The Washington Capitals' special teams have done an about face since last season. In 2009-10, the Caps had the league's top ranked powerplay at 25.2% and their penalty kill ranked 25th at 78.8%. The powerplay this season has dipped to 18th in the NHL at 16.9% while the penalty kill has rocketed up to 4th place at 85.87%, just behind top ranked Vancouver (86.03%). The reason for the penalty kill prowess is obvious: a new system and belief in it have made a huge difference, and the numbers are even more impressive than they might seem on the surface. The Caps' powerplay is more of a mystery, but again, a closer look at the numbers can explain some of the discrepancy.
The numbers show that the change in the Director of Officiating from Stephen Walkom to Terry Gregson in 2009 has severely affected how NHL officials call penalties. The numbers also prove Bruce Boudreau's point that the Tampa Bay Lightning really are divers.
The Caps' penalty kill is vastly improved from last season, due in large part to a new aggressive system installed by the coaching. Last year, the Caps allowed 67 powerplay goals in 316 times shorthanded for a kill rate of just 78.8%. By rotating quickly through penalty killers every 30 seconds and attacking the puck carrier more, the Caps have improved to only allow 39 powerplay goals in 74 games. This difference represents a reduction of 0.29 goals allowed per game (GA/G) over last season. Take into consideration that the Caps' overall improvement in GA/G from last season is 0.40, the Caps defense is still doing better than last year, and the penalty kill is most of the reason why.
The Capitals' penalty kill is ranked 4th in NHL this season by the traditional method of dividing the number of powerplays killed by the total number of powerplays (237/276, 85.87%). When we take into account the goal differential while shorthanded, which is subtracting the number of shorthanded goals scored from the number of powerplay goals allowed (39-7=32) before dividing by the number of total powerplays, the Capitals actually rank second on the penalty kill to the Pittsburgh Penguins (244/276, 88.41% compared to 90% for the Pens).
In looking at the Capitals' powerplay, the raw numbers aren't very good, especially compared to last season. At the team's current rate of production (41 PP goals in 242 chances), they will score 45 or 46 powerplay goals this season. Last year, the Caps scored a league leading 79 powerplay; their nearest competitors scored 68. Adjusting the powerplay percentage to subtract shorthanded goals allowed, the Caps's NHL rank rises from 18th to 16th, still in the middle of the pack. The Caps drop-off in goals per game from 3.82 last season to 2.69 this season can be partly attributed to the 0.41 powerplay goals per game they aren't scoring. The Caps have also only scored 3 goals 5-on-3 while they had 8 last season.
The drop-off in powerplay production can be attributed to a variety of factors, including personnel changes, teams adjusting to the Caps, and injuries to star players. Mike Green's absence of 25 games is huge; he had 10 goals and 35 points on the powerplay last season and has just 5 goals and 10 points this year. Tomas Fleischmann had 7 goals and 20 points on the powerplay last season, but only had one assist before being traded to Colorado and his production has not been replaced. Alexander Semin has 10 fewer powerplay points this season after missing 15 games and playing with an injury for 3 weeks. The secondary scoring is still there: Mike Knuble and Eric Fehr are on pace, John Carlson has replaced Tom Poti, and Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson replaced Brendan Morrison. The big issue is the Caps star players have seen huge production declines: Nicklas Backstrom (17 fewer points), Alex Ovechkin (15), and Brooks Laich (12) have just not scored like they did last year. Hopefully the additions of Dennis Wideman (3 PP points in DC), Jason Arnott (2), and Marco Sturm (1) are enough to spark the Caps' ailing extra-man attack in time for the playoffs.
One factor that is not helping the Caps is the drastic reduction in the number of powerplays they are drawing. The average number of powerplays drawn per game by an NHL team this season is 3.59, with a standard deviation of .27. The Capitals are drawing just 3.27 powerplays per game, 1.15 standard deviations less than the league average. Last season, the Caps drew 3.82 powerplays per game, very close to the league average of 3.71. If the Caps would get the league average in terms of powerplays per game, the Caps would have 4 more powerplay goals at the same rate of production. If they drew last season's number of 3.82, they would have 6 more goals. Especially considering the number of one-goal games the Caps have been in, 6 points could often equate to 6 more points in the standings.
More powerplays means more goals
Looking at the change in the director of officiating from Walkom to Gregson, the overall number of powerplays has dropped dramatically to below pre-lockout levels. When the new rule changes went into effect in 2005-06 to crack down on obstruction, Walkom was the man enforcing them. The first two seasons after the lockout saw large numbers of powerplays as the players adjusted. The next two seasons saw the powerplay rate return to the pre-lockout average as part of a consistent and overall downward trend. Walkom returned to the ice as a referee for the 2009-10 season.
2003-04: 10,427 powerplays, (8.48 per game)
2004-05: NHL locked out
2005-06: 14,390 powerplays, (11.70 per game), up 38% from previous season
2006-07: 11,935 powerplays, (9.70 per game), down 17.1% from previous season
2007-08: 10,541 powerplays, (8.57 per game), down 11.7% from previous season
2008-09: 10,228 powerplays, (8.32 per game), down 3% from previous season
The powerplay numbers with Terry Gregson at the helm since 2009 have been undeniably in the direction of not calling penalties, thus reducing powerplay chances and overall scoring around the league.
2009-10: 9,136 powerplays, (7.43 per game), down 10.7% from previous season
2010-11: 8,820 powerplays expected, (7.17 per game), down 3.5% from previous season
Fortunately, the league's general managers met in Florida last week to discuss actually calling penalties the way they are described in the NHL rulebook, especially the dangerous ones that cause injuries.
In any event, the NHL is definitely not dipping into the Tampa Bay Lightning's pocket for this reduction. When Bruce Boudreau famously called out the Lightning's top stars for being chronic divers a few weeks ago, many called it whining or gamesmanship. The numbers show that Boudreau has a point. The Tampa Bay Lightning have drawn a league-leading 305 powerplays this season, a very pre-lockout average of 4.18 per game, (2.16 standard deviations above the league average of 3.59 per game). That's almost a full powerplay per game more than the Capitals have received (4.18 to 3.27). The other three teams that draw more than their fair share of powerplays per game are: the Carolina Hurricanes (4.12), the Toronto Maple Leafs (4.03) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (3.88).
The sliver lining in this thundercloud is that while the Lightning have the NHL's 6th ranked powerplay at 20.7% (63 for 305), their adjusted powerplay effectiveness drops them to 11th at 15.7% because they have allowed a league-leading 15 shorthanded goals.