Detroit Red Wings Analysis: Is Jimmy Howard Bad at Shootouts?

Lots of hockey fans hate the shootout. Give them an opportunity and they'll tell you how it's a stupid gimmick that can ruin a well-fought game and can cause havoc in the standings by introducing a random third point awarded in some games which isn't given out in others. Red Wings fans have another reason to hate shootouts though: their team isn't good enough at them.

Since the shootout was introduced in the post-lockout 2005-06 season, the Red Wings are 43-52 all time in the coin flip round. This is made even worse by games like Sunday's in which the fans feel that the Wings had no business letting the game get to a shootout in the first place (and trust me, there are a lot of games that feel like that).

Since the 2009-10 season, Detroit is 26-32. This cutoff is important as it's the beginning of the Jimmy Howard era in Detroit. He had a few starts prior to that season, but this was the year he cemented himself as the Red Wings' starting goaltender. It's also the year he apparently earned a reputation for being bad at the shootout.

Is that deserved though?

The problem with judging guys by the skills competition is that it's very difficult to get a meaningful sample size. Even in 5 seasons, Howard has faced only 150 attempts. Scoring rates are also significantly higher in the skills competition, so it naturally looks like the goalie is doing a worse job as well. Finally, the problem here is that shootout results lend themselves incredibly well to being shoved into a narrative and remembered strongly.

What is "Good" in the Shootout for a Goalie?

Since the shootout was introduced, shooters have finished on 32.76% of their chances. This sets the league save percentage over more than 10,000 total attempts at .6724. Shooters are way more likely to score in the skills competition than anywhere else.

Jimmy Howard's career shootout save percentage is .703. There are 24 active goalies who have faced more than 100 shootout attempts in their careers. Jimmy Howard is 9th (he'll be pushed to 10th the next time Semyon Varlamov plays in a shootout unless that guy somehow manages to allow five goals without making a single save)

So over the course of his career, Jimmy Howard is good. If you can't confidently say that based on sample size, you can probably at least say he's average.

One of the things working against Howard here is recency. If you look at his performances only since the last lockout, he's saving only three out of every five shots for a frustrating .600 save percentage over 50 attempts. The Wings have gone to shootouts more often recently and they've done worse. That's going to grate on a fanbase.

What about the Shooters?

Here's where things get really frustrating. With teams scoring on 32.76% of shots and with a goalie who saves more than average, all you'd need to do is shoot at average and you win more coin flips. Unfortunately, the Wings have shot just 31% in the shootout over the entire era and have done even worse during the Jimmy Howard era, potting only 27.4% of attempts since the start of 2009-10.

That's... well that's not good enough

So, Panic?

What we've got here is a team putting up overall below-average results in the shootout and getting below-average returns for it. I don't think that there's much to it. I'd rather the Wings spend more time practicing to avoid the skills competition than working over a mountain of diminishing returns to get even a little better at something this incredibly dominated by luck.

The bottom line is that the Wings would have more wins if Howard made more timely saves in the shootout; they'd also have more wins if the shooters were as good as they're supposed to be.

What is the Secret to the shootout?

I dug through every shootout that Jimmy Howard has been involved in since 2009-10 because I was curious about a few things. To nobody's surprise, the conventional wisdom about needing to score first holds up extremely well in Detroit games. The team scoring the first goal is overall 33-10.

However, it gets a bit tricky as far as Howard is concerned because while you do want to score first (Detroit is actually only 15-6 when they score first in this era versus the opponent being 18-4), Your best bet to make sure that the opponent doesn't score first might actually be to have Howard shut them down off the bat. Howard's save percentage in facing the very first shot of the skills competition is an impressive .7895. On the other side, if you let Howard see the first shot taken against his opponent at the far end, he's only stopped 62.5% of first shot attempts against.

When you take that up against the 33% likelihood that the Wings will actually score on the very first shootout attempt, it might make more sense for Babcock to defer whenever given the choice, especially considering the Wings have scored 31.6% of their first shots in the Jimmy Howard Era when they haven't gotten to shoot first. The team shoots slightly worse when they go second, but Howard's save percentages make up that difference easily.

If I were coaching would I try that? I don't know. Watching the other team shoot first knowing that they've historically had an 82% chance of winning if they score on that one is a bit terrifying. Knowing that we're working with small samples here, I'd probably just take it for the coin flip that it is and use the extra time to start preparing my postgame comments about any one of a dozen or so reasons we should have finished the game off earlier.