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Penguins coach Johnston stresses shoot-first mentality | TribLIVE.com
Penguins/NHL

Penguins coach Johnston stresses shoot-first mentality

Tribune-Review
| Wednesday, November 12, 2014 6:42 p.m
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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Penguins coach Mike Johnston talks with assistant coack Rick Tocchet on the bench during a game against the Stars on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.
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NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins shoots the puck against New York Rangers during Game Four of the Second Round in the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 7, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

A year after Mike Johnston broke into the NHL as an assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks in 1999-2000, he had a soon-to-be star player by the name of Henrik Sedin.

He also had a problem.

Sedin didn’t shoot nearly as much as Johnston wanted him to, so Johnston went digging on one of his favorite websites — NHL.com‘s stats page, the same one you can access — to prove to Sedin how more shots eventually correlate to more goals.

“You look at save percentage of goaltenders,” Johnston said. “There’s no goaltender with a 1.000 save percentage. If you get 10 shots on goal, you’re going to get a goal.”

Johnston has assumed his new job as Penguins coach with several firm philosophies when it comes to shots.

Though he admits style of play is Johnston’s call, general manager Jim Rutherford shares those ideas, winning a Cup via high-shot volumes with Carolina in 2006.

As for Sedin, he went from averaging 93.8 shots his first five years to 148.2 the next five. His average goals jumped from 12.4 to 19.0, a 35-percent increase.

“It’s not random shots,” Johnston said. “But still, you have to get the puck to the net.”

Goal in mind

Johnston has a challenge for his players.

“I’d like to have a goal of 35 shots a night,” Johnston said. “It’s something we can achieve, but it’s difficult to be a 35-shot team.”

Only one team has done it for a full season since the start of the Sidney Crosby era in 2005-06: the 2008-09 Red Wings, who averaged 36.2.

Among Stanley Cup winners during the Crosby era, the 2009-10 Blackhawks (34.1) and 2007-08 Red Wings (34.4) came close. Both led the league.

“There are definitely times where there’s an opportunity to get it to the net instead of holding onto it and not having anything develop,” Crosby said. “(Johnston) has been pretty clear that he wants to see pucks toward the net and guys there.”

The Penguins average 31.6 shots per game, fourth-best in the NHL and the second-highest total of the Crosby era behind their league-leading 33.9 of 2011-12.

Chicago is the only 35-or-more team this season at 38.1

Ten in 10

The idea is to be less selective early and more selective late, Johnston said.

Defenseman Kris Letang said Johnston wants the Penguins to have 10 shots by the 10-minute mark of the first period.

“What Mike wants to install is a really aggressive start,” Letang said.

There’s a reason for this. A calculated one.

“Looking at the shot clock partway through the first period, and you have two shots on goal can be psychologically deflating,” Johnston said. “The start of the game, I think it’s important to put teams off-balance with shots.”

‘Red-zone’ offense

As a goaltender, Rutherford knows how valuable – or annoying – net traffic can be. Which is one of the reasons he traded for Patric Hornqvist.

Rutherford also believes firmly in a concept he calls the “Red Zone.”

Imagine baseball’s home plate, where the flat part extends out from the goal line then comes to a point at the top of the slot.

The majority of shots should come from there.

“You look at a lot of goals and the way the goalies are now, you really have to have somebody in front of the net creating that havoc,” Rutherford said.

“You take that area, you break the goals down, where most of them come from, and that’s what we call the red zone.”

Already, the Penguins have cut nearly a foot off their average shot attempt – 33.57 feet in 2013-14 to 32.79 this season, according to sportingcharts.com.

The Penguins’ 12.19 shooting percentage ranks second in the NHL. It’s the highest of the Sidney Crosby era by nearly a whole percentage point (.89).

Firm belief

Rutherford’s Carolina teams, coached by Peter Laviolette, finished sixth, eighth, second and sixth in total shots between 2005-09.

Using the concept of high shot volume, the Hurricanes averaged 97.3 standings points per season during that stretch.

During Johnston’s time as coach, the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League averaged 313.8 goals per season, and shot totals had plenty to do with that.

Johnston’s Portland clubs averaged 38.8 shots per game, with a max of 41.25 in 2011-12.

The unpredictability of what happens once you shoot the puck is what Johnston loves most.

“Every day we’ll practice dump-ins, going to get pucks and our breakout options off dump-ins,” Johnston said. “But it’s so hard to practice off a shot because a shot may hit a goaltender and ricochet off the glass. It may be deflected into the corner. It may go behind the net. You never know where it’s going to go.”

No individuals

Does shooting a ton, even if you’re fairly accurate, really matter?

Probably not.

Sixty-one players finished in the top 10 in goals and shooting percentage between 2005-06 and 2013-14.

Alex Ovechkin (nine), Ilya Kovalchuk (five) and Phil Kessel (four) accounted for 18 of those. None have won a Cup.

Only four Penguins made the list, and one is James Neal. Only Evgeni Malkin and Henrik Zetterberg did it on Cup-winners.

What does this mean?

Shots have to be calculated, and it has to be a team effort, not a whole bunch coming from one player.

“Every team wants to get pucks to the net, but you want to be somewhat calculated with it,” Crosby said. “You don’t want to give pucks away because you’re just throwing it at the net.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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