The Endangered Species Act of 1973 defines a species as “endangered” if it is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” It defines one as “threatened” if it is “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
If the power play in the National Hockey League is not “endangered,” it certainly seems “threatened.” When the NHL returned from its lost 2004-2005 season, there was great hoopla over the game being opened up to give its stars the chance to shine. You may read that as, “we’re going to have more scoring.” An important part of that idea was the revolutionary idea of calling infractions in accordance with the rule book. You may read that as, “we’re going to have more power plays.”
We are now seven years into the post-lockout era of the NHL, and as we ponder the possibility of another lockout interrupting our enjoyment of the highest-level of the sport, we might also ponder the degree to which the league has held fast in its aim to help rejuvenate scoring by increasing special teams opportunities.
It is a happy coincidence that the NHL.com Web site holds 14 seasons of team statistics (including those for special teams), seven before the lockout and seven after. Looking at those 14 seasons that straddle the lockout, we see a gloomy picture for fans of offensive hockey.
Looking at the 14 years overall, the direction of power play attempts (measured in average attempts per team) is headed in the downward direction:
But that graph above is, after all, really in two distinct parts. It is separated by the lockout season and a conscious effort by the league to introduce more offense, in part by increasing special teams play. In the seven years that represent the pre-lockout period, the average number of power play attempts per team exhibited a substantial decline, a reflection of the “dead-puck” era in which the game was played.
In the seven years leading up to the lockout, average power plays per team dropped by a total of 12.4 percent (from 380 in 1997-1998 to 333 in 2003-2004). When the league returned from its hiatus for the 2005-2006 season, the on-ice product was true to the league’s word, spiking with an average of 480 per team. This was a 44 percent increase over the season immediately preceding the lockout and was more than 35 percent higher than the average number of power play attempts per team in the seven seasons preceding the lockout.
But since that first season after the lockout, power play attempts have resumed their seemingly inexorable journey downward. In the last seven seasons the average number of attempts per team have dropped from that high of 480 in 2005-2006 to 271 last season, a 43.5 percent drop. What we have if we then separate the 14 years into their two seven-year components are functions that behave in similar fashions (although the trend is steeper in the post-lockout period):
The trend over time has behaved rather well within the high-low range, as well. Graphically we can represent the trend by superimposing the highs and the lows for average attempts, by team and by season, as follows:
What we are left with here is the suggestion that the decline in power play attempts is an outcome that is being felt over the full range of teams, not merely a function of a small group of teams at the bottom pulling the trend line downward. This is a particularly disappointing result in this respect; in 2011-2012 the highest number of power play opportunities was recorded by the Philadelphia Flyers, whose 335 opportunities was significantly more than the second-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets (317, or 5.4 percent fewer). Those 335 opportunities, however, was lower than the average number of opportunities in five of the seven years preceding the lockout, and it was higher only than the average in 1999-2000 (331) and the average in 2003-2004 (333).
These data only tell the “what,” they do not shed light on the “why.” Is it that referees have returned to keeping the whistle in their pockets, the complaint of the pre-lockout (“clutch-and-grab”) era? Is it that coaches are actively coaching styles that are more passive and thus less likely to result in penalties? Has this result been the dark stepchild of the league’s trying to introduce more skill, the idea being that more highly-skilled players are less likely to traffic in areas that would draw penalties? Are players policing themselves better?
Whatever the “why,” the “what” seems not to be in doubt. Power play opportunities, one of the aspects of the sport that make it unique among North American team sports, are in decline as measured by total chances. The result, all things being equal, is that an important wellspring of offense is drying up.
It is hardly any surprise, then, that since the lockout goal scoring has dropped from 6.1 goals scored per game to 5.3. The incidences of power play scoring have dropped more precipitously – 44.7 percent in 2011-2012 from the 2005-2006 season. More than half of the drop in total scoring of 0.8 goals/game is explained away by the drop in power play scoring (0.45 goals/game). Here is another way to look at it. In 2011-2012, the Philadelphia Flyers led the NHL with 66 power play goals. That total would have ranked them 27th in the NHL in 2005-2006.
Something akin to a derecho has swept across the league in the last seven years. And it has knocked a lot of the power out. This has ramifications for the Capitals in that fans might be expecting new head coach Adam Oates to work wonders on the Caps recently moribund power play. However, if the league doesn’t find a way to restore the power play on a broader scale, we will be back in the “dark” age of hockey that led up to the lockout.
(s/t to the folks over at Japers’ Rink, whose discussion on power plays led to these scribbles)