In hockey, as in everything, there are righties and lefties. While right-handedness is dominant in ordinary life, surprisingly the dominant side for hockey players is to shoot left. Only about 1/3 of NHL players shoot right.
Oddly, the percentage of right-shooting players that have won the major awards is dramatically less than the 1/3 of righties in the general NHL population. As an example, let’s look at defensemen, but in particular, “two-way” or “offensive defensemen,” as defined by The Norris Trophy.
There have been 58 annual winners since the first James Norris Memorial Trophy was awarded for play in the 1953-1954 season. The first righty to win was 35 years later, when Chris Chelios won the first of his 3 for play in the 1988-1989 season. All previous recipients were left-handed: 35 and 0!
Out of those 58 years, exactly 4 men have been right-handed shooters. Just 6 years, total, have gone to right-handed players. In fact, Chelios is the only righty to win more than once. 24 unique individuals have won the Norris, yet only 4 were right-handed: Chelios, Rob Blake, Al MacInnis and last year’s Erik Karlsson. The difference seems staggering: by year, only 10% of Norris winners shoot right, from among 1/3 of the league’s total defensemen.
Let’s compare Chelios, and his 3 awards, to the leaders in multiple awards among lefties. Nicklas Lidstrom has won 6, which ties him with some guy named Orr. Neither of those guys were right-handed shooters.
Is there a prejudice against right-shooters? No, there just simply aren’t that many of them to begin with, and much fewer of them with crazy-good skills. There are various theories about why more players shoot left, and I have provided a link to some excellent discussion on that idea at the end of this article. We are not here, now, to discuss why the facts exist; we are here to discuss how the facts impact a hockey team.
Shooting left means your right hand is at the top of the stick, and the puck is shot or passed from outside your left foot. If you were skating towards the opposition net, your stick would be toward the left wing. A player that shoots left has his stick blade closest to the left boards.
Currently, in the Western Conference, there are 118 Defensemen listed, including those on injured reserve. Willie Mitchell is not technically a roster player, but I am going to include him, as well. So, out of 119 Defensemen in the Western Conference, 40 of them shoot righty.
Only two teams have a balance, being San Jose and Nashville, who list 4 of 8 right-side shooters. Anaheim and Detroit only have 1 each. Dallas, Vancouver and Colorado only have 2 each. Phoenix, Chicago, Columbus, St. Louis, Calgary, Edmonton, Minnesota and Your Los Angeles Kings have 3 each.
Usually, it makes little difference which side a person uses to eat, or write. In sports, though, it can matter very much. For example, there are no left-handed second basemen in baseball because a lefty would have a much harder time turning a double play. But is it the same in hockey?
Although there are players of both dominant sides playing all positions, the fact is that many times whether you are a lefty or a righty does matter, and matters a great deal.
There is an axiom that you have to draft a right-shooting D-man that can both shoot hard and quarterback the Power Play, because nobody will ever trade one to you if they get their hands on one. The reason you want a righty on the Power Play is for balance on attack. If only one side of the ice has a guy set up for one-timers (a shooter directly facing the passer) the one-sided one-timer is telegraphed. This is one reason why coaches plug in a right shooting forward on the Power Play, as the Kings often do with Jarrett Stoll.
Below is a table of the top scoring right-handed defensemen playing in the Western Conference this season. They are ranked by their career average of points per game.
The table reveals that we are fortunate to have 2 guys among the top scorers; only St. Louis can brag of a better tandem of scoring righties. Dan Boyle is best, by points, and has done so over a much longer career.
Scanning the teams, we see that L.A., San Jose, Calgary, Chicago and St. Louis have 2 each, then Columbus, Vancouver, Colorado, Phoenix, Minnesota and Nashville and Detroit have 1 each. Missing are (1) Anaheim, whose best righty is their only one, Ben Lovejoy at .281 (2) Dallas, with their best being Stephane Robidas at .287 pts/game, and (3) Edmonton with Justin Schultz at an average of .555 but only 27 games played.
Right-handedness counts for other aspects besides Power Play shots. The same need for balance, for symmetry, occurs on the Penalty Kill, too. Scuderi lays his stick down on the ice to block the pass, while blocking the path to the net with his body. Scuderi shoots left, so he plays the left side of the crease on the PK. We need the opposite on the right crease, so that’s why you see Voynov out there with Scuderi on kills.
Also, just taking the puck off the boards is easier on the forehand than on the backhand, and lacking righties makes some teams predictable on breakouts, and vulnerable to the forecheck on one side more than the other.
Los Angeles has 3, but that includes Matt Greene, who is on bad-backorder for arrival late April. Missing Matt Greene highlights the problem from the shortage of right-handers; if it is rare to find a particular offensive skill set, such as for the Power Play QB, it is also difficult to find the skillset combination of a Matt Greene. He is big, strong, he is a great Penalty Killer, he can move bodies, he is experienced, and he is happy to be a stay at home guy logging the tough minutes of killing penalties and taking first even-strength shifts after Special Teams play.
Just as the rarity of right-handed defensemen makes it difficult to find a particular skillset, the same is true of forwards; witness the players named MVP for regular season play. In the 87 years of Hart Memorial Trophy winners since the award was originated in 1924-1925, only 25 years have been won by righties, spread among 13 of 54 unique individuals.
Recently, however, the lefties have dominated: Righties Corey Perry won for 2010-2011, and Ovechkin won it twice in a row 2007 through 2009, but before that it was all lefties back to Mario Lemieux’s last of 3 Hart Trophies for play in 1995-1996.
Jarrett Stoll, as we mentioned above, shoots right. He is a natural center, and he is very good at face-offs. Of the top 20 face-off leaders this season, Stoll is 19th. There are only 4 right-handers getting better percentages than Stoll this season. Last season, Stoll was 18th for the season, and there were only 7 righties in the top 20. Add to that Stoll being 5th overall in 2010-2011 as the top righty that year, and Stoll’s value might become clearer; his skillset is rare to begin with, and especially rare to have from a right-side shooter. Plus, he is our only right-handed center other than Jeff Carter.
With Carter being right-handed and Mike Richards being a lefty, that line can switch faceoff men, and indeed they do, because it’s important to have that balance. As we now see, the balance is made elusive by general population numbers alone, but to then find the offensively gifted, or defensively effective player from among that smaller group is an even greater challenge, one which General Managers go through year in and year out. Happily, our guy solved it. Lombardi; the dean of GMs… I wonder if he dials the phone lefty or righty?
My article was written with data current as of March 17, 2013.
This related article is from March of 2010, and discusses in-game difficulty when lefties are forced to cover the right side on defense, quoting players.
This other related article is from 2007, but the concepts are still current. Good stuff.
Thanks for reading!