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Detroit Red Wings Special Teams: The Bowman Index and Playoff Success

Stick with me, kid. Maybe some day some nerd blogger will name an index after you.
Stick with me, kid. Maybe some day some nerd blogger will name an index after you.

Scotty Bowman is one of the greatest minds to ever grace the NHL in hockey's long history. A noted thinking-man's coach, Bowman was always looking for angles and matchups to exploit to get the most out of his teams. Of all the wisdom culled from his noggin, one piece that has stuck with people is his idea on how a team should run on special teams. Now strategies and trends change, but Bowman's primary goal was to be able to take his team's leaguewide power play and penalty kill ranking, add those numbers together, and come up with a figure below 10.

Of course, that's not to say this is all Bowman cared about as a coach. It usually stands to reason that a team which is very good at the power play and the penalty kill would be good at all aspects of the game. It's not as though Scotty Bowman didn't care about the roughly 80% of all NHL hockey played which is done at even strength.

Lately, there's been a lot of concern over Detroit's special teams play. Their current Bowman Index number stands at 29 (14th in power play, 15th in penalty kill). If that figure stands, this will be the highest Index rating Detroit would be taking into the postseason since the lockout. They started the 2007 playoffs at 27 and the 2009 playoffs at 26. Last year they were a 22. The 2007-08 Stanley Cup Winning Red Wings had a regular season Bowman index number of 11, which was only second-best to the 2005-06 squad's 4 (in a playoff year we don't discuss, thank you).

We all know the Red Wings' playoff history, but does having a great special teams rating carry over to playoff success or is there more to it?

First, I looked at every team's Bowman Index score since the lockout. Of those teams, eight of them managed to live up to Bowman's original expectations of a combined 10 or lower rating. Of those eight, four of them made the conference finals in the year they achieved that score. Out of those four, only the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks were able to win the Cup.

Next, I crunched the numbers for all 30 teams to see both what their Bowman Index Score and their 5-on-5 GF/GA Ratio rankings looked like, taking the averages for the entire league, just the playoff teams, and finally only the teams which made the conference finals. Here's what it looks like:

All Teams Playoff Teams Conference Finals Teams
Bowman Index Score 31 25.08 21.21
5-on-5 GF/GA Ratio 15.5 10.05 8.49

The All Teams scores are mathematically set figures. Since all Bowman scores have to fall between 2 and 60 while all 5-on-5 rankings have to fall between 1 and 30, those averages are pre-set. I went with conference finals teams instead of cup teams simply because that doubles the number of data points. There are some conference finals teams which are more highly competitive than others and some which are less competitive than 2nd round teams, but it's hard to really downplay a team that's won 8 playoff games for whatever reasons.

As you can see, for a team to make it to their conference finals, they should strive for a Bowman Index Score of 21 or lower. Detroit sitting at 29 is behind that curve right now (ranked 14th overall). Of course, they're also currently sitting at #1 in the league for 5-on-5 effectiveness, so the question becomes whether they're good enough at even strength to overcome a relatively weak special teams ranking.

To help judge that, I looked at how well a team which held or exceeded these standards would be expected to do in the playoffs. I also wanted to get as close to apples-to-apples here as I could, so instead of just looking at which teams had a Bowman Index Score low enough to beat the average, I just looked at the top 8 teams in the league. This way, we're comparing the top-8 teams at 5-on-5 effectiveness (the average benchmark for making the conference finals) to the top-8 teams in the league for this particular special teams index.

When all was said and done, 11 of the 24 conference finalists in the last six years came from the top 8 of that season's rankings for Bowman Index Score while 14 of the 24 were among the best at 5-on-5 effectiveness. That's about a 12.5% difference. It's not a huge deal, but it is a quite telling. I was also curious to see how much playoff cannibalism played a role in that. How many of the top teams were forced to beat other top teams in order to make it?

To look at that, I looked at how the teams that failed to make the second round despite meeting the rankings qualifications ended up losing. Here's how that worked out. There came out to be 50 Bowman Index-ranked teams in the six years we're looking at due to ties at the 8th spot, so instead of breaking those ties, I just included them.

Failed to Make Playoffs RD1 (ranked) RD1 (unranked) RD2 (ranked) RD2 (unranked) Did not Lose
Bowman Index 10 4 11 6 7 12
% of total (50) 20% 8% 22% 12% 14% 24%
5-on-5 Ratio 1 11 9 8 3 16
% of total (48) 2% 23% 19% 17% 6% 33%

As you can see, 28 of the 50 Bowman Index-ranked teams (56%) either failed to make the playoffs or lost to a team that was not ranked in the same index. Compared to 13 of 48 (27%), it seems as though being able to outplay your opponents during the 80% of the game that isn't special teams can be very important to playoff success.

If you've made it this far, I'm sure you're probably curious about cross-referencing which teams were ranked in the top 8 in both the Bowman Index scale and the 5-on-5 ratio scale. Of the 24 teams which have made the conference finals in the last six years, six of them were ranked on both scales. Those six include three cup-winners, last year's runners-up, and two teams which lost to the double-ranked eventual cup winners (San Jose in 2010 and Dallas in 2008). Only three teams were able to make the conference finals being ranked in neither of these categories. If you thought the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals were boring, the fact that two of them faced off in that series may be why. 11 teams were ranked in 5-on-5, but not the Bowman Index while the remaining 4 were Bowman Index teams which struggled at 5-on-5. Of those four teams, only Philadelphia in 2010 made it out of the conference finals.

So what does this all tell us about the Red Wings chances in the playoffs? Well, nothing new I'm afraid. I'm confident that the Wings can make a deep run in the playoffs, but there are teams like Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Nashville which can all make claims to similar or better strength in both categories compared to the Red Wings. Vancouver currently has a Bowman Index ranking of 7 and is 5th in the league at 5-on-5. The best thing Detroit can do for themselves at this point is to improve their special teams play.