Thursday, 11 June 2015

Is Tampa's power play really inconsistent, or is it just ineffective?

The Tampa Bay Lightning went 0-for-4 on the power play in last night’s fourth game of the Stanley Cup Final.  It didn’t take long for fans and media to start thinking about what could have been.  A single goal with the man-advantage would have pushed the game into overtime, and maybe then Tampa’s speed would have been able to take advantage of a tired Chicago defense.  But, the power play units failed to score.  Tampa Bay lost 2-1.  The series is moving back to Amalie Arena tied at two.

One common theme I saw in comments following the loss was a sense of disbelief with regards to the power play’s “inconsistency.”  People were left wondering how it could be so bad, then so good, then so bad again.  I’ve put ‘inconsistency’ in quotation marks because I don’t believe that Tampa’s power play is inconsistent at all.  Rather, I’ll use this blog to argue that it’s been bad the whole time.

Before continuing, I’ll just make note of the fact that both Raw Charge’s Kyle Alexander and TSN’s Travis Yost have covered this topic incredibly well.  Their analysis during the regular season got me interested in looking at this topic from my own point of view.  And that point of view involves a lot of comparisons.

Fans have been quick to point out that Tampa’s man-advantage unit likes to pass the puck too much.  #OneMorePass has become a thing in the Lightning Twitterverse, which basically speaks to the level of frustration that can come from watching a Tampa power play.  It would seem that the Bolts are simply looking too hard for the perfect opportunity.  They want to wait for the right moment, the right spot.  In doing so, they often waste time and risk giving up the puck without getting a chance on net.  Opposing goaltenders must love to watch the Lightning pass the puck around, because it means that they aren’t having to make saves.

Maybe waiting for the perfect opportunity is the right thing to do.  Maybe it’s better to wait for a sure thing than it is to take a chance.  Unfortunately, that sort of logic goes against everything hockey players are taught from a very young age.  They don’t say “shooting the puck is never a bad option” just for the hell of it.  They say that because it’s true.  If you fire more pucks on net, you have a better chance of scoring.

Now here’s the crux of the argument: Shooting percentage is largely variable.  It changes over time, and doesn’t really follow a consistent path.  So, it makes more sense to fire pucks on net (something you can guarantee) with regularity than it does to wait for the perfect opportunity when you don’t know whether your shooting percentage is going to have a good day or a bad day.  Putting the puck on net is something a player can control with relative certainty.  Shooting percentage just isn’t.

For comparison’s sake, consider the Carolina Hurricanes.  Right about now, you’re probably wondering why I’ve selected the Hurricanes; it’s because both the Lightning and Hurricanes ran their power play units with 18.8% efficiency during the regular season.  Identical. 

I don’t think you’ll find anyone who would disagree with the notion that Tampa has more elite finishing talent than Carolina right now, so isn’t it a little bit curious that the two man-advantage units clicked at the same pace all season?  Not really.  Sure, Tampa’s elite finishing ability showed up at times, as evidenced by a high on-ice shooting percentage, but it also went cold for stretches too.  That’s the nature of shooting percentage, a highly variable and uncontrollable statistic.  Here’s a comparison of Tampa’s on-ice PP shooting percentage and Carolina’s, measured using a 10-game rolling average:

As you can see, Tampa’s shooting percentage varied a lot more than Carolina’s.  It was high at times; it was low at times.  There wasn’t a whole lot of consistency.  When it was high, fans and media marvelled that the Lightning were clicking.  “They’ve finally figured out the power play,” people shouted with jubilation.  Nope.  Rather, they simply had their shooting percentage bounce up without changing much else.  Consider shot attempt generation as evidence of this:

Yeah, Carolina (!) was a whole lot better at throwing the puck towards the net than Tampa.  They don’t have that elite finishing ability, but they proved that, even without it, throwing the puck on net can result in success.  While Tampa spent time passing around the offensive zone, Carolina was busy trying to score.  The end result was two power play units that ran at the same efficiency clip.  And, it’s probably not a good thing if the Hurricanes are a measuring stick for a team in the Stanley Cup Final.

Now let’s compare Tampa’s unit to the two best in the league.  The Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings both had power play units that struck with regularity.  That power play prowess helped both of them make the postseason, with Washington advancing to Game Seven of the second round.  What does their shooting percentage moving average look like?

 (Detroit is Red and Washington is Purple.)

So, yes, it varies.  Shooting percentage always will.  How did they avoid having that variance come back to haunt them in the form of a devastating cold streak?  They simply put the puck on net.  The attempted shots show that Tampa lagged way behind the league's power play leaders: 

Shot attempt generation works.  There is no reason for Tampa to not fire the puck at opposing goaltenders like the Wings or Capitals.  The Lightning should learn from the best.  Combine their finishing ability with actual attempts on net, and good things will almost certainly follow.

As this analysis shows, Tampa’s power play really isn’t ‘inconsistent’ at all.  Instead, it’s woefully ineffective at generating shots.  Shooting percentage varies, and so it appears as though it gets hot and cold at different times.  Don’t let that appearance fool you, though, as the Bolts man-advantage unit has been pretty bad all year.

Thanks for reading.

(*All charts are courtesy of, a premier source for hockey analytics.)

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