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Behind the numbers: Patrick Kane excels as a goal-scorer by doing what defenses don’t expect

Kane fools opposing defenses and statistical models simultaneously by keeping relatively to the outside of the offensive zone, defying the modern obsession with the slot.

Patrick Kane ranks seventh in the NHL in even-strength goals over the past three seasons.
Getty

In terms of expected goals, Patrick Kane and Patric Hornqvist differ only in their surnames.

Over the past three seasons, Kane is expected to have scored 44.9 goals in 5-on-5 play, and Hornqvist 45.4. The expected goals statistic, for reference, assigns a likelihood of scoring to every shot attempt based on its location, then sums all the likelihoods.

There’s just one problem: expected goals is a situational calculation, not a talent-based calculation. And in the comparison between the Blackhawks’ legendary attacker and Hornqvist, a solid complementary player on the Penguins, it falls embarrassingly short.

Over the past three seasons, Kane has actually scored 66 goals at 5-on-5.

Hornqvist, meanwhile, has potted only 34.

That anecdote is one of many that can be found in the recent portion of Kane’s 12-years-and-counting NHL career, because according to hockey’s advanced statistics, Kane’s decline has already begun. His Corsi rating — the most well-known analytic — has steadily declined from nearly 60 percent in his early years to under 50 percent last season, a first for the Buffalo native.

And yet Kane, at the same time, set a career high with 110 points and finished fifth in the league with 44 goals. Sure, his defense suffered (and it was never great to begin with), but after a legitimate down year in 2017-18, Kane re-cemented his status in the NHL’s superstar tier in 2018-19.

So why does his expected goals estimate not accurately reflect that? The answer comes from the same root cause as his tremendous success — in other words, Kane fools opposing defenses and statistical models simultaneously.

He does so by keeping relatively to the outside of the offensive zone, defying the modern obsession with the slot.

This diagram of Kane’s shot attempt locations uses colors to compare the frequency in a given location to league average. Red means more shots in that area than average; blue means fewer shots in that area than average.
Visual by Micah Blake McCurdy

Defenses focus most heavily on preventing shot attempts in the slot, so by staying away, Kane is defended less, so to speak. Doing so means more room to maneuver his stick, more sight lines to the goal, more time to make a decision and less checking endured by his small 177-pound frame.

That extra space and time means more opportunities to use his elite wrist shot. 63 percent of Kane’s shots on goal over the past three seasons have been wristers, one of the highest usage rates in the league.

He essentially bets on his shooting and playmaking ability to exceed league average by a larger margin than his shot and pass location falls short of league average.

And he typically wins the pot.

This strategy is nonetheless quite atypical for other top-tier NHL forwards, even those with similar statures and skill sets to Kane.

Five-foot-8 Blue Jackets sniper Cam Atkinson’s shot location heat map looks like a bull’s eye, with higher shot frequency than league average in the middle of the offensive zone and lesser frequency around the perimeter. This is, generally, considered ideal. Hornqvist’s heat map is even more impressive, with that red dot centered right in front of the goal.

The expected goals statistic is similarly impressed by both Atkinson and Hornqvist: it projects that the two forwards should have ranked eighth and third in the NHL, respectively, in goals per minute over the past three years.

Kane’s heat map, meanwhile, looks like it has two eyeballs, with his highest shot frequency located on either side of the goal, but not so much directly in front of it. Thus, he’s a lowly 152nd in expected goals per minute.

But that’s all just part of the scheme. What wouldn’t work for most does work — to a sky-high degree — for No. 88.