Inside Carolina’s Special Teams Woes: the Power Play

In my analysis of the Hurricanes, most of my emphasis is placed on the team's performance at even strength. Why? Because the majority of the game is played there and it has been shown that owning the battle at even strength leads to more wins. However, special teams are just as important to consider. Some teams are able to get by with a sub-par special teams but it's very hard to win if your power play and/or penalty kill are bottom in the league. You either have to be really good at even strength or have elite goaltending to cover up some of your holes. On the flipside, a terrific power play or penalty kill can help put a sub-par even strength team over the top.

Unfortunately, the Hurricanes were on the negative side of both ends of the spectrum. They were a good team at even strength, but both their power play and penalty kill were ranked in the bottom-five of the league. Their penalty kill being the worse of two evils, ranking last in the NHL in shots allowed per 60 minutes and their goaltending wasn't nearly good enough to bail them out of this. It's wrong to blame the goaltenders for this, though because it would probably take elite netminding to have a decent penalty kill in front of that mess.

The point is that it's hard to win when you can not clear the zone on the PK and allow the opposing team to bombard you with shots for the entire duration. A terrible penalty kill will lose a lot of games for you even if you win the battle at even strength and this is what happened to the Canes in many games last season. As good as they were at even strength, their awful penalty kill seemed to be the deciding factor in a lot of games.

Their power play is not without blame here either, as their ineffectiveness there also cost them a few games last season. It wasn't nearly as big of an issue as the penalty kill, but when you consider how many goals they were allowing on the PK, not being able to make many of their power plays count really hurt them. A team might be able to get by with a terrible penalty kill if they can make up for it at even strength and on the power play. The Hurricanes couldn't do that and found themselves near the bottom of the standings because of it.

So what was so bad about the Canes special teams units and what can be done to improve it? After the jump, we'll look at some of the team's top performers on both special teams units and discuss how some of the recent roster additions can help.

Let's start this off by looking at the power play, which was not as terrible as it's 14.6% indicates. The team's finishing ability obviously has to be a lot better, but I always thought that they did a decent job of generating chances & zone time while on the power play. The underlying numbers sort of back this up, as the Canes were 11th in the NHL in shots per 60 minutes while playing 5-on-4. However, the power play did have plenty of issue, the team's inability to finish being the biggest one. 

I feel like this will sort itself out as long as they continue to generate good looks and chances on the power play, but this is something they seemed to struggle with at times. Under Muller, the Hurricanes power play has been based around puck-movement rather than getting shots from the point with traffic in front. It's an overly finesse system but it can be very effective when it works, especially with players like Alex Semin in the lineup. Their favorite play usually involved them moving the puck from the point to below the faceoff circle and finishing it off in the slot or having a defenseman pinch in from the other side.

Again, when this works it's very effective but it also relies on the team looking to create a "perfect" scoring chance rather than consistently getting pressure. One bad pass or a missed shot and the whole play needs to be set up again and the Hurricanes usually looked discombobulated whenever they had to re-enter the zone or set up a new play. I generally think "net front presence" is overrated because good puck-movement leads to more successful power plays than not, but the Canes might benefit from simplifying their power play little and getting more shots from the point. If they have players crashing for rebounds then they should have some modest success.

Do some personnel changes need to happen for this to work? Taking a look at how each player performed in terms of creating changes will give us an idea.

Player PP TOI PPSCF PPSCF/2 SF/60
Marc-Andre Bergeron 39.55 26 1.31 51.85
Alex Semin 150.38 94 1.25 56.29
Eric Staal 165.15 98 1.19 54.09
Joe Corvo 88.17 50 1.13 52.44
Justin Faulk 96.32 54 1.12 52.96
Jeff Skinner 111.6 62 1.11 53.73
Jiri Tlusty 124.02 65 1.05 51.77
Jordan Staal 107.18 55 1.03 43.1
Bobby Sanguinetti 21.45 11 1.03 39.2
Average 269.8 134 0.99333 53.2
Tuomo Ruutu 22.67 10 0.88 39.75
Jamie McBain 53.57 23 0.86 42.58
Chad LaRose 39.97 17 0.85 40.5
Tim Brent 49.48 21 0.85 48
Jussi Jokinen 75.86 31 0.82 49.17
Riley Nash 24.88 10 0.80 36.21
Joni Pitkanen 70.07 25 0.71 44.54
Jay Harrison 23.65 6 0.51 40.57

There is some slight disparity between those who were good at creating chances and those were consistently getting shots on goal, but it's pretty easy to tell which players were the best on the power play. Those would be Alexander Semin & Eric Staal. It's pretty crazy how superior Semin was compared to the rest of the team at generating chances when you consider that he was on the ice for only 12 power play goals all season. I have a feeling that he'll have a lot more next year if he keeps it up.

Staal wasn't so great at converting either despite being on the ice for more power plays goals than anyone else, but that's mostly because he created such a high volume of chances. These two were responsible for 70% of Carolina's power play scoring chances, so they essentially made the power play go. Expecting them to repeat that is unrealistic, but I wouldn't expect their goal production to taper off considering they were on the ice for 12 & 14 power play goals respectively.

Regardless, the Canes first power play unit was not even close to being the problem. Finding a consistent power play unit, however, was an issue. They shuffled through a lot of players there throughout the season and couldn't get great production from many of them. Jordan Staal & Jiri Tlusty's numbers are sort of underwhelming given how many minutes they played and not many of the other forwards contributed much. I would expect better from Tuomo Ruutu next year and using Chad LaRose on the power play is an experiment that never worked.

Finding two players to play the points and quarterback the power play was also a huge problem throughout the year. Normally, one of those guys is Joni Pitkanen, but he struggled to produce chances and missed half of the season. Joe Corvo did provide some solid results on the power play, but he was mainly used on the second unit and Justin Faulk rarely quarterbacked either power play unit. His biggest offensive strength is his shot rather than his play-making skills, so he typically played the other point while one of Corvo or Pitkanen ran the power play.

While Pitkanen was out, the first unit was quarterbacked by either Tim Brent or one of the forwards, normally Eric Staal or Alexander Semin, and it's pretty clear that Brent was not the right man for the job. Semin's shot and play-making skills made him a decent quarterback, but he was better used as one of the lower forwards. McBain & Sanguinetti also didn't do much, so that led to the team trading for Marc-Andre Bergeron in the middle of the season, ironically on the same day that Pitkanen got hurt. Bergeron was as good as advertised but he won't be back next season which means that the Canes will have to find someone else to quarterback both power play units.

Who should those players be? Ideally, Pitkanen will run the first power play unit and post better numbers, but we all know that isn't a certainty with his health. If he gets hurt or struggles, then who will the Hurricanes turn to? One would think that Ryan Murphy will get a look on the first power play unit if Pitkanen goes down. He is still very young, but he is talented and will eventually replace Pitkanen's role on the power play in the long-term. At the very least he could be a replacement for Bergeron or Corvo next year since he is a gifted offensive player and is pretty close to being ready for the NHL. I also think that Faulk will get a chance to quarterback one of the power play units, as will Andrej Sekera. With McBain, Corvo & Sanguinetti leaving, the Canes don't have as many puck-movers as they used to, so we could see some new looks on the power play.

Overall, I would expect the power play to be better than it was last year in terms of results. There's simply too much talent on that first unit for them to finish in the bottom-five again and the Canes should have enough forwards to compose a decent second power play unit, as well. The strategy just needs to be tweaked a little and settle on a couple of players to run the points. Thankfully, they have a fully training camp and a pre-season to sort things out a little and we'll know more about what the power play looks like in a couple months. Having Pitkanen in the lineup for a full year and adding Ryan Murphy to the fold could make a big difference.

Tomorrow we'll look at what went wrong with the penalty kill.

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