The NHL is in the middle of a goalie pulling frenzy. While the year is still young, coaches of teams who are losing by a goal have been pulling their goalie roughly around the 1:40 mark of the 3rd period the last two years, about 40 seconds earlier than they were in previous years. This development, of course, is a long time coming – analysts have been arguing for years that teams should be more aggressive in removing their netminders.
Using 4 forwards on the power play is generally a good strategy. Four forward units take more shots, score more often on those shots, and post a better goal differential than 3 forward groups do.
It’s also a strategy that has become more popular over the last few years. 4 forward units have accounted for roughly 56% of the 5-on-4 ice-time this season, up 4% from last year and more than 15% from 5 years ago.
- We can measure a team’s power play structure using shot location data, creating a Power Play Structure Index that quantifies their ability to establish and shoot from a structured formation.
- A Team’s Power Play Structure Index is a stronger predictor of future goal scoring than past goals, but weaker than shot attempt generation.
- When examined together with shot attempt generation, power play structure is a significant predictor of future goals, although slightly less important than shot attempt generation.
- A team’s structure index can provide valuable additional insight into why certain power plays succeed or fail.
Edit 2017-02-15: An earlier version of this piece had a small error in the regression coefficient for PP Structure Index. While the article previously indicated the coefficient was -0.19, it should in fact be -0.30. The text both above and below has now been corrected.
The importance of structure in a team’s power play is something that’s really easy to see. We’ve all watched a power play executing at the top of its game: the puck flies from player to player, leaving defenders pivoting in place to try to keep up. Each shot looks exactly like it was diagramed by the coach, with attackers working to set up a specific shot from a specific player in a specific location.
A solid structure doesn’t just look good; it actually produces better results. Arik Parnass has written extensively on the importance of structure to power play success, showing that teams who get set up in a dangerous formation score more goals than those who don’t.
Despite them accounting for approximately 20 percent of NHL game time, special teams have been largely ignored when it comes to analytics. Considering the data available and its small sample size compared to even-strength, that is somewhat understandable, and there have certainly been attempts to properly quantify and assess power plays. So what do we know so far? Continue reading
I don’t know if we’ll ever see a power play quite like that of this decade’s Washington Capitals. We can’t attach a firm date to it because it could extend as far as the end of Alex Ovechkin’s career at this rate, but we know that its peak of power began with the hiring of Adam Oates as Caps head coach back in 2012. Oates had run a successful 1-3-1 power play for the New Jersey Devils with Ilya Kovalchuk as his trigger-man, but nothing even close to the heights he managed to achieve with the man advantage in his two seasons in DC. Barry Trotz, to his credit, has kept the same formation — what’s that old adage about things that ain’t broke? — with only minor tweaks, and last year the power play continued to succeed.
Now there’s a lot to discuss about the formation and its success — I like to think of the Caps’ PP as a work of art more than anything else — but for the sake of this post I’m going to focus in on Alex Ovechkin. Never has there been a more criticized future first-ballot Hall of Famer, nor arguably a more controversial elite goal scorer. It should already be a given that Ovechkin is the best power play goal scorer of all time — he sits fifth overall in PPG/g despite playing in a significantly lower scoring era than his contemporaries like Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux — but I would argue by the time he retires, he will also likely be the greatest goal scorer of all time period. It’s the man advantage recently, in the latter stages of Ovechkin’s goal scoring peak, that has been the sniper’s bread and butter. Since Oates brought the 1-3-1 to town, Ovi has scored 48% of his goals on the power play, compared to 33% prior to that. He scored 25 power play goals last year, six ahead of the next highest total in Joe Pavelski’s 19. You have to go back another five to reach the player who is in third — Claude Giroux with 14 — indicating how great of a season the Sharks’ center/winger had, but that’s a story for another day.
There has been a few tries in trying to find what drives special team success on the penalty kill and the power play. One thing though that hasn’t been talked about enough is the time factor and how it can impact a team.