There’s certainly some planning that goes into why NHL coaches pick certain players players for a shootout. The analytics and past performances play a big part, but so too does a coach’s gut. Like the night Rick Tocchet and Arizona stole a point from Anaheim.
It was Game No. 386 on this year’s composite schedule, an otherwise innocuous contest in Phoenix between the Coyotes and Ducks, when a shootout became necessary to decide the winner.
Tocchet’s first three shooters -- Nick Schmaltz, Conor Garland, and Phil Kessel -- all had one subtle but important thing in common. They were all right-handed shooters. The shootout was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the fourth round, and the Coyotes had a chance to win the game.
With the game on the line, Tocchet called on Christian Dvorak, who hadn’t been in a shootout in two years,. But Dvorak scored two goals earlier in the night, and Tocchet’s staff had a feeling.
“We went with a lefty [Dvorak], and the guy scored, and we won the game,” Tocchet said. “You gotta switch it up for the goalie, because the goalie gets comfortable if it’s three righties in a row. But you throw a lefty in there, the angle changes.”
Tocchet credited his assistant coaches with suggesting the nuance. The Coyotes entered the week tied with Edmonton atop the Pacific Division. The point Arizona won in Game No. 386 could be significant come April.
“You play 65 minutes of hockey, and then it comes down to a skills competition,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said recently. “But I think players can get better at it, and I think goalies can get better at it.”
No team has been involved in more shootouts this season than the Flyers, who historically are terrible at it. They are 3-5 overall and had an incredible six games requiring the quirky competition in just two weeks in early November.
Vigneault said he leans heavily on goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh and skills coach Angelo Ricci for advice when it comes to the shootout.
“I always have a list of five possible shooters,” Vigneault said, “and depending how the game has gone, and my feel, I’ll go from there.”
Claude Giroux has been called on by Vigneault in every shootout this season, going 3-for-8. Next is Sean Couturier at 2-for-6, followed by Jake Voracek at 0-for-4. Goaltender Carter Hart is 2-3 in shootouts, with eight stops in 13 shots. Brian Elliott is 1-2 with 11 saves on 16 shots.
The shootout format was adopted following the lost 2004-05 lockout season, and the head coach of the home club gets to pick which team will shoot first,
Vigneault has presided over 121 shootouts as an NHL head coach (55-66 record), and he could not remember a player lobbying him to shoot. But he would hear from two of his former prominent former goalies.
“I had [Henrik] Lundqvist and [Roberto] Luongo tell me to let the other team shoot first because they were feeling it," Vigneault said.
Tocchet, in his fifth season as a head coach, including two years in Tampa Bay, has had different experiences.
“You’ll get a guy who’ll come up to me and say, ‘I feel good. Keep me in mind.’ I like that,” he said. “Then you get some guys who won’t look you in the eye if you’re going to pick them, because there’s a lot of pressure there. There’s certain guys, if you’re up a goal and you need that second goal, he’s the guy you want. But that same guy, if you’re down a goal, might not be the guy you want.”
When it comes to pressure, the analytics only go so far. The Flyers are 3-1 in shootouts on the road and 0-4 at the Wells Fargo Center.
When the Flyers lost to Toronto after 11 excruciating rounds at the Wells Fargo Center earlier this season, Vigneault was asked what went into selecting players such as fourth liner Michael Raffl and defenseman Ivan Provorov. The coach said, at that point, it’s just a matter of rolling the dice.
“Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. “It’s not an exact science.”
♦ Most Flyers career goals in shootouts: Claude Giroux, 28-91 (30.8%), Jake Voracek, 15-46 (32.6%), Danny Briere, 12-33 (36.4%).
♦ Best Flyers’ percentage (minimum 10 attempts): Jordan Weal, 5-11 (45.5%).
♦ Worst Flyers’ percentage (minimum 10 attempts): Brayden Schenn, 1-12 (8.3%).
♦ Most shootout wins/goalie: Steve Mason, 12 (with 22 losses).
♦ Best save percentage (minimum 20 shots): Michal Neuvirth, .765 (34 shots, 26 saves).
♦ Worst save percentage (minimum 20 shots): Ilya Bryzgalov, .471 (34 shots, 16 saves).
♦ As a team, the Flyers have the worst overall winning percentage in shootouts at .353 (48-88). The next closest is Carolina at .422 (43-59).
♦ The Flyers have the worst winning percentage at home (.329, 24-49) and the second-worst on the road (.381, 24-39).
8 - Flyers (3-5)
7 - Arizona (5-2)
6 - Florida (3-3)
5 - Washington (3-2), Chicago (1-4), New Jersey (1-4)