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The specialist is back: Silfverberg again an ace in shootouts

After three years of struggles, Ducks forward returning to form

Anaheim Ducks v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

Shootouts may be a bore to some and a nonsensical way to end hockey games to others, but despite the thrill of 3-on-3 overtime, they remain the NHL’s preferred way to determine a winner after 65 minutes.

At one point in time, Ducks forward Jakob Silfverberg was arguably the NHL’s best shootout taker. Then, for a few years, he wasn’t even one of the Ducks’ best shootout takers. Now, he may be back to his old form, though plenty has changed regarding his approach.

When the Ducks acquired Silfverberg prior to the 2013-14 season, he was billed as an excellent two-way forward who possessed a wicked shot, and that wicked shot made him an excellent shootout option. In his one season with Ottawa, he went 4-for-7.

Silfverberg went 1-for-3 in the shootout in his first season with the Ducks, but from 2014 to 2016, no player in the NHL was as deadly. He scored on 13 of 20 tries in those two seasons, while no other player scored more than 10 (coincidentally, one player to reach 10 in that span was Bobby Ryan, who the Ducks sent to Ottawa for Silfverberg in 2013).

In 2014-15, Silfverberg made nine of his 13 attempts. Of his four misses, on one hit the crossbar, on one he mishandled the puck, and on one he missed the net; only once did Silfverberg get his shot off where he wanted and the goalie was able to make a save.

He continued his prowess in 2015-16. With only seven attempts, he scored four times.

Like an A+ pitcher who shows up to spring training with C- stuff, Silfverberg lost his touch the next three seasons. He scored only once in 13 tries from 2016 to 2019. In 2018-19 the Ducks were involved in six shootouts, but Silfverberg was only used twice (and he missed both). That’s a sudden turn for a player that was an automatic participant, and almost automatic scorer, in the Ducks’ 13 shootouts in 2014-15.

After three years of struggles, Silfverberg appears to be back on track in 2019-20, scoring on both of his tries.

So what made him so good? Why did he start to struggle? And how has he apparently cured his ills?

An all-around player, it’s no secret that Silfverberg’s greatest weapon is his shot. He has quick hands and he’s able to pull the puck into his wheelhouse and snap off a shot with the best of them. While that hasn’t always translated to goals during regular play — Silfverberg has an oddly low 9.9% shooting percentage for his career — he’s utilized that shot to great effectiveness in shootouts.

When Silfverberg was at his best in 2014-15, he used a simple approach and little variation. A right-hander, Silfverberg would collect the puck at the dot, cross the blue line with speed and snap the puck from the left hash. Most of those attempts went upper right corner over the goalie’s glove (on left-catching goalies). Rarely did Silfverberg shoot elsewhere.

There are a lot of strategies to a shootout attempt. Patrick Kane is another one of the NHL’s best at shootouts, not only because of his fantastic hands, but because of how he manipulates the goalie. Kane often enters the zone with speed, then puts on the breaks around the hash marks, gliding the rest of the way before shooting or deking. That approach throws off the goalie’s timing. Anticipating Kane’s speed, the goalie backs into the net too quickly, leaving Kane with plenty of open net to shoot at.

In a general sense, the goalie helps determine the shooter’s better option. If the goalie is at the top of their crease, it’s better to get them moving from side to side with a deke. If the goalie sits deep in their crease, shooting is the more effective option. Silfverberg normally shoots regardless of the goalie’s position, and the fact that he scores even when the goalie is out high shows how quick his release really is.

Silfverberg, when he was at his best, was like Hall of Fame pitcher Mariano Rivera. Batters knew Rivera was going to throw his famed cutter but couldn’t hit it. In this case goalies knew where Silfverberg was going to shoot from and where his shot was going, but most couldn’t stop it.

But goalies adjust, and for awhile Silfverberg didn’t. Bigger goalies like Devan Dubnyk or Pekka Rinne, who both stopped Silfverberg on separate occasions in 2017-18, stood at the top of their crease and protected the glove side. Both were able to snare Silfverberg’s attempts. Others like Jonathan Quick, who ended up inside his crease on Silfverberg’s successful attempt above, came out way farther than a goalie typically would.

In the clip below, Quick is at least two feet outside his crease when Silfverberg releases the puck. Even shooting on a moderately sized goalie, that leaves almost no net to shoot at.

By 2018, Silfverberg was struggling so much in shootouts that Randy Carlyle essentially benched him. In a shootout between the Ducks and Wild in February 2018, Silfverberg was the Ducks’ seventh shooter (and was unsuccessful). In other shootouts later that season, he remained in the bullpen.

It’s not as if Silfverberg never tried something different. In a shootout against the Coyotes in October 2018, as opposed to entering the zone from the left, Silfverberg skated in right down the middle, shimmied his shoulders a bit and fired a shot straight on. His low try was easily denied. Upon further review, a member of the Coyotes’ broadcast team said, “That was a horrible shot by a real good hockey player.”

Indeed. Silfverberg was sent out for the shootout only once more in 2018-19. He did not score.

Continuing with the pitching analogies, it’s crucial for pitchers to throw from the same arm angle with each pitch. If a pitcher’s delivery looks the same whether they’re throwing a fastball or a change-up, it’s far more difficult for the hitter to anticipate what’s coming.

This relates to how Silfverberg’s approached his two shootout attempts in 2019-20. Entering this season, goalies had 43 attempts to use as reference for what Silfverberg liked to do in shootouts. Tossing aside the previous clip, in most of those 43 Silfberberg shot from the same spot to the same area of the net.

What happens when Silfverberg gets to that exact same position at the left hash but doesn’t shoot? He debuted a new move on Dec. 14 against the New York Rangers to great success.

Until he gets to the hash, Silfverberg takes the exact same approach as he had 40+ times before — how he enters the zone and when he decides to pick up speed looks the same as many of his previous tries. This time he opens up his blade as if he’s going to snap a shot off, but pulls the puck to his backhand and goes top shelf. Henrik Lundqvist, a Swedish countryman who was surely familiar with Silfverberg’s usual shootout tactics, is completely fooled.

Silfverberg did the same move a week later against the New York Islanders. This time it was Semyon Varlamov that he beat for a goal.

Shootouts don’t need to be complicated, but it’s important to at least keep the goaltender guessing. For a long time, Silfverberg approached shootout with a best-on-best mentality. He was confident that his shot would beat the goaltender’s glove, regardless of their position. By never mixing it up, Silfverberg allowed goalies to cheat more and more.

Now that he’s added to his repertoire, goalies can’t cheat one way. Even if Silfverberg intends to shoot the next time he has a shootout attempt, the goalie has to respect his backhand move.

That makes him all the more dangerous.