Luck vs. futility on the power play

I've been playing the "bad luck" card to explain most of the Hurricanes struggles last year because a lot of the team's struggles were out of their own control. The Canes were destroyed by injuries, had scoring issues despite leading the NHL in 5v5 shots per game, received sub-par goaltending for half of the year and lost all but two games that went to extra time. Everyone knew that tangible qualities like the ones listed above were going to play a significant role in where teams finished in the standings and the Hurricanes got the short end of the stick in all of them. Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract web site does a great job of illustrating this point with this chart showing each team's "Luck Score." It's pretty easy to tell that the Hurricanes were very unlucky in just about every category that is said to go either way in a full-season.

Some encouraging news in all of this is that the Canes were a positive puck-possession team at even strength and should be better next year once regression sets in and their second line starts producing. However, another area that Vollman's Luck Score goes over is each club's "Special Team Index," which looks at the combined performance of their power play and penalty kill. As you can probably guess, Carolina was near the bottom of the league in that category and have been for years now. Some teams can get by with mediocre special teams by making up for it at even strength, but others, like the Hurricanes aren't so fortunate. 

The Canes were a good team at controlling the play at during five-on-five action, but they had trouble scoring and got below-average to replacement level goaltending for the second half of the season. Combine that with putrid special teams and that will generally earn you a place in the NHL's cellar, in a shortened season at least. What does luck have to do with special teams, though? Quite a bit, actually.

I was hesitatnt to accept this idea at first, but when you consider how much luck is involved with goal-scoring and goaltending, it's easy to see why special teams performance can vary so much on a year to year basis. Special teams success is gauged by a team's power play or penalty kill percentage, which is determined by how many goals they score or allow while playing up or down a man. It's been stated and proven over and over again how shooting percentage is not a repeatable skill at a team level and as a result, success on special teams usually ends up being very random. This is especially true for a team's power play percentage.

If you look at each of the top ranked power plays over the last six seasons and where they ranked the following year, you'll notice some interesting observations.

Year Team PP% SF/60 SH% Next Year PP% SF/60 SH%
2007-08 Montreal 24.1% 51.7 16.52% 13th 19.2% 51.9 12.61%
2008-09 Detroit 25.5% 64.2 13.97% 9th 19.2% 57.6 11.23%
2009-10 Washington 25.2% 55.8 16.23% 16th 17.5% 58.8 9.52%
2010-11 Vancouver 24.3% 55.9 16.46% 4th 20.6% 55.4 12.63%
2011-12 Nashville 21.6% 44.7 15.20% 17th 17.1% 46.3 12.57%
2012-13 Washington 26.8% 49 20.50% ??? ??? ??? ???

Only two of the top ranked power plays stayed in the top 10 the following season and only one of them converted on at least 20% of their opportunities. After running hot on the power play for one year, each of these teams saw their 5v4 shooting percentages dip the following season while their shot rate stayed relatively constant. Much like it is at even strength, the most a team has control over on the power play is creating chances and getting the puck on goal. With the exception of the Detroit Red Wings, all of these team's ability to do that didn't change much the following season, but their power plays ended up being worse going by shooting percentage and success rate.

This all relates back to the issue of whether or not shooting percentage relates to shot quality and while there might be some correlation there, it doesn't appear to have much sustainability over long stretches of time. The ability to generate shots, on the other hand, is much more repeatable and this is why the general rule of thumb is that your power play is on the right track as long as you generate chances. Still, there are a  lot of coaches will drive themselves crazy to fix a struggling power play even when they are getting a high volume of shots on goal. Sometimes, a little patience can be the cure to everything.

Does this apply to the Hurricanes, though? They've been ranked in the bottom-half of the league in power play percentage in the majority of the last six seasons, but how much of it is related to percentages and how much of it is the team's doing? After the jump, we will answer both questions and discuss how it will affect the team next season.

Year 5v4 SF/60 Rank PP% Rank 5v4 SH% Rank
2007-08 47.4 17th 18.8% 8th 14.06% 7th
2008-09 49.8 13th 18.7% 18th 12.55% 18th
2009-10 45.9 27th 16.9% 22nd 12.63% 11th
2010-11 45.7 28th 15.9% 24th 11.75% 15th
2011-12 50 10th 16.7% 20th 11.96% 19th
2012-13 49 11th 14.6% 27th 9.48% 30th

The Hurricanes power play was legimiately awful in both 2009-10 & 2010-11, but they seem to be getting a little unlucky in the previous two seasons. Morso last year, as they had the lowest 5v4 shooting precentage in the NHL while being one of the better teams at getting shots on goal. In a full season, it's very likely that they would end up ranked much higher than 27th in the league and they could have ended up in the top-half once they stopped running cold. There have been some power plays in recent history, but it's really hard for a team to shoot that low with the man advantage over an entire year, so I'm inclined to believe that the Hurricanes were not as bad as their ranking indicates.

Will they have better luck on the power play next year? Based on the numbers above, they could finish in the middle or the top half of the league if they convert on more of their chances but as we know, that isn't a gauruntee. It's also worth noting that the Canes power play will have a different look than it did the last two years. Out are Joe Corvo, Bobby Sanguinetti, Marc-Andre Bergeron & Jamie McBain and replacing them will be Andrej Sekera and possibly Ryan Murphy. This might sound strange as it sounds, Corvo will probably be the most difficult to replace as the team created more shots on goal with the man advantage when he was on the ice and he also led all defensemen in power play points. Bergeron's presence as a puck-mover will also be missed, but he wasn't with the team long enough for me to say that he will be a huge loss.

Sekera has a decent shot and can play the left point, but he wasn't used that much on Buffalo's power play and probably won't replace Corvo's production there. Murphy, however, can likely take over as the power play quarterback on the second unit and possibly be an upgrade over Corvo if his offensive presence is as good as advertised. Getting a full season out of Joni Pitkanen will also go a long way because he is used on the power play more than any other defenseman and can form a dangerous first unit along with Justin Faulk.

The Hurricanes have enough fire power to build a solid first power play unit and that should be enough for them to be at least decent there. However, filling out that second unit can be a challenge when you look at their defensemen and depth could be an issue in the event of an injury. This might change if Ryan Murphy makes the team or another signing is made, though. That being said, the Hurricanes should get better results from their power play next year but will it be enough to make a difference?