NHL: The Power Play is the Thing

I am chugging along on a lengthy piece on one possible approach to building a NHL team.  To help organize my thoughts, I am putting forward the idea that inspired the work: the most important thing a team can do to win more hockey games is create power play opportunities*.  It therefore follows that staying out of the penalty box is the second most important thing a hockey team can do.  Perhaps drawing penalties is 1a and avoiding penalties is 1b.  Both are critically important.  1b is easy to control than 1a.

* I am not, repeat not suggesting the creation of a team of Darcy Tuckers who flop and dive all over the ice.  I am talking about legitimately drawing penalties through aggressive play.

For today, I will stay away from most of the elements I am trying to fit into the longer piece.  I will just stick to quantifying the value of getting the opponent into the penalty box while staying out as much as possible.    Suffice to say, there are a bunch of ingredients that go into a winning strategy and those ingredients are found in the types of players that a team covets. 

Essentially, a team should play offensive hockey in a way that creates opportunities for the other team to take a penalty.  I am talking about aggressive plays towards the net, stretching the defense, and working hard in front of the net.   We can all think of plays where the defense has little option but to haul a player down.  I would bet that there are certain areas of the ice where the majority of penalties occur; spend more time there and odds are your team will draw more penalties.

The defensive strategy is essentially the opposite of what I just described above.  The key is to keep play to the outside as much as possible and have a goalie with superb rebound control.  Minimize scoring chances and you minimize penalty taking opportunities.   Also key is avoiding mental mistakes such as too many men on the ice penalties. 

That is enough strategy for now.  I want to discuss the following chart:

The above shows a few league averages for last season.  I started with the average number of minutes played in a season and the relative number of minutes at even strength, on the power play and spent killing penalties.  While I did do some work to factor in the number of overtime games and make assumptions on average length of overtime and power plays, these are not material to the analysis.  Essentially, 25% of the game is spent on the power play/ penalty kill and 75% of the game is spent at even strength.  That time will vary a few points depending on the individual team.

The bottom half of the chart shows the number of goals scored on the power play and goals scored at even strength.  You will note that the goals against on the penalty kill and short-handed equal equals goals for.  This is due to my using the league averages which by definition need to balance.  If I use a specific team such as the Edmonton Oilers, the picture changes slightly.

I could list charts for other teams, but the story would stay fairly similar: a team is roughly twice as likely to score/allow a goal on the power play/ penalty kill as they are at even strength.  The ratio column takes the percentage of say power play goals and divides by the percentage of time spent on the power play. 

The above takes my previous chart for the Oilers and converts it to goals per 60 minutes.  It is just another way to look at the ratios and show that 2:1 ratio (actually more than 2:1 for the Oilers).  These numbers form the basis of support to my original statement that a team ought to do everything it can to get on the power play and do whatever they can to stay out of the penalty box.   A less talented team can win through superior strategy and discipline. 

Today’s little revelation is just the tip of the iceberg.  I will have a lot more to say on this topic as we move towards the start of the hockey season.

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