Riley Sheahan’s 2016-17 goal drought was one of the more unthinkable stories of the season. Coming off a 14-goal campaign the year prior, the most in his NHL career, Sheahan, then with the Detroit Red Wings, went 79 games without finding the goal column, putting 107 shots on net in the process.
It wasn’t until the final game of the season, which also happened to be the final outing at Joe Louis Arena, that Sheahan finally broke the slump. His 108th shot found twine, his first goal of the season coming one year to the day since he last lit the lamp. As luck would have it — and Sheahan was more than due for some of that — he scored again in the contest, too, registering the last goal in Joe Louis Arena history.
Broken streak or not, though, Sheahan’s drought is an NHL record. No forward in league history had taken as many shots without scoring in a season. Previously, Craig Adams had gone all 82 games without a goal during the 2009-10, but he had only taken 84 shots in the process. Sheahan had surpassed that total by nearly two dozen shots, making it all the more difficult to understand how he was so unlucky throughout the campaign.
San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns might be starting to get a feel for what Sheahan was going through, though.
Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes, Burns is the league leader in shooting futility with 82 shots to his name without a single one finding the back of the net. It’s a scoreless stretch that’s even worse when you consider there hasn’t been a single game this season in which Burns has failed to hit the net at least once and, with 11 outings with four shots or more, he’s been one of the most active shooters in the entire league. To wit, there are only five players in NHL, all forwards, who have put more pucks on net than Burns. So, it should come as no surprise that at his current pace, Burns would blow Sheahan’s struggles out of the water.
At a rate of 4.3 shots per game, Burns is projected to rifle more 354 pucks on goal if he doesn’t miss a game for the Sharks this season, and you don’t need to be Albert Einstein to figure out he’s on pace to score exactly zero goals. And were Burns to actually finish the season with 350-plus shots on goal — and he has before, firing 353 shots in 2015-16 — and finish without a goal, he would almost triple the current record for most shots by a player without a goal. The current mark belongs to blueliner Gilles Marotte, who took 153 shots as a Chicago Black Hawk in 1967-68 yet failed to score once.
There are a few reasons why the likelihood of Burns surpassing that mark is about the same as his current goal total, though. Matter of fact, it’s not crazy to suggest Burns could still crack the 20-goal plateau this season.
First and foremost, and putting it simply, the volume of shots that Burns takes makes it almost impossible for him to continue to stay out of the goal column. Since the 1967-68 season, there are 36 instances of a defenseman taking at least 300 shots on goal in a campaign, with Burns accounting for two of those, registering 300-plus shots in each of the past two seasons. And of those 300-shot campaigns from rearguards, the lowest single-season goal total belongs to Dick Redmond, who scored 14 goals on 310 shots during the 1974-75 campaign. More telling, though, is that only six times has a defender put more than 300 shots on goal and scored fewer than 20 goals. By virtue of volume alone, it’s a near certainty that shots start finding their way through.
Burns’ career shooting percentage also suggests he’s bound to break through sooner rather than later. We have enough data on Burns to get an idea of what he’s capable of producing, and his career 7.3 shooting percentage would indicate that he should have six goals by this point in the season. That’s not the case, obviously, but all it takes is one shot for the dam to break and Burns to start scoring the rest of the way. And when it comes to reaching the 20-goal mark for a third straight season, all you need to consider is this: if Burns were to shoot at his career average the rest of the way, scoring on 7.3 percent of his shots at 4.3 shots per game, he’d be flirting with 20 tallies by the end of the campaign. Furthermore, getting his full-season shooting percentage back around his career average would see him score 26 goals on 353 shots. Here's where it's worth nothing he's been the most proficient defender at scoring in bunches, too, with six multi-goal games since the start of the 2015-16 season.
There’s more to it than shot volume and career average shooting percentage, though, because it’s not as if Burns is blindly firing hoping for a bounce. Rather, he’s getting into position to make something happen, but having no luck when he does. At all strengths this season, Burns has had 37 scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick, and while his rate of 4.59 chances per 60 minutes of ice time is lower than his past two campaigns, he’s finding good scoring areas at a rate similar to that of his 17-goal 2014-15 campaign. Given enough opportunities, Burns is bound to capitalize.
The fact he hasn’t yet boils down to one thing for Burns, and it’s the same thing that saw Sheahan set the high-water mark for lamp-lighting struggles last season: bad luck. Even without a goal, Burns remains one of the most threatening offensive defensemen in the league, so we shouldn’t expect his goalless drought to continue much longer. And maybe Wednesday’s outing against the Coyotes’ league-worst defense can be exactly what the doctor ordered.
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