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Visualizing Special Teams Improvement

March 25, 2014, 1:19 PM ET [66 Comments]
Travis Yost
Ottawa Senators Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
It's no longer a state secret that winning the possession battle at even-strength is pretty important. We spend an awful lot of time dissecting the percentages there at even-strength, if only because we know that the great teams are always territorially in control, and the poor teams are the ones territorially controlled.

One of the tricky things though is capturing all of the other stuff that really matters. Goaltending, for example, is always a big variable. A team with Henrik Lundqvist in net is not the same as a team with Ondrej Pavelec in net. Consequently, a team with poorer underlying numbers might be able to get away with it if their goaltending advantage over the league average is decisive -- or, a team might be crippled by it if their goaltending woefully underperforms the norm.

Special teams play is another big variable. There are a ton of goals scored in those parts, but unfortunately, the only stuff we really hear about it is conversion rates -- that is, the Pittsburgh Penguins score on 24% of their man advantages, and concede on 14% of their penalty kills. While it stands to reason that better power-play teams will convert more (and better penalty killing teams will deter more), a lot of the same problems with goal-based analysis present here, just like they do at even-strength. Goal-scoring (and goal deterrence) is the only thing that matters in the end, but it's not always indicative of a team's true ability in that game state.

One of the things I like to do to get a bit of a better handle with this sort of stuff is to look at the shot-attempt percentages in those game states, be it on the power play or on the penalty kill. Knowing that attempts are the trigger behind goals, it stands to reason that expanding data of value by a massive amount will be more telling in terms of future performance -- raw goal-scoring, of course, will always do a better job of telling us what has already happened.

What I've done for each of the thirty NHL teams below is pretty simple: I took the percentage of shot-attempts (per 60-minutes) generated on the power-play against those conceded on the penalty kill, and expressed it as a percentage. Much like even-strength, same rules apply. A 50% team here would generate one power-play shot-attempt for every one penalty-kill shot-attempt conceded. Your great teams are going to be the ones north of that 50% number, and your poor teams are going to be south of that 50% number.

What I've also done is create a little slope graph to show the change from last year to this year in an attempt to capture potential improvement (or, deterioration).

A couple of quick thoughts here.

In the East, the three teams that really jump off of the page are the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, and New Jersey Devils.

Philadelphia's kind of fascinated me over the past couple of years because, at least anecdotally speaking, they seem to pressure the puck on the penalty kill with as much vigor and relent as any team in the league. The numbers certainly suggest their skaters do a great job down a man, so maybe it's not all that surprising they boast one of the league's best special teams groups.

Of course, New York's right there. And the Rangers are a superior team at even-strength by a fair margin (with the better goaltender, obviously). I don't know if any team can beat Boston this year in the East; Pittsburgh is really beaten up and their play at even-strength is just incredibly poor to what Penguins fans are probably used to. I'd say that, if one team can give the Bruins a sweat, it's the Blueshirts.

On the other hand, there's their division rival in New Jersey, who has seen reduced performance both up a man and down a man. Their drop is sort of staggering, considering a lot of these teams haven't fluctuated all too much. Combine that with 35-games of .902 Martin Brodeur and, well, you've got a team on the outside looking in, despite being a pretty respectable skating club at five-on-five.

To me, the weirdest team of all thirty though is Tampa Bay. Jon Cooper deserves recognition for how big their turnaround has been (predominantly due to their turnaround at five-on-five), but their special teams has been just dreadful two years straight now. Perhaps make that a point of emphasis in the off-season, yeah?

In the West, I think Dallas and Chicago stand out as the biggest improvers (this is terrifying if you are looking for something to pick at with respect to Blackhawks vulnerability), and Anaheim on the other side of that coin.

The Ducks really fascinate me. This is a team that just rides the percentages to no end. I can't, for the life of me, see a cogent argument that suggests they're even in the same talent group as a club like the Blackhawks or Sharks. At evens, they're already on super-shaky ground for an alleged Cup contender, and here, they're being buried by maybe the league's second-worst penalty kill. After the atrocious four-man unit in Washington, it's Anaheim in basically a dead-heat with Edmonton and Toronto when it comes to shot suppression.

In fairness to the Ducks, they're not exactly getting every favorable bounce on the power-play, either. They're tenth at generating shots up a man, yet sit only 21st in raw conversion. So, maybe a bit unlucky there.
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