I think at least 75% of us would agree that percentages have their place – scores on an exam, alcohol content, what kind of milk am I drinking?, etc. But 30-40% of the time, percentages are inadequate in really painting a full picture. As long as I’ve watched hockey, it’s been the standard that NHL special teams are evaluated and ranked based on their efficiency - what % of the time do they score when on the powerplay, and what percentage of the time do they stop the opposition from scoring when killing a penalty. While this is clearly an effective means of evaluating how well each unit functions when given the chance, I’ve recently started to find these measures lacking for a few reasons:
- There is no consideration given to the number of times a team is on the powerplay or shorthanded, which varies dramatically from team to team.
- There is no consideration given to the number of shorthanded goals for or against.
- There is no meaningful tie-in or evaluation of the overall impact of special teams on a team’s success or failure – ie how many goals did a team’s special teams gain or cost them
I’ve set out to rectify this, so I’ve taken the special teams stats from the 2010/11 season and have introduced a simple concept that I think would be easy to incorporate into the everyday hockey vernacular (ie even Glen Healy could understand it), and would be a more holistic way to view special teams. I’ve created three new measures
Powerplay +/-, defined as powerplay goals for less shorthanded goals against.
Penalty Kill +/-, defined as shorthanded goals for less powerplay goals against
Special Teams +/-, defined as the sum of the two above.
Join me after the jump to see how things looked this season, and how the Leafs special teams fared under this new evaluation. Were they really as bad as we were told (and I think I witnessed)?
The chart below summarizes Powerplay success this year, including the % efficiency and +/- calculations:
The first thing I found striking was the difference between the team with the most powerplay opportunities this year versus the team with the least. Carolina had the man advantage a whopping 346 times, versus New Jersey which only had the benefit of 237 powerplays – a difference of 109, more than 1 opportunity more per game.
When you compare each team’s ranking based on the two measures, there are some significant jumps and drops: Carolina jumps from 23rd based on efficiency to 10th based on +/- , a move of 13 spots. Colorado drops from 11th down to 26th- a drop of 15 spots. Other teams whose rank changes dramatically include: Buffalo (9th to 19th), Dallas (14th to 23rd), Edmonton (27th to 18th) Pittsburgh (25th to 16th) and Toronto (22nd to 13th). Not surprisingly, the President cup winning Vancouver Canucks were 1st based on efficiency, and first based on +/- with an impressive +70.
As we all witnessed, the Leafs powerplay was pretty inconsistent this year, at times ‘scary good’ but mostly ‘scary bad’. What was consistent though was their ability to draw penalties - Toronto had the man advantage 326 times, the 3rd most in the league. So while that unit’s efficiency was poor at 16%, on a +/- basis they were actually a +44 , tying them for 13th.
Looking at the penalty kill information, the difference between the most and least penalized team is almost as dramatic as with the powerplay. To the surprise of no one, the dirty Habs led the league in times penalized at 327 – even more than the dirty Penguins, and more than the youngest and best rebuilding team ever Edmonton Oilers, who are really quite young so are excused by Glen Healy for undisciplined play like turnovers and penalties. Interestingly, another young team – your Toronto Maple Leafs – were only penalized 275 times, good for 9th in the league. Surprisingly (or maybe not?) the team that had the fewest powerplay opportunities was also shorthanded the least - New Jersey with 241, 89 less than the Habs. Reality TV has led me to believe that they’re big on confrontation in Jersey, but clearly this isn’t always the case.
As with the PP, there were some dramatic jumps and drops on the PK when you move from % to +/-:
New York Rangers were 9th based on %, but 1st on +/-. Boston moved from 16th to 3rd --- a jump of 13 spots. Other significant changes include Tampa Bay (8th to 20th), Buffalo (13th to 22nd), and Montreal (7th to 16th).
The Leafs powerplay numbers looked better when put into the context of +/-, but unfortunately this is not the case with the penalty kill. Despite their discipline, they were -57, ‘good’ for 26th in the league. Clearly this needs to be an area of improvement if the team is going to have any success.
Finally, the chart below combines the PP and PK +/- info to get the final ‘Special Teams’ +/- - how many goals did each team gain or lose while their team wasn’t playing 5 on 5 hockey??:
What you see is that Vancouver was absolutely dominant on special teams this year, with a +31. The next closest teams were Chicago and the Rangers at +13, and only 4 other teams had a +/- of 10 or greater – Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Jose, and Anaheim. Colorado on the other hand was absolutely horrid with a -29. In terms of statistics being ‘descriptive’ and helping make a point, those two numbers - +31 for Vancouver versus -29 for Colorado, a 60 goal swing – tells me a lot more about how dramatically the two teams were impacted by their special teams play than simply saying 1st ranked PK versus 30th ranked PK.
In total, there were 18 teams with a positive ST +/-, one with a 0, and 11 that were negative. The far right column of the chart indicates which teams made the post-season this year; not surprisingly, 14 of 16 playoff teams had a positive ST +/-, with only two – Buffalo and Phoenix – getting in with a negative +/-. Phoenix appears to be a real anomaly actually, with a ST +/- of -19 (27th). Only four teams that missed the playoffs had a positive ST +/-.
These numbers indicate to me that for this year at least (I’ll look at historical data on a rainy day maybe), there’s a pretty strong correlation between ST +/- and team success. Which makes sense – most people understand that hockey is a goal-scoring competition, so if you’re going to spot your opponents 13 goals via special teams like the Leafs did this year, you’re going to have to work pretty hard to make those up at even strength. If the Leafs are going to get to the plus side, next year, assuming similar times shorthanded and on the PP, they’ll either have to improve their PP efficiency to 20% (2% above league average), improve their PK to 82.5% (just about league average), or some combination of improvement on both.
I’m not suggesting that the % measure needs to be abolished altogether, because it’s clearly a useful stat, specifically for fans while watching the game (ie knowing that a team has an X% chance of scoring on any given powerplay). But I think a combination of the two could be powerful. Maybe one day we’ll hear Joe Bowen say "the Leafs come into tonight’s game ranked 22nd in powerplay at 16%, and 13th in powerplay +/- at +44" or "The leafs come in with a special team +/- of -13, 25th in the league, versus Tampa with a special teams +/- of +5, good for 11th in the league." It's unlikely, but maybe.