What’s the next dimension of analytics? Former NHL goalie Steve Valiquette knows

Ken Campbell
Steve Valiquette (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
Steve Valiquette (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

One night, Steve Valiquette was removing his gear in the dressing room after one of his many games as a backup in the NHL. He remembers the coach of the team approaching one of his teammates and praising the player for having such a great game because he recorded nine shots on goal. Valiquette couldn’t believe what he was hearing, but he knew what he had seen.

“I was on the bench that night and I said to myself, ‘Are you kidding me? He just played catch with goalie from 75 feet,’ ” Valiquette said. “ ‘He should be reprimanded, not applauded for that game.’ ”

And so began Valiquette’s quest to debunk the theory that all shots are created equal. They aren’t, and Valiquette is frustrated that people look blindly at things like shots on goal and save percentage and take them at face value. What he wants to see is goaltenders rated on the basis of how many difficult shots they face.

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Call it advanced advanced stats. To suggest Valiquette is out to turn conventional thinking on its head when it comes to analytics isn’t a stretch. He’s hoping his statistical approach to analyzing the quality of scoring chances changes not only perceptions of goalies and shooters but alters the way the game is played and coached.

“It’s not that my first thought was Corsi is bogus, it’s just there needs to be a stage 2,” said Valiquette, now an analyst with the New York Rangers and a goalie coach. “The old train of thought was, ‘Pucks to the net, pucks to the net. Good things happen when you get pucks to the net.’ Actually (most of the time) it’s, ‘Pucks to the net, nothing happens.’ ”

To that end, Valiquette is in the process of analyzing every shot taken in every game this season. He differentiates the quality by considering them “red shots” or “green shots.” Much of his analysis is based on what he calls the “Royal Road,” which is an imaginary line that goes length-wise up the middle of the ice and intersects with another imaginary line that crosses the top of the faceoff circles. Drawing two diagonal lines out from the net to the edge of faceoff circles forms the triangular area in which green shots are taken.

Royal Road

Valiquette doesn’t think about shots. He thinks about shot sequences, and said red shots are highly overvalued while green shots are hugely undervalued.

A red shot is one where a goalie has more than a half-second of clear sight on either side of the Royal Road. These shots require minimal movement. Valiquette claims NHL goaltenders, on average, stop 97 percent of red shots. Green shots are those where the puck crosses the Royal Road, either by the puck carrier or a passer, then are shot on goal. According to Valiquette’s research, 76 percent of goals so far this season have been on green shots. Among green shots, the most dangerous is when the puck carrier crosses the Royal Road, followed by those that are passed across the Royal Road before they’re shot.

What’s more, Valiquette claims about 100 goals through mid-December were scored on what he calls broken plays, such as when the puck goes off a defenseman and into his own net. He said more than 80 percent of those goals have come off green shot attempts. He also claims one goal is scored on a rebound of every 3.5 green shots and just one in 25 of red shots.

“So red shots are lousy to beat the goaltender, they’re lousy to create rebounds and they’re lousy to create broken plays,” Valiquette said. “So they’re lousy all around.”

What frustrates Valiquette is coaches continue to insist they be taken. But he hopes that by being able to attach a more accurate number to the quality of shots, it will create a different mindset.

“A lot of coaches don’t know how to categorize it, but they hate red shots,” Valiquette said. “I can show you in any game this year when a goalie has allowed (goals on) two red shots in a period, I’ll show you a guy who’s wearing a hat in the second period.”

This feature appears in the Jan. 26 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.