on-five play, just slightly below average for his career and actually better than three of his past four seasons. (Last year was 0.91.) On the power play, Crosby has been getting even better looks than usual, with 2.25 xG per 60. That’s the best mark of his career, so he’s fighting for the ice around the net more than adequately.

Going back to Crosby’s formula, he’s not shooting as much but the shots he does fire are generally good opportunities. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that he’s converting at the lowest rate of his career, so perhaps we can expect his recent pace to continue, assuming circumstances remain the same.

Then again, Crosby could’ve easily had three goals Tuesday, if not for some slight-of-pad by Jimmy Howard and a quick stick from AHL call-up Joe Hicketts. Could just be one of those years.

Show Your Work

For your edification, here are all of Crosby’s available seasons in the metrics listed above …

Remember, ‘Shots’ are all attempts, not only shots on goal. ‘True Shooting %’ is goals divided by total attempts. Again, credit to Corsica Hockey for the raw data.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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