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Special Teams Evaluations & Trends, Part One: Power Play

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The power-play was awful in the playoffs. So was the penalty-kill. In this two-part series, we examine the historical context of just how bad the Predators special teams was and what possible improvements can be made.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Even the casual-observer-turned-fanatic could notice that the Predators wasted hordes of golden opportunities while on the power play during this year's historic playoff run. Some may have even noticed that the penalty kill wasn't up to par either. But for those of you who didn't notice (or for those who are choosing to forget), here are some painful reminders about Nashville's special teams play during the playoffs:

  • The power play went 4 for 46 (8.7 percent), ranking dead-last among teams that made it past the first round.
  • The penalty kill allowed 12 goals during the 46 times they were shorthanded (73.9 percent). This ranks second-to-last among teams that made it past the first round (Dallas, 73.7 percent).

I'll give you a moment to recover. Seriously... take a moment to recover from the gut punch that those numbers inflict upon your soul.

Undoubtedly, the Predators had a massive pothole to navigate around in the playoffs while facing two excellent teams. Nashville was able to maneuver around that hazard during the Ducks series (where they only managed one power play goal in 26 opportunities), but the tires finally blew against the Sharks. The penalty kill was particularly bad, allowing eight goals in 21 penalty-kills.

These are real numbers, you guys. And these are a huge reasons why the Predators are sitting at home, while San Jose is competing for Lord Stanley's Cup. With even an average special-teams unit, the Preds are looking at a near four-to-five goal swing in their match-up with the Sharks. There might not even have been a seventh game.

If that was the case, Nashville would have gone to St. Louis with fresh legs and ready to compete in their first Western Conference Final.

So this leads us to some essential questions: Do the Predators have a special teams problem? Do changes need to be made? Is the sky falling?

Let's start by examining the power play. You know... that thing that everyone loves to bash but which only accounts for only about 20% of a hockey game.

First, Some Historical Perspective

Much has been written about the importance of special teams when it comes to playoff success. Some have said the power play is essential to winning in the postseason (though it is far from a predictor of success) because of the inherent value of scoring on the power play: those goals account for only around 21-22 percent of all scoring in hockey and teams that can maximize production in that area will stand to succeed more than those that don't.

An interesting regression performed by the Department of Hockey Analytics found a correlation between penalty kill success and playoff success, but the same regression for power play success was inconclusive.

And then there's the anecdotal examples: the 2010-11 Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup (and incidentally burned the city of Vancouver) with a paltry 11.4 percent (10 for 88) power play success rate in the playoffs. The 2012-13 Blackhawks had a similarly terrible power play at 11.43 percent (8 for 70). In fact, since 1990, a number of teams have won the whole darn thing with awful power play units.

Stanley Cup Champions since 1990, Ranked by Worst PP%
Year Team xPPG xPPO xPP%
2010-11 Boston Bruins 10 88 11.36%
2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks 8 70 11.43%
1998-99 Dallas Stars 13 107 12.15%
2011-12 Los Angeles Kings 12 94 12.77%
1996-97 Detroit Red Wings 17 117 14.53%


Improvement vs. Efficiency

We all know that NHL teams reach another gear in the playoffs. That's clear to any casual observer. All teams and players must improve in the playoffs if they don't want to get swept in the first round: shooting, goaltending, defensive play, puck skills, passing, etc... special teams are no different. A team that has a mediocre power play must find a way to improve efficiency with the man advantage if they are to advance in the playoffs. And teams with a problematic penalty kill need to find something that works or at least find a band-aid to stop the bleeding.

Maybe it's not always about efficiency when it comes to special teams. Maybe it's more about improvement. Maybe improvement is actually better than efficiency. How else do you explain teams like the 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning? They had a rather unsuccessful regular season power play (15.9 percent), but turned everything up a few notches (21.0 percent) in the playoffs on the way to winning a Cup.

More recently, the '13-'14 Los Angeles Kings turned a slovenly regular season power play into an unending nightmare almost overnight. Improving special teams units are as key to winning in the playoffs as improving shooting percentage, puck possession and goaltending.

Stanley Cup Champions since 1990, Ranked by PP% Improvement (Regular Season vs. Playoffs)
Year Team rPP% xPP% PP% Diff
1994-95 New Jersey Devils 13.41% 25.00% 11.59%
2013-14 Los Angeles Kings 14.79% 23.53% 8.74%
2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes 17.89% 24.03% 6.14%
2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning 15.93% 21.00% 5.07%
2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks 18.03% 22.50% 4.47%

(rPP% = regular season; xPP% = playoffs)

All five of those teams had rather pedestrian power plays in the regular season but turned it on in the playoffs. The column on the far right shows the percentage jump in efficiency from regular season to postseason.

Want something that will blow your mind? The 1994-95 Devils had four players that scored more power-play goals in the playoffs than they did in the entire regular season. Also, remind me again... who coached that 2005-06 Hurricanes team? Hmm.

But how does all of this look in aggregate? Is there any pattern here? How do successful special teams units perform in the playoffs compared to their regular season numbers overall?

Power-Play Improvement Among Successful Playoff Teams

Look at the Stanley Cup winner on the left-hand side of the chart first. There's not much difference between the regular season power play percentage and postseason power play percentage.

For the most part, Cup winning teams are able to maintain power play strength through a grueling playoff run -- they don't get better or worse, they just maintain. In the 2nd part of this series, when we examine the penalty kill, and you'll see why that's an impressive feat.

As you move across the chart, you see that the teams that were knocked out early lost their power play edge as the playoffs wore on. Whether it was a strength or a weakness in the regular season, these teams weren't able to take advantage of power play opportunities when the playoffs rolled around and it eventually contributed to an early exit.

The Western and Eastern Conference losing teams are particularly interesting: while power play percentage was a relative strength for them in the regular season, it ended up being a strength they relied on too heavily. When the playoffs arrived, their opportunities reduced (referees "letting them play" and so forth) and they were unable to get in the same rhythm they had during an 82-game season (see: San Jose Sharks 2009-10 and 2010-11).

So ultimately, when it comes to the power play, improvement isn't necessarily important. Teams don't need an unstoppable goal machine, pumping out 10 shots a minute and converting at a 25 percent clip. As long as it can overcome the inflated penalty kill surge that most teams see in the playoffs, they should be fine.

But what about that 2003-04 Lightning team? That team had an incredible even-strength offensive attack and a top-10 defense. Their power play improvement in the playoffs was simply the final bump they needed to hoist the Cup.

Ultimately, that's the takeaway: power play efficiency isn't the most important thing in the world, but improving that efficiency come playoff time can be the difference maker.

Conclusion: Do the Predators need to fix their power-play?

First, let's start with this fun fact: only one team since 1990 has reached a Conference Final with a playoff power play even close to as bad as Nashville's this past postseason. The 1992-93 New York Islanders managed to make the Eastern Conference Finals going 8 for 85 (9.4 percent) in the playoffs. The Islanders scored just one power-play goal in their seven-game series against the Canadiens. Montreal went on to win the Cup. Just sayin'...

But, the ultimate answer here is NO, the Predators do not have a power play problem.

The Predators finished the regular season with a 19.7 percent power play efficiency, good for 10th in the league. THAT'S REALLY GOOD.

The tactic that the coaching staff employs on the power play works fine. The players that execute the power play do so rather successfully. The team has a number of different options on the power play and the coaching staff manages to balance those weapons effectively, while also utilizing their most dangerous weapon, Shea Weber, with most appropriate excess.

BUUUUUUUUUUUUTTTTTTTTTTT...

... as we've seen, the key to playoff success is to maintain that production going into the playoffs when the other team's penalty-killers are going berserk. So, really the answer is yes, sort of.

In April, May and, hopefully, June, the Predators desperately need to improve their power play. But that does not mean making wholesale changes that might affect October-March.

The Predators do not need to become a more dangerous power play team, they just need to be more consistent. They need to maintain the same power play efficiency in the postseason as they did in the regular season. It really is that easy.

(Notes on data: All stats are from 1989-90 to 2014-15 and were obtained from NHL.com. In the interest of having enough data to pull from, I included all Stanley Cup winners & losers, plus the Western Conference and Eastern Conference losers since 1990. Not only did this give a lot more data to work with, but it seemed fitting to include teams that had reached a playoff event that the Predators have not yet reached. It may seem odd to call teams that lost in the Conference Finals "successful" but, hey... you gotta start somewhere.)