Kukla's Korner

The Puck Stops Here

A Very Improved Power Play

I have never fully understood power play numbers.  My line of logic is that a team that has a very good group of talented offensive players (including a power play point man) should have a very good power play and teams that do not have the appropriate talent do not.  The situation is complicated when some teams may have better special teams coaching and be better able to play successful systems.  Following that line of logic, one might expect Calgary, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose and Washington to be among the best power plays in the league.  That logic does not hold up well in reality.  Calgary is 16th, Chicago 11th, Detroit 7th, Philadelphia 1st, Pittsburgh 27th, San Jose 3rd and Washington 6th. Aside from Pittsburgh (who had injury to Sergei Gonchar and Evgeni Malkin this season), those teams are among the top half of the league and tend to be among the top, but it is not a method that is overly successful in finding top power plays. 

One team that has had success this year that I cannot easily explain is the Columbus Blue Jackets.  They have the second best power play in the league; with a 26.1% success rate (they were first in the league until last night when the Flyers passed them going 1 for 2 on the power play versus the New York Islanders).  The main reason I cannot account for the Columbus success so far this year is they had the worst power play in the league last year with a 12.1% success rate.  What has changed?

Columbus does not strike me as a team with a great power play quarterback.  The only truly exceptional offensive player that they have is Rick Nash.  They do not fit my model of great power plays.

So far this year Anton Stralman has been the successful Columbus power play point man.  He leads the team with 10 points on the power play.  Last year Stralman was a Toronto Maple Leaf.  He was a second year player who bounced between the NHL and AHL.  He scored 13 points in 38 NHL games.  Toronto played him on the power play (he was third among Leaf defencemen with 2:38 minutes per game on the power play - behind Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina).  Stralman managed 5 power play points (all assists).  He was traded twice this summer.  First to Calgary along with Colin Stuart and a 2012 7th round draft pick for Wayne Primeau and a 2011 2nd round pick and then to Columbus for a 3rd round pick in 2010.  Neither trade was considered significant at the time.  Stralman was a cheap pick up or a throw in in those deals.  Should we have seen something that would lead us to believe that he is a power play talent?  Is his success so far a fluke?  Stralman has 15 points in 21 games so far this year.  Ten of those points are on the power play.  That puts Stralman in a tie for 15th in the league in power play points.  Among the players tied with him are Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Ryan Smyth, Mike Green and Shane Doan.  That is a very talented group for the relatively unknown Stralman to be a part of.

The Columbus power play success has come from depth.  Eight Columbus players have six or more power play points.  They are Stralman (10), Rick Nash (9), Raffi Torres, Kristian Huselius, Derick Brassard and Fedor Tyutin (7 each) and Antoine Vermette and RJ Umberger (6 each).  By comparison, last season only eight Blue Jackets managed six or more power play points over the entire 82 game season.  Rich Nash led the way with 19 (he is almost halfway there now), Tyutin has 17, Huselius 14, Umberger and Kris Russell (11 each), Jason Williams (8), Brassard and Fredrik Modin (7 each) and Manny Malhotra had six.  Injuries and normal player turnover have changed the cast of characters, but who would have predicted that if you add Anton Stralman and Raffi Torres in place of Kris Russell and Jason Williams you would see enough improvement to jump from 30th to 2nd overall?  I do not imagine that the difference is the talent levels of the players on the power play.  I think it is a new power play system but I do not see where it came from.  Columbus has the same head coach Ken Hitchcock and same assistant coaches (Gary Agnew, Claude Noel and Gord Murphy) as last year.  While many teams have one assistant coach who essentially runs special teams, Columbus does not hold to that model.  There is no one coach who gets the credit for this improvement.  Watching the Blue Jackets, there is no clear difference in their power play system between this year and last.  They have a new point man in Anton Stralman and a lot more confidence, but those appear to be the main differences.

I think a lot of the problem in interpreting power play success comes from a lack of sample size.  Columbus has had 88 power plays so far this year.  They have spent the total of a little over two games on the power play.  In that small sample size it is easy to have statistical flukes occur.  A handful of lucky goals (or unlucky should have been goals) change the picture significantly. 

Another problem is the way the NHL records power play success.  If a team has a power play of any length, it is one power play opportunity.  It doesn’t matter if that power play is one second in length or five minutes.  The power play success rate is power play goals divided by power plays.  It would make more sense to rank power plays in terms of goals per minute on the power play.  Likely this is a small correction, but it will re-order the league’s power play rankings.

The Columbus Blue Jackets have a much improved power play so far this year.  It has jumped from worst in the league to second best.  I think a lot of that jump is a statistical fluke, but it appears they have better overall power play cohesiveness and their new point man Anton Stralman has succeeded.  I would not be surprised to see some regression in power play numbers as the season progresses, but this is not a league-worst power play.

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

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