This blog post was originally posted on Cowhide and Rubber on March 13, 2012. You can view the original post here, and reach Kyle on twitter.
Everyone loves goal scoring, including the powers that be at NHL HQ, so let’s all shed a tear as we continue to tear down the illusion that is the importance of powerplays in the NHL today.
As of today, a league-average powerplay is 17.44% (powerplays are becoming so irrelevant to success that I’ve had to take this exercise to two decimal places). A couple weeks back I laid out why faith in the powerplay was misplaced. Today, we take a deeper look at league-wide comparisons of special teams and their potential to be in the playoffs.
As mentioned, a league-average powerplay today is 17.44%. Of the 16 teams currently holding a playoff position, their average powerplay is running along at 17.49%, while non-playoff teams sit at 17.37%. That’s a difference of 0.12%. Based on a projected 277 powerplays per team over the course of the season, that makes for a difference of…..wait for it….two additional goals per playoff team over 82 games. Let’s all do the Balky dance of joy for the powerplay!
On the other hand, the penalty kill has snuck in to steal the title of “more important of the two special teams.” The average NHL team today has a 82.47% penalty kill. The average playoff-bound team today has a 83.6% penalty kill, while the average non-playoff team has a 81.2% penalty kill. Here we have a spread of 2.4% between playoff and non-playoff teams; still small, but certainly a much wider divide than with the powerplay.
Looking even closer at playoff teams, we see that as of today, 9 of 16 playoff teams possess below-league-average powerplays (BOS, NJD, STL, WSH, DET, CHI, DAL, NYR, PHX). On the flip side, 9 of 16 playoff teams possess better than league average penalty kills (NSH, VAN, PIT, BOS, NJD, STL, DAL, NYR, PHX). Any way we slice it, we see that special teams are not paramount to being a playoff team, but if anything, the penalty kill has become slightly more important to success (if you define success as ‘making the playoffs’). The only conclusion? The key to being an elite NHL team today is even strength dominance.
Legendary Hall of Fame Head Coach Scotty Bowman once came up with his “Bowman Index”, which stated that if the sum of your special team success rates added up to over 100, you were in good shape. His theory is tenuous today, and at best barely rings true. 10 of 16 current playoff teams have a sum of more than 100, hardly what I’d call iron-clad. The average playoff team has an index of 101.1 (PP% + PK%), while non-playoff teams sit at 98.6, a difference of 2.5%. A league-average Bowman Index is 99.9. I wonder what Scotty would think about this? Don’t these numbers dovetail nicely with the the 2.4% spread of playoff vs non-playoff team PK performance? (Edit: I’ve since been made aware that the “Bowman Index” uses PP + PK rank as a score, however I find using the actual percentages more easily digestible and “real”.)
It’s a fun exercise to go up and down the league looking for oddities – some teams will make you scratch your head. For example, Bowman’s former team, the Detroit Red Wings are below average in both penalty kill and powerplay success, and have a Bowman index of just 97.8 (which is worse than the average non-playoff team), yet are one of the league’s very best teams because they’ve smoked everyone at even strength. The Blackhawks, the team that Bowman currently works for are awful with their special teams (Bowman Index of 94.1 – only the Blue Jackets are worse in this regard), yet are 10th overall in the league. The province of Alberta will hopefully learn this hard lesson as they try to improve their squads in the off season. Both the Oilers and Flames possess above average special teams, and should be playoff teams based on the Bowman Index. In the case of the Oilers, they lead the league in powerplay success, yet they flat out suck once again, and the Flames will likely fall short of the playoffs. Lastly, the two conference leaders, the Rangers and Blues have sub-par powerplays, but solid penalty killing and strong even-strength play.
The game has changed greatly over the last decade, and especially so since the end of the lockout. Everyone thought special teams would be of the utmost importance following a crackdown on obstruction and other infractions, but the opposite has happened given the fact that powerplay opportunities have dropped steeply in the post-lockout years (read much more on the severe decline of the powerplay here). With so few opportunities with the man advantage, it means that the powerplay can only accomplish so much, and that far more time is being spent at even strength.
I hope the idea is becoming clearer: teams that excel at even strength rule the day.