Rethinking the Notion that Ryan Kesler is a “Puck Hog”

After posting two consecutive seventy-point seasons, including a 2009-10 campaign that saw him post 50 assists, Ryan Kesler’s offensive production dropped by about 20 points during the 2011-12 NHL campaign. If you asked fans of the team, one of the major reasons for Kesler’s drop in production (outside of the fact that he rushed back from an injury, and was hobbled throughout the final three months of the regular season) was his seeming reluctance to pass the puck. The most common criticism I’ve heard: "Kesler has fallen in love with his shot."

In January, with the Canucks’ possession numbers cratering and secondary scoring nowhere to be found outside of Cody Hodgson, headcoach Alain Vigneault publicly called out his two-way ace for hogging the puck. According to his coach, it was imperative that Ryan Kesler "use the players around him more," a public accusation that Ryan Kesler bristled at.

Looking over some new data on "Puck Hogging" posted by Benjamin Wendorf over at, it appears that Kesler’s annoyance at Alain Vigneault’s criticism may have been entirely justified. 

Read on past the jump.

Here’s how Benjamin summarized his methodology and findings over at NHLNumbers on Wednesday:

I was looking across forwards with 20+ games the last five years and decided to add a metric, where I took the shots attempted (technically, it would be like "Fenwick attempted"; shots plus missed shots) while a player was on the ice and determined what percentage of those shots were attempted by the player. This percentage of attempted shots (%AttSh) was my way of saying, "Okay, I don’t care what line you’re on, or where you start on the ice…how many of the shots are your doing?" At the time, I was more interested in seeing if it was a stable metric for fantasy hockey prediction; if it was, I could consider it a marker of player behavior, or talent, and use it to predict how many shots a player might take. I was also interested in labeling people "puck hogs."

In summary, Ben was trying to figure out the frequency with which a particular player takes shots relative to his teammates when he’s on the ice. He looked a bit deeper and found that "puck-hogging" – or the act of an individual skater taking a disproportionate number of their teams shots, relative to their teammates when they’re on the ice – is something that players tend to repeatedly, season after season, like a bad habit.

Ben then broke-down which players dominate the shot-count the most when they’re on the ice, and Ryan Kesler didn’t crack the top-25. However, one of his line-mates did: shooting percentage outlier David Booth. By the numbers, Booth took the 18th highest percentage of his own teams shots when he was on the ice of any player who has played 20 games over the past five seasons. 

Kesler didn’t show up in the top-25 at all, though he did make it onto another one of Ben’s list, and this one may surprise you. Ben looked at every players shooting percentage relative to the shooting percentage of their teammates, and attempted to crudely figure out which players were shooting too often (to the detriment of their team), which players should’ve shot more, and which players were right in the sweet spot, expertly picking their spots. Kesler, despite the criticisms of his performance last season from Canucks fans and Vancouver sports media, made the third list.

Realistically, Ben’s numbers don’t account for things like "the player tried to weave through three defenders and turned the puck over" or "ignored a teammate on a two-on-one," but I still find his findings compelling. Ryan Kesler’s wrist shot is legitimately dangerous, and there’s no doubt that he’s a better shooter than the likes of Mason Raymond, Chris Higgins and David Booth (his most frequent line-mates last season). So why shouldn’t he be taking the bulk of Vancouver’s shots when the second line is on the ice, really? 

Moreover if we use Ben’s "shots attempted" stat, it looks like Ryan Kesler’s newfound "puck-hogging" habit is neither newfound nor real at all. In fact, the evidence would lead me to suspect that the "Kesler is a puck hog" narrative is entirely a figment of the collective imagination. Here’s Kesler’s shots attempted broken down over the past three seasons:

Ryan Kesler Canucks AttSh Kesler AttSh AttSh%
2009-10 872 213 24.4%
2010-11 931 237 25.5%
2011-12 848 206 24.3%

As you can see, the numbers suggest that Kesler was actually more generous with the puck at even-strength in 2011-12, than he was during his 50 assist campaign. Those amateur psychoanalysts who think Kesler has exhibited a "do it all myself" mentality since singlehandedly defeating the Nashville Predators in the 2010-11 Western Conference Semifinals, might want to give it a rest.

My best guess here is that Kesler grated on the nerves of Canucks fans last season for other reasons, mostly his propensity for diving. In an effort to channel this frustration, fans and media may have looked for other areas of his game to critique and settled on the notion that he’s "hogging the puck." Peeling back the layers of data however, the numbers suggest that Kesler’s game hasn’t really changed from a "puck distribution" perspective over the past three seasons.

So Kesler may not be a puck-hog, which is good news. After all if his linemate David Booth caught wind of the notion that Kesler might be an animal belonging to the Suidae family, well that might put Kesler’s personal safety at grave risk. 

Read Ben Wendorf’s excellent take on "hogging the puck" here.

  • The one caveat to his numbers last season, however, is that he was playing with a “puck hog” in the form of Booth, which skews his percentages somewhat for Ben’s third list, assuming that by “teammates” Ben actually meant “linemates,” which seems to be the case.

    My frustration with Kesler’s tendency to shoot first rather than pass the puck comes down to advanced stats’ nemesis: shot quality. Instead of moving the puck and developing a higher quality scoring chance, Kesler seemed to try to force the puck through far too often.

    I think Ben has come across something interesting, but I’m not sure anything substantive can be made from it yet. I think it needs more fine-tuning.

    • I asked myself the same question and looked at when Jokinen joined Iginla over in Calgary. Neither player’s %AttSh went down when they played together. Obviously, that’s just one example, but building that kind of data-set will be a bit of a horrorshow time-wise, so that’s all I can say for now. I’ll look into it.

  • Good article.

    I still think Kesler was a puck hog last year, despite the stats. I feel that the definition of puck hog cannot be entirely or even strongly described by any available stats. The reason has to do with shot selection. The stats do not say whether or not the players’ shots were worth attempting. This is where I feel the definition of puck hog lies. When a player starts taking many low percentage shots when he should pass or wait for the play to develop he is a puck hog. It wouldn’t matter if he took a high or low percentage of the teams overall shots. What matters is that he is taking shots that are worth it. Last year Kesler seemed to take a lot of low percentage shots. Maybe this occurred because he was injured and couldn’t get himself a better opportunity using his athleticism, or maybe defensemen were better at reading his shot. Either way, using the ‘eye test’ it seemed like Kes took a lot of long wrist shots from just inside the blue line with a defensemen comfortably marking him. Whereas, during his Selke campaign he seemed to more often than not be taking shots from a more wide open position, closer to the middle of the ice, with the defensemen reaching to stay with him.

  • Definitely needs more fine-tuning. But I think we can at least write off the “Kesler became a puck hog this past season” narrative based on the fact that he took the lowest proportion of shots (relative to his teammates) in three seasons in 2011-12.

    Even if Booth’s puck hog proclivities skew those numbers, it at least means that Kes wasn’t “going it alone” more frequently last season than in the past. That’s the only substantive conclusion I drew from the numbers, and I think it’s founded.

    As for the shot quality bit, I really don’t agree. Needless to say I don’t think shot quality is analytically relevant anyway but let’s assume that it is. Kesler is a two-way ace who played “tougher” minutes last season than the season previous, usually against the oppositions top-forward group. Considering his circumstances and defensive responsibility, he shouldn’t even be trying to pull off what the Sedins do (passing up scoring chances, to create better ones) anyway.

  • Dimitri Filipovic

    Raised a question that’s somewhat in this realm regarding Kesler on the podcast I did with Charron yesterday, and there’s no real right answer but it’s a topic worth discussing. I wonder kind of effect would be had if the Canucks were able to put a big playmaking centre next to him that a) took up space and was a threat himself, b) was able to get Kesler the puck, and c) ultimately allowed Kesler to run wild on the RW without having to necessarily worry about his defensive responsibilities.

    Obviously a lot of Kesler’s value comes from his two-way play down the middle, as he drives play for the Canucks in a big way. But still. It’s hard not to wonder what would happen if he was alleviated of some of those duties.