Special Teams and the Playoffs: How Good is Good Enough?

Does success on special teams mean you win a Cup? Maybe

There's a long-standing notion that once the playoffs start, power play opportunities become rarer than an Oilers playoff game. The phrase "letting them play" gets uttered more and more, and games are played predominantly at 5-on-5.

It would seem to reason that teams who do take advantage of their power play opportunities while preventing their opponents from doing the same tend to be more successful in the playoffs. Scoring chances and goals are usually at a premium as teams focus on playing a tighter defensive system to avoid making the mistake that could end their season.

This afternoon an email popped in our inbox that broke down the special teams performance of the 8 Stanley Cup winners since Lockout 1 in 2005. What we found when we reviewed the numbers was actually fairly surprising.

Stanley Cup Winners Since 2006 - Power Plays
Year Stanley Cup Winner Total PP Opportunities PP Goals PP %
2006 Carolina 129 31 24%
2007 Anaheim 105 16 15.20%
2008 Detroit 106 20 18.90%
2009 Pittsburgh 97 20 20.60%
2010 Chicago 80 18 22.50%
2011 Boston 88 10 11.40%
2012 Los Angeles 94 12 12.80%
2013 Chicago 70 8 11.40%

The first thing that jumps out is the number of PP opportunities that each team gets has steadily dwindled each year. The second is that having a strong PP is great, but not necessary to win a Cup. Notice that the last 3 Cup winners all had PP% under 13%. For context, only one team in the NHL had a sub-14% PP (Buffalo). The Wings finished the year in 18th with a respectable 17.7% success rate, but we can hope that improves with the return of Pavel Datsyuk. Boston had an excellent PP this year, finishing 3rd with a 21.7% success rate.

What about the PK? I know that when I think of the past several Cup champs, one of the first things that springs to mind is how well they could prevent goals against. Here's how the last 8 Cup champs fared:

Stanley Cup Winners Since 2006 - Penalty Killing
Year Stanley Cup Winner Times SH PP Goals Against PK% Short-Handed Goals
2006 Carolina 137 20 85.40% 2
2007 Anaheim 121 16 86.80% 2
2008 Detroit 98 14 85.70% 6
2009 Pittsburgh 84 14 83.30% 1
2010 Chicago 90 15 83.30% 4
2011 Boston 96 15 84.40% 4
2012 Los Angeles 76 6 92.10% 5
2013 Chicago 76 7 90.80% 2

The last 2 Cup winners both were virtually unbeatable while down a man (no NHL team had a PK% over 86% this year), while 83-86% would place a team in the top half of the NHL in a typical regular season. The Red Wings and Bruins both had good PK units this year, finishing 12th (83.0%) and 8th (83.6%) respectively.

The one thing that popped out at me was that of the 8 teams on this list, only the 2011 Bruins had both a PP and PK % that could be considered at-or-below-average, and even then their PK was pretty good. Every other team was either very good on the PP or on the PK. If the Wings are going to pull off the upset, it would behoove them to either get way better on the PP or the PK, because one or both could be the difference between being bounced early or going on a long playoff run.