February 24, 2016
Leaners, twisters and quick fakes have helped Canadian scorers create space on smaller nets than the box lacrosse ones they are used to growing up. (Trevor Brown)
Leaners, twisters and quick fakes have helped Canadian scorers create space on smaller nets than the box lacrosse ones they are used to growing up. (Trevor Brown)

Myth Busters: Comparing Canadian and American Shooters

by Joe Keegan | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

A few years ago, sports technology company Krossover found that Canadian-born Division I players had “a significantly higher shooting percentage” than their American counterparts. It’s no secret why Canadians, who grow up playing box lacrosse in the summers, shot more efficiently in the outdoor game. The benefits of box lacrosse on skill development are well-known: lots of repetitions in tight spaces lead to soft hands, passes on ears and shots in corners.

This is not another article arguing for outdoor players to supplement their skillsets with winter box teams. This article attempts to use statistics to explain the difference Krossover found between box-first (Canadian) and field-first (American) players.

Using the data I tracked during the 2015 Major League Lacrosse season, I revisited Krossover’s findings. Among attackmen and midfielders, there is a gap between Canadians (30.7 percent) and Americans (28.9) in the professional game, although not a statistically significant gap. However, there is a significant difference in the areas Canadians and Americans shoot from.

The data set has some limitations worth acknowledging. It is a small sample size of very talented Canadian shooters. Teams in MLL only have three National Lacrosse League inactive spots for protecting indoor players, and with the largest NLL-MLL overlap in league history, only the elite Canadians saw much time this summer. Other than Zach Palmer and Mark Cockerton (who were plugged into early-season, lefty-deprived lineups) and rookies Dan Taylor and Chad Tutton, every Canadian who took a shot in MLL was on the 2014 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) gold medal team.

Myth No. 1: Canadians shoot better from the hole.

Everyone shoots well from the hole, or the paint. Other than the doorstep area within a couple yards of the crease, the middle of the field yields the highest shooting percentage. Canadians (41.9 percent) and Americans (40.1) alike bury the rock when they see 36 square feet of twine less than 10 yards away from them. However, our neighbors to the north find themselves in those scenarios far more often.

Fact No. 1: Canadians are better at getting open in the hole.

More than one-in-five shots taken by Canadians was from the hole. Contrarily, just 12.1 percent of shots taken by Americans were from that area. The difference in frequency is apparent when comparing these charts, which depict the typical location and results of 200 shots by Canadians and Americans.

One reason that Canadians shoot from the hole more often is that a majority of Canadian shots (59.3 percent) were preceded by a would-be assist. It’s much easier to feed the crease than to dodge to it, but feeding the crease is also much easier said than done. To understand how Canadians manage to get open for shots from this area, just watch a box lacrosse game.

Indoor players tend to be more active off-ball. It’s one of many byproducts of the 30-second shot clock and wholesale line changes. Five players with fresh legs know that they have minimal time to probe or exhaust a defense.

Indoors, the time to attack is always now. Teammates may have more confidence throwing the ball to NLL stars in the middle of the field than average MLL attackmen. Catching and finishing in front of the cage is not just a prerequisite to donning an NLL sweater; it is offense in the NLL.

Myth No. 2: Canadians shoot better from poor angles.

Quality shots are quality shots regardless of whether you wake up with Tim Horton’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. Similarly, ill-advised shots are ill-advised shots. Canadians and Americans shoot from the widest areas of the field with nearly identical levels of success.

Canadians, however, opted for backhand shots (3.3 percent of the time) and behind-the-back shots (10.1) significantly more often than Americans did, especially from these angles. The concept of using the head of your stick to increase your shooting angle is a staple to box lacrosse. The advantages created by that mindset are evident when looking at left- and right-handed wrong-side shots.

Fact No. 2: Canadians avoid wrong-sided shots.

Offenses in the National Lacrosse League often look like two separate units gelling as one. Left-handed players and right-handed players are grounded to their respective halves of the field, as if an ankle monitor would signal a violation of house arrest were the players to cross the invisible center line. Sticks stay toward the middle of the field, especially when shooting.

“The head of your stick is your eye,” said TSN analyst and former NLL player Teddy Jenner. “The more net your stick can see, the better shooting angle you have, and the better chance you have of putting that ball on target.”

Both strong-sided (31.4 percent) and shots from the middle-fifth of the field (30.2) are significantly higher quality looks than wrong-sided shots (24.9). Before the shot is released, Canadians have already given themselves a better chance to score. Just 21.5 percent of Canadian shots were wrong-sided (i.e. right-handed and on the goalie’s left side) in MLL this summer. On the contrary, 28.2 percent of American shots were taken with sticks to the sidelines.

Question mark dodges and alley dodges are two common shots taken with sticks toward the sidelines. The brutality in MLL severely diminishes the success rate of question mark dodges relative to other levels. Referees swallow their whistles while long poles steer attackmen clear of the island like a tropical storm.

Alley dodges are subsidized in the outdoor game by the potential for end-line restarts. Midfielders know they can free their hands against “no middle” defenses; they also know they can miss wide without any repercussions. Boards serve as a tax on wide shots indoors, turning would-be run outs into loose ball rebounds. The low-risk nature of alley dodges makes them a viable option, despite their similarly low returns.

Americans would be wise to wipe wrong-sided chances from their palettes. If only it were that simple.

Quantifying a particular shot’s ability to set up a higher quality shot is difficult. The threat of an alley dodge can open up a roll-back. Similarly, a defender who overplays top-side against a dodge from X is vulnerable to an inside roll. The optimal balance of strong- and wrong-sided shots is unique to a each game, and perhaps even each defender.

Getting strong-sided shots off is a skill. While aggressive picks can help you evade cross-checking defenders indoors, escaping the reach of a six-foot pole presents an entirely new challenge. Canadians’ ability to shoot with their sticks to the middle of the field is a testament to their quick releases.

Myth No. 3: The 6x6 net is the most dramatic dimension change from the indoor to field game.

Canadians place more of their shots (64.8 percent) on cage than Americans (61.5), but it is unclear whether shooting on a smaller net against goalies with more padding makes Canadians more likely than Americans to hit the net. It could be, as mentioned previously, that Americans have adapted to the rules of field lacrosse by aiming for pipes without worrying about missing.

One Darwinistic evolution of shooting on a smaller box lacrosse cage (traditionally 4-by-4 feet; NLL dimensions are 4.9-by-4., compared to the 6-by-6 foot regulation field net size) is the mastery of moving the goaltender. A smaller portion of Canadian shots resulted in clean saves (8.8 percent) than American shots (11.4). That number is significant when you evaluate the percent of shots on cage that were saved cleanly.

“[Canadians] are so much more used to getting the goalie moving before they take their shot,” said Ohio Machine vice president and head coach Bear Davis, who recruited and coached many Canadians as the head coach at Robert Morris. “It’s like a snowball fight. You don’t throw a whole fake when you fake someone out in a snowball fight, you just throw a curl. That’s what a Canadian looks like finishing on a goalie indoors.”

Leaners, twisters and quick fakes have helped Canadian scorers create space on smaller nets. The additional square footage of net in field lacrosse certainly does not hurt, but it isn’t as valuable as the additional square footage of turf.

Americans and Canadians in the MLL are about as efficient as each other when shooting from close-range, but Canadians just tend to get there more, according to Major League Lacrosse data collected by Joe Keegan. (Scott McCall)

Fact No. 3: Left-handed Canadians occupy a relatively empty area of the field.

Field lacrosse is played on a surface three times the size of the box floor. There’s more space for everyone, especially left-handed attackmen. Of the six offensive players in field lacrosse, typically only one or two are left-handed. That ratio is unheard of indoors.

“Unless there’s a bad change, it’s 3-and-2 either way,” said Jenner. “It’s rare that you’ll see 1-and-4.”

A majority (51.1 percent) of shots taken by Canadians this summer were left-handed. Not only do left-handed Canadians have more room to run outdoors, but there are less teammates in their space. Just 34.5 percent of American shots were taken left-handed.

The spacing implications make elite players like John Grant Jr. and Mark Matthews even more dangerous. Sliding to (or from) either player is asking for trouble. At times, the nearest help defender could be farther away than the farthest help defender would be indoors.

What’s next?

Clubs and clinics such as 3d Lacrosse, USBOXLA, the American Lacrosse Academy and Fusion Lacrosse have given youth players in the United States more opportunities to play box lacrosse than ever. College programs like Loyola and Notre Dame are dedicating heavy amounts of their offseason programs to playing indoors.

Certain traits, like getting open on the crease and moving a goalie with subtle stick fakes, are being taught by these programs. Others, like avoiding wrong-sided shots and shooting mostly from the hole, might not be feasible objectives for all six players on a given offense.

“Last year, while teaching 100 or so kids in the winter, I realized that the kids and the parents had probably never seen a lacrosse offense go through three sets, three dodges, and a few deliberate bad shots to work the defense,” Boston Cannons assistant coach Ed McCarthy once told me. “Lacrosse is not a race to the net for a shot.”

There is a hidden value to probing defenses outdoors, especially with the lack of shot clocks at all levels below MLL. Americans will continue to hone skills borrowed from the indoor game, but instinctually, they will always be field lacrosse players. That’s what they do best — and doing what you are best at will make everyone better.

“The [Canadians] flavor that they bring to the field game is what makes it special,” said Davis. “If they [start split dodging], then they will just be like every other average American. There’s something to be said about what they bring to our game and how defenses aren’t used to covering that style.”

There are box skills that field-first players could benefit from learning; likewise, there are field skills that box-first players could incorporate in their games. However, there is no evidence that dressing six box-first players or six field-first players is a dominant strategy. Embracing and enhancing the respective flavors that Canadians and Americans can bring to an offense will make an offense greater than the sum of its parts.

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