Monday, August 20, 2007

Benchmarks, Part VII -- The Power Play

We’ve looked at the positions, now it’s time to get to the specialties. First up is the power play…

BENCHMARK: San Jose Sharks

There are two elements to this, one of which is obvious. We’ll start with that. San Jose finished second in the NHL last year in power play conversion rate at 22.4 percent (finishing .077 percent ahead of Anaheim). Montreal led the NHL with a 22.8 percent conversion rate. The Sharks also finished second in total power play goals (92) to Pittsburgh (94). What sets San Jose apart (barely) from any of these three clubs was the less obvious element – their short-handed goals allowed (four). The differential of +88 was better than either Anaheim (+85), Pittsburgh (+81), or Montreal (+80).

San Jose also had much more balance in its power play than any of these three clubs. Pittsburgh was essentially a top-unit power play. The quintet of Sidney Crosby, Sergei Gonchar, Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Whitney, and Mark Recchi accounted for 66 percent of the 92 power play goals the Penguins tallied last year. In Anaheim, Teemu Selanne had 25 goals by himself (28 percent of the Ducks’ total and more than twice as many as any other Duck). Selanne’s signing status is another reason why The Peerless thinks Anaheim will not repeat as Stanley Cup champion. The Canadiens were another club that looked like a one-unit group – Sheldon Souray, Saku Koivu, and Michael Ryder accounting for 55 percent of the Habs’ 86 goals. Meanwhile, the Sharks had ten different players register at least ten power play points (Anaheim and Montreal had nine, Pittsburgh had seven).

There isn’t really much difference among the four teams in terms of outcomes. All four were effective – all had a differential of about a goal a game to the good side. San Jose comes out a bit ahead, but there is something all share that we’ll get to next…

Capitals (projected top unit): Alexander Ovechkin, Michael Nylander, Alexander Semin, Tom Poti, Chris Clark

My favorite movie of all time is “The Wizard of Oz” (go figure). And my favorite movie speech of all time belongs to the Cowardly Lion…

What makes a king out of a slave? Courage! What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage! What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage! What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the "ape" in apricot? What have they got that I ain't got?

Well, what do the four teams above got that the Caps ain’t got? And don’t say, “courage.” No, it’s a real-life center and defenseman who have some familiarity and success with a power play. Look at those four teams and the power play scoring of their top center and top defenseman:

Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby (13-48-61)/Sergei Gonchar (10-38-48)
Montreal: Saku Koivu (11-32-43)/Sheldon Souray (19-29-48)
San Jose: Joe Thornton (10-44-54)/Matt Carle (8-18-26)
Anaheim: Andy McDonald (8-25-33)/Chris Pronger (8-28-36)

Meanwhile, the Caps had Dainius Zubrus (9-12-21) and Brian Pothier (2-13-15). 36 total points from this pair would have rendered them at or below all but Carle and McDonald among the eight individual players above. Any wonder the Caps finished 24th in power play conversion and 19th in total power play goals scored? 49 percent of the power play goals (33) and 43 percent of total power play scoring (75 points) came from two wingers – the Alexes.

Here is another set of numbers to chew on…the Caps generated only 108 assists for 67 total power play goals last year – 1.61 assists per goal. San Jose had 176 assists for 92 goals – 1.91 assists per goal. More people contributed more effectively to the Sharks’ power play than was the case for the Capitals. Having little support from the center or defenseman positions probably had much to do with that.

It is not hard to imagine that the single biggest area of improvement for the Caps this year will be here, on the power play. The Caps did not suffer for chances last year – they were tied for eighth in the NHL in total power play opportunities. It was simply a case of too much of the power play running – by virtue of necessity – through the two wingers, Ovechkin and Semin. The effects of the additions of Michael Nylander and Tom Poti are likely to be felt here as much or more than in any other area. Nylander had 37 power play points last year (14 goals/23 assists); Poti had 32 points (six goals, 26 assists). Matching those numbers this year would put those two on a par with Anaheim’s total of 67 points from those two positions last year.

The Caps do not have a Joe Thornton on the roster, although in time Nicklas Backstrom might (and that would be the operative word here) approach Thornton’s level of productivity as a playmaker. Until then, the Caps might not get the job done as efficiently as did San Jose, with its comparatively balanced approach to the power play with Thornton as the primary distributor, but it could be among the most dangerous units in the league, merely by virtue of the moves George McPhee made this summer.

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