Quick quiz: What are you more likely to see at an NHL game, a power play goal or major penalty?
Time's up. If you picked a power play goal, you win, but it's closer than you would think. This season, there have been 1230 goals on the man advantage and 992 major penalties. By those numbers, it appears the league is trying hard to get rid of both.
Scoring in general has continued to slowly slide back toward zero since the post-lockout lamp-lighting explosion. There are all sorts of explanations out there from the size of the ice to the goalie's pads to the ever-popular clutching and grabbing. Both of those are probably true, but recently there has been a dip in power play opportunities; along with it has gone scoring.
There are 0.60 power play goals scored per team per game so far this season. That is the lowest number since 1967-68 when there were 0.55 per team per game. Power play success percentages don't really change much from year to year. This season, teams score on 17.34 percent of power plays. In scoring's hayday of the early 1980s, that number was just over 22 percent. The worst it has been since the early 1960s is around 15 percent in the late 90s.
When power play scoring percentages were lower pre-lockout, there were more penalties called. In fact, there were more than four per game every year between 1983-84 and 2008-09. But for the last three years, there have only been 3.71, 3.54, and this year 3.33 opportunities per team per game.
But overall goal scoring is still higher than before the lockout. This season, teams are scoring 2.72 goals per game. In 2003-04, teams only averaged 2.57 goals per game, yet there were still more power play goals than this season.
The result has been that special teams have less impact on success than in the past. Only 21 percent of the goals scored in the NHL come via the power play. Individual teams range from Phoenix's 14 percent to Edmonton's 29 percent.
The correlation between special teams success and winning is weak at best. On the power play side, Edmonton ranks second in the league whereas the New York Rangers are 29th. On the other side, Montreal leads the league in penalty killing but San Jose is No. 28 and Chicago No. 27. Colorado is better in both categories than Detroit
but so are the Oilers. Still, 10 of the top 16 teams in the league are also in the top 16 in power play, but that's hardly enough to make a one-to-one connection.
Five-on-five, however, is a different story. Of the top 16 teams in terms of for/against at even strength, 14 are currently playoff teams. The bottom four teams in terms of five-on-five are Columbus, the Islanders, Colorado, and Edmonton. Only Florida and Calgary would be playoff teams without a top-16 rating. The best teams in the category are Detroit, St. Louis, Boston, and the Rangers.
Contrast these numbers to 2005-06, when power play goals made up 35 percent of the league's scoring. Few teams that struggled on the power play made the playoffs. The bottom five teams, Chicago, Columbus, St. Louis, Washington, and Boston all missed the postseason. Of course, the correlation isn't perfect. Pittsburgh was the worst team in the Eastern Conference and had the sixth-best power play. They also had the 29th penalty kill. Overall, 13 of the 16 playoff teams ranked in the top 16 in power play scoring.
The difference between the percentages of goals made up by power play goals has dropped by 13 percent. That should tell NHL general managers several things:
Players who only succeed on the power play, a la Brad Boyes and Tomas Kaberle, have less value than ever. Their stats from the mid-2000s are basically irrelevant and should be ignored when considered for free agent/trade deals.
GMs should give more consideration to five-on-five numbers such as points per 60 minutes and even-strength puck possession numbers. Building a team with a group of high quality even strength players and filling in skilled power play players will create more goals long term. Think of it as eight of every 10 goals being scored in the league at even strength. Emphasizing the other two is foolish.
When considering goalies, focus on even strength save percentage. Of course, there are the obvious reasons general managers should have been doing this away such as the luck factor and wild fluctuations between short-handed save percentages. Now more than ever, however, a stronger even strength save percentage will result in more wins.
Find coaches and scouts who specialize on five-on-five. Barring another wild shift in the overall state of the game, teams should draft players who they project as having the ability to score five-on-five.
Keep in mind, the power play is still the best opportunity to score. Shots go in at a higher rate when up a man. But teams are so rarely up a man in 2011-12 that the effect on wins and losses is diminished. The game has changed so much from 2005-06 that some coaches and general mangersyou know who they areare falling behind because they are still using the same strategies and evaluating players the same way they did back then.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Matthew by clicking here or click here to see Matthew's other articles.