Is it Possible to Win the Cup with a Bad Power Play?

* Editor's Note: I began researching this story last week, when our power play was still awful, ranked 24th in the league at the time. Of course, as soon as I started writing, the team went on a power play tear. So even though some of the vigor behind the post is gone, it's still a worthwhile topic to explore - that and I did a buttload of research that I'm not flushing down the toilet. All stats are current as of 1/11/10.

Without question, the biggest overall weakness for the Buffalo Sabres has been their power play. The Sabres PP unit is currently humming along at 18% as of this writing, which is good for 16th in the NHL. Every other phase of the game has been excellent, but I've been wondering how much this unreliable power play will really affect the team's chances of making a serious Cup run come playoff time. After much procrastinating, I decided to go stat hunting. I've gathered the numbers from the top four playoff teams in each Conference over the past four seasons (this one included) and have stacked them up to see how they compare; I only chose the top four teams in each Conference because since the lockout, every Cup winner has been a four-seed or higher. This is a purely numerical analysis, there's no discussion of power play strategy or anything, so head over the break for a big spreadsheet (fun!) and some analysis.

For each year, I've taken the top 4 teams in each Conference, ordered them by overall power play ranking, given the conversion percentage of each team, and given the average percentage from that year's Conference finalists for comparison. Cup winners are in italics.

2009-10 2008-09
Team Power play % League Rank Playoff Position Team Power play % League Rank Playoff Position
 Washington Capitals 23.8 2 EC 3  Detroit Red Wings 25.5 1 WC 2
 Chicago Blackhawks 21.1 5 WC 1  Washington Capitals 25.2 2 EC 2
 New Jersey Devils 20.8 7 EC 1  San Jose Sharks 24.2 3 WC 1
 San Jose Sharks 20.1 10 WC 2  Boston Bruins 23.6 4 EC 1
 Buffalo Sabres 18 16 EC 2  Chicago Blackhawks 19.3 12 WC 4
 Phoenix Coyotes 17.6 18 WC 4  New Jersey Devils 18.9 15 EC 3
 Calgary Flames 16.9 22 WC 3  Vancouver Canucks 18.8 17 WC 3
 Pittsburgh Penguins 14.7 29 EC 4  Pittsburgh Penguins 17.2 20 EC 4
Final 4 Average Final 4 Average
 Devils (7), Sabres (16), Blackhawks (5), Sharks (10) 20 Would be good for 11th  Wings (1), Blackhawks (12), Penguins (20), Hurricanes (18) 20.2 Would have been good for 9th
2007-08 2006-07
Team Power play % League Rank Playoff Position Team Power play % League Rank Playoff Position
 Montreal Canadiens 24.1 1 EC 1  Anaheim Ducks 22.4 3 WC 2
 Detroit Red Wings 20.7 3 WC 1  Ottawa Senators 17.9 14 EC 4
 Pittsburgh Penguins 20.4 4 EC 2  New Jersey Devils 17.7 15 EC 2
 Minnesota Wild 18.9 7 WC 3  Buffalo Sabres 17.4 17 EC 1
 Washington Capitals 18.8 9 EC 3  Nashville Predators 17.4 18 WC 4
 San Jose Sharks 18.7 10 WC 2  Vancouver Canucks 17.2 20 WC 3
 Anaheim Ducks 16.6 20 WC 4  Detroit Red Wings 17.1 21 WC 1
 New Jersey Devils 15.6 25 EC 4  Atlanta Thrashers 16.5 23 EC 3
Final 4 Average Final 4 Average
 Wings (3), Stars (13), Penguins (4), Flyers (2) 20.3 Would have been good for 5th  Sabres (17), Senators (14), Wings (21), Ducks (3) 18.7 Would have been good for 7th

 

A few things I think are interesting:

- Going into this with very little prior knowledge, I expected these teams to all be in the top 20 just because of their records, but I see a lot of teams in the twenties out there, including Pittsburgh this year at 29.

- Every year is totally different. In 2007-08 the cream of the crop was dominated by top-10 power plays, but the year before that almost every team was in the bottom half of the league, and only one was in the top 10!

- 3 of the 4 Cup winners since the lockout have been ranked 3rd on the power play (Carolina was 3rd in the 2005-06 season, which is not included in the chart.) The other, Pittsburgh, was 20th.

- Power plays are trending towards being more successful. A 20% mark was good for 5th in the league in 2007-08, then 9th a year later, then 11th this year.

So after all that, is a strong power play an absolute necessity to make a serious Cup run? It doesn't appear that way. However, a strong power play is never a bad thing, and it's good that the Sabres have been heating up recently with the man advantage. What are your thoughts?

All stats from NHL.com and hockey-reference.com

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