Oilers Hackathon: Question 4: The Value of Special Teams Part Deux

In my last post, I looked at a few special team metrics over the past fifteen years. The wPP%d* metric indicated that a little over 12 of the top 16 each year would make the playoffs. For this post, I looked for trends that might suggest a team is about to jump into or fall out of the playoffs.

* wPP%d = weighted power play % differential = 25% PPd x 75% PP%d = 25% x(power plays – penalty kills) + 75% x(PP% – (1-PK%))

My attempt to gain insight from each team’s numbers is fraught with peril. I just finished reading Nate Silver’s “The Signal and the Noise” and I feel like I have super human signal detecting skills at the moment. The same thing happened when I watched “Spies Like Us” when I was a kid. I spent the next two days hiding out in my grandparents’ crawl space with my cousin waiting to uncover many of our family’s secrets. Overconfidence in my ability is right there, ready to go when something is so fresh in my mind.

With that self-awareness in mind, I looked at each team over the preceding fifteen years looking for one of two things: 1) teams shifting into the playoffs that had top 16 ranked power play metrics in seasons prior; and 2) teams shifting out of the playoffs after having their power play metrics fall out of the top 16. Was there some sort of substantive pattern to it all?

My focus is on the wPP%d metric, but I looked at PP%d, PPd and PPGd as well. 

Rather than bore you with all thirty teams, I will show a handful to illustrate what I learned. I will tie everything back to my answering question 4 of the Hackathon and make a few predictions.

A refresher on the metrics and the symbols I will use in the charts:

  • Goal differential (“GF-GA”)
  • Power play differential (power plays less penalty kills) (“PPd”)
  • Power play goal differential (power play goals for less power play goals against) (“PPGd”)
  • Power play percentage differential (power play percentage for less power play percentage against) (“PP%-(1-PK%”) or (“PP%d”)
  • Shot differential (“SF-SA”)
  • Weighted power play differential (“wPP%d”)
  • + = Top 16 in the metric and made playoffs
  • = Top 16 in the metric, did not make playoffs
  • & = Not top 16 in the metric and made playoffs
  • # = Not top 16 in the metric, did not make playoffs

Special team excellence is overrated


The Minnesota Wild roared back into the NHL for the 2000-2001 season. The classic counterpuncher, the Wild’s reputation is to patiently wait for mistakes and then pounce. They generally have played a boring brand of hockey; the hockey gods have punished them for it.

The Wild have been consistently good on the various special team metrics displayed during their eleven year history. They had nine straight years of a top 16 PPd, eight straight PPGd top 16s, and seven of eight years of wPP%d top 16s. They even had a six year run of a top 16 goal difference which should result in at least five trips to the playoffs.

Instead, the Wild only qualified for the playoffs three times. One common theme is being outshot, a fact of life in ten of eleven seasons. Fun fact: the Wild have been outshot by a little over 3,000 shots in the past eleven years. Detroit outshot their opponents by 5,100 shots. The Oilers were outshot by a little under 1,500 shots.

The Wild suggest that top notch special teams don’t drive playoff appearances.

Special teams are the missing link


The Maple Leafs’ recent history would like a word with the Wild. The Leafs made the playoffs six years running into the 2005 lockout. They have spent the past seven springs on the golf course.

With Brian Burke at the helm, the Leafs were in the top 8 in terms of power play differential in each of his four seasons in charge (itself not a great predictor of making the playoffs). Shot differential was top ten for a couple years.

The Leafs also did a fine job creating an excess of power play chances. They were horrible from there, ranking in the bottom five in wPP%d the past four years. The reason for the low ranking is execution. The Leafs’ PP was below average two of four years. The PK was well below average all four years. In 2009 and 2010, the Leafs were -9 in 5on5 goal differential. Their overall goal differential was -53 and -32.

Horrible special teams were one of the reasons the Leafs missed the postseason. The Leafs numbers suggest that special teams can make or break playoff aspirations for those on the bubble.

I don’t know what the hell I am talking about


The Canadiens’ stat lines the past eleven years are similar to Minnesota with seven trips to the postseason for their efforts.

The Wild have missed the playoffs three times with top 16 goal differential. The Habs made the playoffs three times despite having a goal difference outside the top 16. It’s great to play in the Eastern Conference.

I arrive at the opposite conclusion to the Wild despite the similar data set. Top notch special teams can drive playoff appearances.

Is there a signal through the conflicting noise?

Having been through the thirty teams, I did not see anything in the special team metrics that consistently suggested a team was on the way up or on the way out. The Wild and Habs were the best example of differing results from similar performance.

Most often, good teams are simply good and that goodness often shows itself in the special team rankings. The style and quality of play often carries through in high wPP%d. Detroit may be exhibit A of this. Puck possession trumps opportunistic play over the course of a season.

Generally speaking, an excellent wPP%d does not appear to cause a team to make the playoffs. An excellent wPP%d is a by-product of being a really good team.

This revelation is not a death blow to my question #4 response to the Oilers. The wPP%d metric predicts 12 of 16 playoff teams each year on average which is interesting. If I squint really hard, I can come up with a couple of possible trends worthy of prediction.

A team on the way down- the Detroit Red Wings

Red Wings

The above table is about as pretty as it gets. Fifteen years of near excellence. Four Stanley Cup wins. Get the puck. Keep the puck. Get the rings.

There isn’t a whole lot in the 2012 season to suggest the Red Wings are on the way down. They finished sixth in goal differential and third in shot differential.

Yet there may be some cracks beginning to show. After being top 4 in PPGd differential in nine of ten years, the Wings fell to 17th last year. A freefall to 23rd in PP%d accompanied the power play goal differential drop. Those two stats combine to a wPP%d ranking of 21st.

I predict the Red Wings are on the way down, missing the playoffs this season.* Their wPP%d will again be outside of the top 16.

The departure of Nicklas Lidstrom may be enough to cause my prediction to be validated. If I am honest, his retirement gives me a bit of a margin of safety on the prediction. The Wing will be worse without him.

That said, I went with the Red Wings as they are a team that has had great numbers above the board and then a drop in the one metric I am trying to evaluate. San Jose is a second team that had a similar drop in wPP%d last season after a bunch of years in the top 6.

* I really want to predict the Wings will finish between 7th and 10th. But that doesn’t make for as memorable a prediction. See how I just hedged my bet there?

A team on the way up- the New York Islanders


Since the 2005 lockout, the Islanders have been the Oilers of the Eastern Conference. One trip to the playoffs and six seasons spent near the basement of the NHL standings. Several high draft picks later and folks are wondering when it might come together for the team.

Like the Oilers, the Islanders appear to be slowing trending the right direction. Their PPGd and PP%d have both been barely top 16 the past two seasons. Their wPP%d was 14th last season. Their shot differential was still slightly negative, but in the top 16.

Based on their improvement in special teams the past two seasons, I predict the Islanders will have a top 16 wPP%d this season and sneak into the playoffs.

The Colorado Avalanche is a second team that comes into 2013 with similar improvement to the Islanders. I opted to go with the less popular pick to make the playoffs. 

A team on the way somewhere- the Edmonton Oilers


Ahh, inconsistency be thy name. If I were to predict solely based on wPP%d, I would be way more enthusiastic about the Oilers than the Islanders. The Oilers were 3rd in PP%d, 9th in wPP%d and generally horrible everywhere else. If wPP%d were the signal of future prosperity, the Oilers would be my chance to push my chips to the centre of the table.

I noted last post that the Oilers were dynamite on the PP, converting on about 20% of their opportunities. Their shooting percentage was 16.7% as compared to a league average of 12.6%. With league average shooting, they would have scored twelve less PP goals and fallen to about 25th in PPGd and around 20th in PP%d. That would combine to about 25th in the league in wPP%d.

With those numbers in mind, I would be crazy to suggest the Oilers’ last season wPP%d is a predictor of success. All else equal, regression is a-coming and it is a bitch.

So what to predict? There is a fair bit of optimism out there on the Oilers, most notably at Sports Illustrated. SI has the Oilers at number three in their preseason power rankings. SI may be the best sports magazine in North America, but give me a break. I guess it is best to make some bold predictions in case one of them hits. Says the guy who thinks the Red Wings are on the way out and the Islanders are on the way in…

For my prediction, I will lean back on the historical average of slightly more than 12 of the top 16 rated wPP%d teams making the playoffs. The Oilers will make the playoffs if they are around league average in PP shooting percentage (no more than 1% higher) and in the top 16 in wPP%d.

Wrapping up

I have spent the past couple of weeks looking at team success from a different direction. Much of what is written in the blogosphere focuses on even strength play. I wondered if I could ignore the even strength results, look at special teams and make accurate conclusions about a team’s performance.

It turns out that I could. The power play percentage differential (and weighted differential) both predict making the post season about as well as shot differential. If a team has good special teams, they will make the playoffs around 75% of the time. There are better predictors out there, but 75% is a pretty good number.

At the team level I generally confirmed what I saw at the league level; if your special teams are top 16 in the league, you make the playoffs. The Minnesota Wild was a curious exception to that rule, often missing the playoffs despite good special team play.

I had hoped I might spot a trend that provided a leading indicator that a team was about to make the jump up into the playoffs or the drop out of the postseason. That does not appear to be the case but the Leafs serve as an example that poor special team play can be the difference between playoff hockey and golf.

I went ahead and made predictions on a couple of teams whose wPP%d ranking has moved significantly in the past couple of years. In limited circumstances, perhaps the special team stats can signal the change in a team’s fortunes.

Next time will be my actual question 4 response.   


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