Shot Optimization: How Optimal Shooting Habits Can Improve Individual Goal Scoring Rates

Shot Optimization: How Optimal Shooting Habits Can Improve Individual Goal Scoring Rates

In the last 3 years, David Pastrnak has taken 274 shots from above the top of the face-off circles at 5-on-5. He has scored zero goals.

That’s the 6th most shots by any forward from this area, without scoring once. So, does it make sense for Pastrnak to be taking almost 30 percent of his shots from a goal scoring “dead zone”?

No, it does not. 

I spent some of my summer working on a research project and I’m going to share the results here.

The question – Can players score more goals by shooting more efficiently? Short answer – Yes.

I’m convinced that if a player understands what he needs to do to become as optimal a shooter as possible, he can adjust his shooting habits and ultimately, produce more goals. 

How many more goals would Pastrnak have scored had he shot less from the area that produced no results for him and instead looked to move the puck or get into a better shooting area? Granted, all players have different strengths and score in different ways so it’s not as simple as saying, “Hey, go plant yourself in-front of the net and take a bunch of ‘high-danger’ shots.” What works best for a player like Anders Lee might not necessarily work best for, say, Mat Barzal. That said, players can optimize their shooting habits and I’m going to present a few examples here that highlight the advantage of doing so.

What I’ll be highlighting is the importance of shooting from the areas players score from the most. Sounds simple, right? Well, even some of the best goal scorers in the game can benefit from becoming more optimal shooters. In this article, I’ll use Patrick Kane and Patrik Laine as examples of guys who score a lot but could likely score even more by tweaking a few things. I’ll also look at Auston Matthews, who has scored more 5-on-5 goals than anyone in the last 3 years, in part because he is a very optimal shooter – simply put, he takes a majority of his shots from places he can score from and doesn’t take many from ‘dead zones’ on the ice where he generally struggles to score.

Before sharing the results of my analysis, it’s important to highlight a few things:

1. This is not an exercise to predict future success, or even explain past results. I am merely highlighting shooting inefficiencies that exist for certain players. Not predictive – corrective.

2. The following data and graphics are a first step to understanding shooting tendencies, and are by no means a final analysis. Too often, graphics and charts are presented as and end-all and be-all as to what a player is or is not. Actionable analysis is simply not that simple. 

3. The data used in the study, from Sportlogiq, will be from the last three NHL seasons, at 5-on-5. This should provide an adequate sample size, in a normalized game state that will allow us to start asking the right questions.

4. To determine optimal shooting habits, the offensive zone will be divided into five zones.

1) The inner slot, 2) outer slot, 3) left flank, 4) right flank and 5) above the circles.

Inner slotgreen – the money zone. This is the highest-danger area of the ice where nearly half of all goals have been scored in the last three seasons. 

Outer slotblue – area where just over a quarter of all goals have been scored in the last three seasons. 

Left Flankyellow – left side of the offensive zone, outside the slot, below the top of the circles. 

Right Flankorange – right side of the offensive zone, outside the slot, below the top of the  circles.

Above Circlespink – low-danger area aka ‘the dead zone.’

Let’s start with Matthews, who I’ve identified as a player with optimal shooting habits. I’ll explain the following graphic, but the key here is analyzing where he scores from, where he shoots from and the differential between the two.


In the first column we see the percentage of Matthews’ goals, at 5-on-5, from our five zones on the ice. He scores 59 percent of his goals from the ‘money zone’, the inner slot. He takes just over 30 percent of his shots from this zone, which equates to a differential of 28.7 percentage points. Now, if you’re thinking that means he needs to get there more often – it’s important to consider that this zone happens to be the most difficult place from which to create shots and naturally the most likely place to score from. Again, nearly half of all goals scored in the NHL come from this area. Almost every player is going to have a higher percentage of their goals from here vs. the percentage of their shots. In fact, in this zone the league average differential for forwards is +37.4 percentage points, meaning that, on average, players’ goal percentages from this area are 37.4 percent higher than their shot percentages. For clarity – a player scoring 50 percent of his goals and taking 12.6 percent of his shots from the inner slot would have a league average differential of 37.4 percentage points. So, Matthews differential of 28.7 percentage points is actually quite good. It tells us that he is getting to the spot he scores from most at a good rate. 

Okay, back to the fun stuff.

What’s really impressive is that Matthews gets to his 2nd best goal scoring location – the outer slot, at an almost perfectly optimal rate. He’s scored one third of his goals from the outer slot and taken just over a third of his shots from there. Now that is optimal shooting. 

Only 14 percent of Matthews’ shots come from above the circles – the ‘dead zone’ for goal scoring, and one of the reasons for that is his exceptional ability to turn perimeter shots into outer slot shots. Whether it’s by making a move, a give-and-go with a teammate or changing the angle of his shot, Matthews increases his odds of scoring by getting below the top of the circles.

When it comes to optimal shooting habits, Auston Matthews is one of the best in the NHL and this is part of the reason he is the best 5-on-5 goal scorer in the game. 

Now, let’s take a look at another elite goal scorer who could use some help to become a more optimal shooter.


Kane has scored more goals from that outer slot area (33) than anyone in the last three seasons. How many more goals might he have with better shooting habits?

Here we see that over half of Kane’s 5-on-5 goals have come from the outer slot but less than a third of his shots come from this spot on the ice. That’s a differential of 18.4 percentage points, significantly higher than Matthews’ differential of 0.2 from this area. The red-flag here is that Kane takes over 20 percent of his shots from ‘the dead zone’ above the circles and has scored less than 2 percent of his goals from there. 

It’s important to acknowledge that oftentimes players shoot from above the circles in an attempt to extend zone time or create rebounds or deflections. Not every attempt from this area is taken in an effort to score, which is why it’s also important to watch video to better understand a player’s motivation when shooting from specific locations. 

However, after looking at video of Kane’s shots from above the circles, it becomes clear that these attempts rarely lead to anything of substance. Last season, Kane attempted 79 shots from above the circles. Three of these led to a scoring chance, two produced goals and 38 resulted in a loss of possession. These are low-percentage plays. 

So, how can Kane turn these low-percentage plays into more meaningful opportunities from the outer slot – the area he scores from more than anyone else?

It would help if the Blackhawks rethought some of their set face-off plays. In the examples below, Chicago gets the puck to Kane who throws it at the net, often less in an attempt to score, than to create chaos around the goalie. Not only has this approach failed to produce much by way of scoring chances or goals, but the puck is also being taken off the stick of one of the most feared playmakers in the game.

If Chicago focused more on set plays that allowed Kane to either distribute the puck quickly and get to the outer slot for a pass reception, or take it there himself, the team would likely stand a better chance of creating meaningful offence in these situations. Furthermore, given that Kane scores more from the outer slot than anyone else, it’s likely worth spending time practicing set, in-zone plays that allow Kane to get the puck in this space as often as possible. 

While this might only produce a few more goals for an individual player in a season, if teams can find ways to create incremental gains for top goal scorers, who knows how many more even-strength goals they might produce each season – 10,12,15? That’s not an insignificant amount.

One more example that I think really highlights the importance of evaluating player’s shooting habits lies in the enigma that is Patrik Laine.


Elite shot, gifted scorer, and wildly inconsistent last season. Shot optimization provides a window into why Laine’s goal production at 5-on-5 isn’t consistent with others who share a similar archetype.

Like Kane, Laine also buries a ton of goals from that outer slot area. In fact, Kane is the only guy with more than Laine’s 32 in the last 3 years. This shouldn’t come as a surprise – Laine can wire the puck. However, Laine also displays sub-optimal shooting habits which are really pronounced from above the circles. 

Laine scores almost 60 percent of his goals from the outer slot but takes a disproportionate amount of shots from ‘the dead zone.’ Just over 30 percent of Laine’s shots at 5-on-5 come from above the circles despite the fact that he almost never scores from there. 

What does that look like in raw numbers? 

A mere 2 goals on 232 shot attempts from above the circles over his career. Not ideal to say the least. Especially when you consider how many goals he has scored from the area right below, the outer slot. 

Again, it’s easy to tell any player to get to the prime scoring areas with more frequency but the value in a graphic like this is found in being able to measure how big the problem is and start on a path to identifying solutions. A couple of things stand out when looking at Laine’s clips on shot attempts from above the circles:

1. Too many ‘fade away’ shots. Laine getting pushed away from the meaningful scoring areas on the ice and throwing pucks at the net off his back foot while drifting away from the goal.

2. Poor reads due to a shoot-first mentality. If Laine gets the puck in the slot, by all means, fire away. However, these attempts from above the circles are low-percentage plays with little chance of turning into meaningful offensive opportunities – even for a guy with an elite shot.

Here are some examples where Laine looks-off better options, including a few wide-open 1-timers, because he’s determined to shoot the puck as soon as he gets it.

Laine is looking to shoot at all times however, based on the data and video, if he’s above the circles, shooting the puck should not be his primary focus. A give-and-go or a move to get lower in the zone will likely yield better, more consistent results. 

Again, this is simply the first step in a multi-step process to better understand how a player can maximize his on-ice results. Can his teammates do a better job of getting pucks to him in better areas? And furthermore, who should he be playing with to give him the best chance of producing more consistently and how does that affect the Jets’ lines overall?

These are all important questions that need to be considered. I gave my take on all of this recently on NHL Network.


Players are always looking for ways to get better and scoring goals is one of the hardest things to do in professional hockey. A great example of a guy who put a plan in place and was able to do this last season is Gabe Landeskog – details here.

So, if Pastrnak was aware that he shoots a ton of pucks from a spot he never scores from, would he continue to do so? If the ‘Hawks were aware of how little value they gain from Kane firing pucks from distance off face-off wins, would they devise a different plan of attack? What if Laine, who has one of the best shots in the game, knew he had a career shooting percentage of less than 1 percent from above the circles at 5-on-5? Would that change his approach?

What about a player in a slump? Last season, Matthews went through a stretch where he scored 1 goal in 13 games and the city of Toronto nearly imploded. I’m kidding, but as you can imagine, this was a big story in the centre of the hockey universe. Matthews was still getting chances but he was shooting a disproportionate amount from the left flank, as opposed to the slot – where he’s scored 92 percent of his 5-on-5 goals. That’s an easy thing to show a player. Something like: “Hey Auston, quick reminder – this is where you score from and this is where you’ve been shooting from during this slump. See the difference? Now, get back inside the dots where you are money and the goals will come.” 

Like I said, this is step one of a process that involves video analysis, an understanding of what players are being asked to do on the ice and input from the players themselves. Shot optimization analysis is an important and necessary tool for evaluating why a player may be scoring more or less than he normally does and whether there are ways to increase his scoring rate.

I’ll be keeping an eye on player shooting habits throughout the season and will revisit this to see where certain guys are at as the season progresses. In the meantime, if you’d like to see the shot optimization chart for a particular player, drop me a note on Twitter @MikeKellyNHL and I’ll do my best to get back to you. 

I’ll leave you with a couple of guys who should probably take fewer shots from each of the zones I’ve identified.


Above the Circles: Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Marchessault, Tyler Toffoli

Left Flank: Nick Ritchie, Evander Kane, Miles Wood

Right Flank: Brendan Gallagher, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Charlie Coyle

Outer Slot: Sam Reinhart, Reilly Smith, Tyler Toffoli

Inner Slot: – Average shooting percentage from here is 21%. Take more shots than Lil Jon.