Commentary

Four years in, sizing up the shootout

Updated: March 19, 2009, 7:40 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Jussi JokinenScott Pilling/NHLI/Getty ImagesJussi Jokinen was picked up by Carolina this season, partly for his shootout prowess.

When the Carolina Hurricanes picked up Jussi Jokinen from the Tampa Bay Lightning last month, the trade garnered very little attention.

But for a team that has struggled in the shootout during the past three seasons, it was a noteworthy acquisition. The Canes had acquired one of the league's premier specialists in the breakaway event, and that wasn't by mistake.

"That was part of it, it was a factor, yes," Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford told ESPN.com this week. "We like him as a player. He's a very useful guy because he can play in all situations and play three forward positions. He's a real smart player. But the fact that he is good in shootouts, that helps our team. It's not something that we do that easily."

With the NHL in its fourth season after implementing the shootout, here's what we know:

• The Ottawa Senators have the fewest shootout wins with 10, while the New York Rangers have the most with 34. To be fair, the Rangers also have been in the most shootouts (57).

• The most impressive win-loss record belongs to Dallas (the Stars are an amazing 31-12), followed by New Jersey at 32-18. The Rangers can hold their head high at 34-23, while Edmonton is next at 30-20.

• The worst win-loss ratio goes to Florida at 14-27, followed by Ottawa's 10-22 mark, Philadelphia's 11-23 record and Toronto's 15-25.

That the Flyers and Sens are bad at the shootout, given some of the skill they have had up front during the past four seasons, is nothing short of stunning.

"I wouldn't want our season to come down to it," Flyers winger Joffrey Lupul, 1-for-7 in his career, told us this week. "But it's a fun part of the game now. We practice it, but shooting on your goalie is completely different since they know your tendencies and you know theirs. I don't know what to tell you."

The Senators can throw out Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza as their three shooters, yet they rarely win one.

"What's kind of funny is that the first two shootouts we were ever in were two of the first three games out of the lockout, both against Toronto," Heatley told ESPN.com. "We won both shootouts. We started 2-0 in it, and I don't want to know our record since then [eight wins, 22 losses]. It's something we've tried to work on, and obviously we still have to keep working on it."

Heatley is 3-for-19 all time in the shootout. This is a player who has scored 174 goals since the lockout, including back-to-back 50-goal seasons in 2005-06 and 2006-07. But the shootout? Forget about it.

And he's not alone. Some of the game's best can't figure out the shootout: Marian Gaborik is 1-for-13, Evgeni Malkin is 5-for-24, Eric Staal is 2-for-11, Daniel Sedin is 3-for-16, Jeff Carter is 3-for-15, Martin Havlat is 3-for-14, Martin St. Louis is 5-for-20 and Marc Savard is 2-for-13.

The game's two poster boys, Alex Ovechkin (11-for-37) and Sidney Crosby (12-for-38), are OK, hovering around the 30 percent success rate. Patrick Kane (9-for-15), Pavel Datsyuk (17-for-35), Brad Richards (16-for-32), Mikko Koivu (15-for-34), Paul Kariya (12-for-25) and Jonathan Toews (5-for-9) have been among the best big-name players in the shootout.

A sizable group of second- or third-line forwards who are not NHL All-Stars also succeed at scoring shootout goals. Wojtek Wolski has the best percentage of all skaters with at least 10 attempts -- he's 16-for-24 thanks to a 9-for-10 run this season, and he dialed up another one Tuesday night. Ales Kotalik (19-for-37), Erik Christensen (17-for-30), Jeremy Roenick (6-for-10), Joe Pavelski (12-for-21), Tuomo Ruutu (6-for-11) and Jeff Hamilton (8-for-15) also are among the top shootout snipers.

[+] EnlargeEvgeni Malkin
AP Photo/Charles KrupaEvgeni Malkin leads the league in points this season, but still struggles in the shootout event.

So, what gives with the star players' struggles?

"I think guys are taught as scorers in games that you don't have too much time, which takes the thinking out of it," Heatley said. "You just move and react to the situation and try and get rid of the puck as quick as you can and as hard as you can. I think maybe in the shootout, sometimes, you do have that extra time to think about what you should do, and obviously it doesn't work for some guys."

Lupul agreed.

"And maybe in the game, the goaltender doesn't have the same chance to prepare," Lupul said. "Usually a breakaway is just a sudden thing out of nowhere. And sometimes, as a player, it's nice not to have that time to think. It's easier just to react and use your instincts, whereas in the shootout you're thinking, 'What should I do?'"

Jaromir Jagr didn't hide his feelings about it. There were nights when he just didn't want to take part in the shootout.

"We'd make eye contact [after the overtime] and I would know right away -- yes or no," former Rangers coach Tom Renney told us this week.

Jagr ended up 5-for-22 in his three post-lockout seasons with the Rangers before going to Russia this past summer. It's between the ears for a lot of these guys.

"It's a one-on-one battle with the goalie, and I think it's more mental," Jokinen said. "It's about having confidence, and that's the biggest thing for me."

Some guys just dig it. Atlanta Thrashers veteran forward Slava Kozlov is tied with Jokinen for the all-time lead in shootout goals at 22. His secret?

"I don't have a chance to go on breakaways during games because I'm very old and very slow," Kozlov said with a laugh. "So I enjoy shootouts."

But seriously, Slava.

"I work on it with [Thrashers backup goalie] Johan Hedberg almost every day," Kozlov said. "We have fun with it. I have maybe 50 shootouts every practice against him. For some reason, it's worked out pretty well for me. I remember missing the first two when we started the shootouts four years ago, and then I picked it up [22-for-36 ever since]."

Kozlov said he always goes wide right or wide left, but never straight down the middle.

"If you go straight, the goalie won't move," Kozlov said. "That's the first thing I want to do is move the goalie."

Who could have really predicted four years ago before the puck dropped after the lockout that the shootout would produce "specialists" like a left-handed pitcher in baseball?

"I enjoy it," Jokinen told us. "It's a big part of the game, and I've been saying for four years, every point in the standings is so big, so if you can get extra points in the shootouts, it could make the difference at the end of the year whether or not you make the playoffs."

I think guys are taught as scorers in games that you don't have too much time, which takes the thinking out of it ... I think maybe in the shootout, sometimes, you do have that extra time to think about what you should do, and obviously it doesn't work for some guys.

-- Ottawa's Dany Heatley

No need to remind the Hurricanes of that. Carolina was 0-5 in shootout games during the 2006-07 season and missed the playoffs by four points. Last season, the Hurricanes tied for the fewest shootout wins (two) in the NHL and missed the postseason by two points.

"I played in the Finnish Elite League before I got here to the NHL, and they started the shootout there maybe two years before," Jokinen said. "I realized before I came here that it's so big. You look back at the end of the year and realize how important it is to win them. Getting some extra shootout wins could mean making the playoffs. Both conferences right now, the races are so tight for the playoffs."

The Los Angeles Kings have won four of 12 shootouts this season. Pretty sure they could use a few more points in the standings. If the Florida Panthers miss the playoffs, they can thank their shootout futility this season, as they've won only three of 11 so far.

"I understand why the shootout is in the game. The fans love it, it's exciting," Panthers coach Pete DeBoer told us. "But when you're coaching a team that relies on the sum of its parts more than its individual skill, the fact that we lose points on what I consider an individual skill play after you've battled for 65 minutes under a team concept ... you know, it's tough to swallow.

"You can see why Carolina went out and got Jokinen for the stretch drive. They're critical points right now."

Carolina was dynamite in the shootout the first season, going 8-2 in its Stanley Cup championship season in 2005-06, but the Canes have gone 5-13 since. Hence the Jokinen acquisition.

"He's already paid off in that he scored the shootout winner against Buffalo [on Feb. 26]," Rutherford said. "That point may ultimately make the difference in whether we're in or not in."

Mind you, the Hurricanes lost two shootout games last week. Jokinen can't do it all. But what certainly helps is a goalie who thrives in it. We don't think it's a coincidence the Rangers, Devils and Stars rank 1-2-3 in shootout wins during the past four seasons. All have elite netminders (Henrik Lundqvist, Martin Brodeur and Marty Turco, respectively) who love the one-on-one challenge.

"Henrik is a humble guy, but when it's the shooter and the goalie in front of 20,000 people, he's saying 'Bring it on,''' Renney said. "And what coach wouldn't want to take advantage of that?"

In fact, Renney said, although most home teams like to start the shootout with the shooter to score the first goal, he bucked the trend.

"We would start shootouts with Henrik," said Renney, who was behind the bench for 33 of New York's 34 shootout victories this season. (New coach John Tortorella picked up his first Rangers shootout win Tuesday night.) "We wanted him to make the first save. Conventional wisdom says shoot and score first, but we felt we had one of the superior goalies in the league, and we were saying to the other team, 'Try and beat us.' And usually he would make the first save, and the other team would say, 'Uh-oh.'"

Lundqvist's 27 career shootout wins (he earned another Tuesday night in Montreal) are tied for first with Brodeur, the veteran superstar who didn't bat an eye when the NHL came out of the lockout with the new tiebreaker event.

"It's about confidence," Devils sniper Patrik Elias said. "I think we do have that in Marty, that he can obviously stop the puck, and we've got some skilled players here."

And, in the end, despite the frustrations of some players or coaches or GMs or owners, the fans still love it. At the NHL games we've been to this season, fans still get up from their seats for the shootout.

"Traditionally, as a kid growing up, it's not the way you decided hockey games," Lupul said. "But it's part of the game now and I actually like it, which is probably surprising considering my record in it. It's fun, and it's exciting. As a fan, when I watch other games, I like watching the nice moves some guys try in shootouts. I understand why we have it.

"But, obviously, in our case [the Flyers have won three of eight shootouts this season], we could have four or five more points in the standings and sitting a little prettier than we are right now."

Did we mention Jokinen needs a new contract after this season?

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.