Additional Thoughts on Special Teams and Playoff Success

In today’s article in the Toronto Star we looked at whether regular season special teams success translates into playoff success.


This is a very specific question that seemed highly relevant as we watch this season’s NHL playoffs unfold.


However, there are other questions, and we will be looking at them in the coming months.


For example, while we only looked at playoff teams this time around, we’re already wondering how important special teams are during the regular season.  Because while it’s interesting to talk playoffs in April, in order to get to the playoffs, teams have to win enough regular season games.


So before people start asking “what about...?” never fear – we have the data already, and when we get the time, we are going to see how well special teams success correlates with regular season performance.


Another thing we didn’t look at was how special teams performance during the playoffs correlates with playoff success.  We routinely hear commentators talking about how a team needs to get its special teams in order in a hurry or start thinking about the putting green and next season.


That certainly sounds true, and other than the 2011 Bruins, we can’t think of any teams that hoisted despite having a brutal power play throughout the playoffs.  But we’d need more than that to say either way.


Another future analysis we’re looking at is the correlation between regular season special teams performance and playoff special teams performance.  We’ve seen a strong connection between a high PK% and playoff success, which makes us think there should be a correlation between PK% during the regular season and playoffs, but if we didn’t see that, we would either have to conclude that PK% is telling us something about a team’s overall defensive abilities or else what we’ve found is just dumb luck.  The latter seems unlikely, but we have to be open to the possibility.


Another question we wrestled with was the idea of drawing or taking penalties as being somehow random.  Intuitively that just doesn’t sound right.  We think better teams are going to take fewer penalties and draw more than their opponents.


Better teams generally do a better job of controlling the play and generating offensive chances, and when that happens, their opponents are going to have to interfere, hook, trip, etc. to prevent what would otherwise be a goal.  So we would expect better teams to take fewer “smart” penalties, and our guess would also be that part of what makes better teams better will include an ability to avoid “dumb” penalties.


So why did we conclude there was nothing to this once playoffs start?


Well, for starters, that’s what the data suggested.  For every PPG Against fewer a team gave up, it increased its chances of winning by 0.67%, while each additional point of PK% resulted in a 2.6% higher probability of victory.


Based on an average of 54 PPG Against and a PK% of 84% over our 225 series sample, this makes 4 goals roughly equivalent to one percentage point of PK%.  In other words, nearly all the work here is being done by PK%, with opportunities given up being largely irrelevant.


Playoff teams are generally pretty close in terms of the number of penalties they give up.  Over the 15-year period we looked at, the widest margin we saw was the 2006 first round matchup between the Devils (348) and Rangers (486).  This amounted to a 28.4% increase.


Playoff teams are simply too close on total penalties given up for a team to parlay a skill in avoiding penalties to its advantage. Over a 7 game series, the widest margin in 15 years would amount to 41 penalties against the Devils to the Rangers’ 30.


Also, keep in mind those regular season numbers are based on play against all opponents.  Add in the fact that weaker teams will generally get eliminated earlier in the playoffs (and therefore our data should be weighted toward “closer” matchups) and those differences should become even narrower.


All of which is to say we’re not prepared to give up the idea that avoiding and drawing penalties are skills and something more than random.  It just doesn’t seem to be a difference maker between the teams that are good enough to be among the top 16.


Last of all, we come to the power play.  We were really surprised by this one.  Like all fans, we really like watching power plays and get excited when the team we’re cheering for has one.  So we’d love to conclude power plays matter a lot because they sure are fun to watch.


We can still hold on to that idea.  Scoring on the power play during the regular season may very well translate into regular season success and doing it in the playoffs may translate into playoff success.


But an ability to score on the power play during the regular season doesn’t seem to help predict who will win playoff games.


We didn’t parse the data into different time periods because of sample size concerns.  But we suspect recent experience (e.g. the Caps having a lethal regular season PP and being notorious playoff chokers while the Bruins appeared in two finals despite having a brutal PP) might weigh the data further toward rather than against the conclusion we reached.


So why wouldn’t a good PP during the regular season (or scoring lots of PP goals through an ability to draw lots of penalties) translate into playoff success?


Our only thought here is that teams with good PP numbers may be scoring a disproportionate number of goals against teams that aren’t good enough to make the playoffs.  Moreover, as with penalties taken, once competition stiffens even a team that has generally drawn more penalties than it’s taken during the regular season may find itself facing more disciplined opponents during the playoffs.


Not to further bash Ovechkin and the Capitals, but our initial article in the Star, which parsed the universe of elite goal scorers according to whether they scored more often against playoff vs. non-playoff teams speaks to this very point.


Put differently, if you’re playing a team that relies excessively on the man advantage to generate offense, you can win by containing that team’s best players at 5 on 5 and avoiding both dumb and smart penalties.  If you have a good PK, not only will you then limit the situations that your opponent requires in order to score, you will also make them less effective when they do have those opportunities.


Which leaves us with a final thought for further analysis.  If most teams are currently overvaluing scorers – particularly ones who excel on the power play – (cue one of several David Clarkson rants, including IJay’s of a couple of weeks ago and our earlier ones on Ovechkin), smart teams should be looking for elite shutdown defencemen and defensive forwards, particularly ones who know how to work the PK.


In order to say whether or not that’s happening, we would need to do a systematic review of salary data.  So there’s one more thing on our list!


For those who want to check out our regression results, you can see them here.

DOHA Special Teams Playoffs Regression Results

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