Revisiting the "Other" Power-Play Problem

Back in February (nice, cold February), while the Caps' power-play was on a 12-for-115 (10.4%) slide that had dropped the unit's overall efficiency to a mediocre-at-best 16.8%, we touched on the "other" problem that the Caps' were facing with regards to the extra man:

Fix the power play, fix the team.

The owner said as much. The numbers say the same thing.

And while the focus with regards to the power play is on how a unit with essentially the same personnel can drop so precipitously so quickly - from first in the League a season ago to the bottom third this season - one related point isn't being discussed nearly as much, and that's the decline in power-play opportunities.

In addition to having an absolutely lethal power-play in 2009-10, the Caps were also in the top ten in the League in power-play opportunities (which is mildly surprising, given that teams that frequently play with leads don't ordinarily do well in penalty ratio, as we've discussed previously). That's obviously a pretty optimal combination.

This year's team, however, has not only struggled with the extra man, but it has also drawn relatively few penalties. That's obviously a combination at the other end of the desirability spectrum.

The Caps didn't fix the power play, of course, and that was one of the reasons that the season ended disappointingly early. They also didn't fix the power play opportunities problem, finishing 28th in the League in extra-man chances.

In his latest column for ESPN.com, Neil Greenberg argues that at least that second issue has been addressed for  2011-12:

Regardless of the increased size, grit and playoff experience, the most overlooked return on these offseason investments [Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern] will be in the form of more power-play opportunities for Washington.

In each of the past four years, the Capitals have seen their opportunities with the man advantage decline; only New Jersey and Ottawa saw fewer power plays last season.

The skaters on their way out of D.C. drew 20 penalties last year collectively as a group. Brouwer drew almost as many on his own (19) in addition to 262 hits, fifth-best in the NHL, while taking only nine minor penalties.

Last season, the Capitals won almost two-thirds of their games when they had four or more power-play opportunities, the same as the 2009-10 season, when their power-play unit led the league in efficiency.

The four incoming skaters drew 54 penalties at five-aside, while the outgoing group drew just 20, per behindthenet.ca. Assuming that those performances are repeated (perhaps a big assumption, given that roles and minutes may change and the ability to draw penalties may not necessarily be a repeatable skill - Brouwer drew at half his 2010-11 rate a season earlier), that difference amounts to around six or seven goals over the course of the season (34 additional power plays, converting at a rate of 17.6% would net six, a 20.6% efficiency would net seven). It doesn't sound like much, but it's not insignificant - around two standings points.

But there's likely a bigger reason than the personnel that the Caps' power-play opportunities dropped last year.

Through December 12, the Caps were averaging 3.6 power-plays per game. That pro-rates to 295 opportunities over an 82-game season, which would've been good for 12th in the League and just 18 fewer than the team had in 2009-10. After December 12, however, the Caps' averaged just 2.9 extra-man advantages per game and finished the season with 263. That difference (3.6 vs. 2.9), pro-rated over a full season amounts to around ten or 11 goals, given the conversion rates referenced above.

So what's the significance of December 12? As Elliotte Friedman tells it...

It was their first meeting after a gruesome 7-0 loss to the Rangers on Dec. 12.

"We had a day off after that game," said Brooks Laich, after the Capitals won the Winter Classic.

"I remember thinking we were going to get a visit from the GM when we got back."
Instead, they got a message from head coach Bruce Boudreau. Something along the lines of: "Guys, we're going to play the trap." It is the first time in his coaching career Boudreau's used it.

It makes sense, of course - a system that emphasizes dropping back over attacking is going to force fewer turnovers in dangerous areas, have less possession in the opponents' zone, and draw fewer penalties. Of course, it's also going to commit fewer penalties, and the Caps certainly saw that, as their times shorthanded per game dropped from 4.2 to 3.3 after December 12.

Point being, the personnel the Caps have added this summer may very well help them earn more power plays than the players they're replacing would have. But the players will have a hard time offsetting the decline in chances that have resulted from the team's system change, barring some tweaks to that system. And all of this won't matter much if the can't figure out how to fix the bigger problem with the power play... that pesky conversion rate.

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