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October 24, 2011
Angles and Caroms
Power Play Scoring And The Danger Of Small Sample Sizes

by Jonathan Willis

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As of Monday morning, the NHL's scoring leaderboard was festooned with forwards who have one thing in common: they have picked up more than 50% of their offense on the power play. Fully four of the nine forwards with at least 10 points have picked up the bulk of their numbers on the man advantage. Eleven of the league's top-30 also fit that description. Matt Cooke, tied for 23rd overall in scoring among NHL forwards, is particularly unique in that he not only has more points on the power play than at even-strength, but also has matched his five-on-five output while shorthanded.

Here is the list of forwards with seven or more points that have recorded at least as much offense on the power play as they have short-handed:

Player			Team		ESP	PPP	Total
Daniel Sedin		Vancouver	4	8	12
Milan Michalek		Ottawa		4	6	10
Henrik Sedin		Vancouver	5	5	10
Nicklas Backstrom	Washington	3	7	10
Claude Giroux		Philadelphia	3	5	8	
Kris Versteeg		Florida		3	5	8
Shane Doan		Phoenix		4	4	8
David Legwand		Nashville	3	4	8
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins	Edmonton	3	4	7
Alex Ovechkin		Washington	2	5	7
Matt Cooke		Pittsburgh	2	3	7

The Sedins are a good place to start—each of them has won a scoring title recently, so it isn't a surprise to see them on this list. Given that the Canucks have long had a potent power play, it may not surprise many people to see that they've recorded 13 of their combined 22 points on the man advantage.

Yet, the power play traditionally hasn't been where the twins have picked up the bulk of their points—it's certainly mattered, but not as much as even strength production. Last season, the twins picked up 121 points at even strength, and 77 on the power play. The year before, those totals were even more lopsided: 147 points at even strength, just 48 on the power play. Going back to the Lockout, the pattern remains the same—the Sedins routinely pick up the lion's share of their points at even strength.

This isn't a pattern that's unique to the Sedin twins, either. In 2010-11, 89 forwards recorded 50-or-more points; of that group, only one—Vincent Lecavalier—recorded more points on the power play than he did at even strength. The year prior, 95 forwards hit the 50-point plateau, and once again there was a lone player with more points on the power play than at even strength: Flyers forward Mike Richards. Ninety-six forwards scored at least fifty points in 2008-09, and this time, a group of four—Slave Kozlov, Patrick Kane, Alexei Kovalev, and Teemu Selanne—managed to match their even strength numbers on the man advantage. All told, over the last three years, just six out of the 280 50-point player seasons have seen a greater share of those points come about thanks to work on the power play rather than at five-on-five.

The pattern is clear: for the game's top offensive players, the bulk of their offensive production must come at even strength. It's highly unlikely that this season will be an exception to the rule—at the end of the year, we won't see four of the league's top-10 scorers with more points on the power play than even strength. We won't see more than one-third of the game's top-30 forwards picking up the bulk of their offense on the man advantage.

Power play production is one of the major ways that the early numbers from each season get skewed. There's a certain level of randomness to which power play units click in the early going, and which players pick up a bunch of points as a result.

That randomness is also reflected in the power play data for individual teams. Last season, Vancouver led the league with a 24.3% conversion rate on the power play; Florida took 30th spot by scoring at a 13.1% clip. Going back to the Lockout, no team has failed to score on fewer than 11.8% of its power plays (Blackhawks teams from the mid-2000's hold the bottom two spots in post-Lockout power play performance), and no team has scored on more than 25.5% of its power plays, a mark the Red Wings set in 2008-09.

So far this season, five teams have been more efficient than the 2008-09 Red Wings, and just to add to the improbability, one of them is the Panthers, last year's worst power play club. At the other end of the ledger, seven clubs are slated to finish below Chicago's power play futility mark, including the almost always potent Montreal Canadiens and one of last year's most successful power play teams, the Anaheim Ducks.

Obviously, these trends are not going to continue. The league is not going to see a dozen clubs finish outside established post-Lockout ranges. Variance, randomness, plain old luck—whatever term one uses, it's plain that a good chunk of what makes a successful or impotent power play in the early going is outside the control of NHL teams.

That's a handy lesson to remember, and not just when it comes time to look at the early flops and darlings of the 2011-12 season. Most teams have played roughly seven games, the length of the longest possible playoff series. Sometimes, the strong or weak performance of a certain player or team in the postseason does come down to heart or will to win or some other intangible the forms the backbone of playoff narrative—but a lot of the time, struggles and triumphs are influenced by luck to a degree that it isn't always comfortable to acknowledge.

Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Jonathan by clicking here or click here to see Jonathan's other articles.

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<< Previous Article
Pucks From The Past (10/24)
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Angles and Caroms (10/22)
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