NHL power plays: Who's doing it right, who needs major help

Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Goals are hard to come by in hockey, particularly at even strength, when there isn't much open real estate on the ice. At five-on-five this season, the league average for goals scored per hour of play is 2.5, and just 4.5% of all shot attempts toward the net actually wind up in the back of the net. On the power play, those rates go up to 6.8 goals per hour, and 7.2% of shot attempts that result in goals. That increased likelihood of scoring may not seem like much, but it's actually quite huge given the razor-thin margin between winning and losing.

A coach has many different job requirements, but one of the main responsibilities is to put players in a position to succeed on the ice. That can come in many forms, but in this case, it can be as simple as making sure to always have the players who are most likely to create a goal on the ice in the highest leverage offensive situations where they're most likely to score. There's really no excuse for not having your best players out there as often as possible with the man advantage, especially considering how relatively low the physical demands of living in the offensive zone are compared to most other shifts, when they have to go up and down the ice.

There's no magic number, but something trending closer to a 75-25 split seems like a much more effective way to divvy up the available minutes than the more conservative 50-50 split we tend to think of. That would mean that during a typical two-minute power play, the top unit would get somewhere in the ballpark of the first 1:30 before ceding the remaining 30 seconds of mop-up duty to the second unit.

So why isn't everyone doing this? There are a couple of obvious caveats that may apply. The two most common ones are either:

  • When the players who should be out there are the ones to draw the penalty in the first place, and they're spent at the end of a grueling shift.

  • There are certain teams that may have more evenly distributed talent, with two scoring lines they consider to be 1A and 1B. In that case, the two minutes may be split more closely down the middle to get everyone out there.

But that latter example really is the exception, because with the way most teams are constructed, there's usually a clear delineation in talent level between the top handful of players and the rest.

Let's put this all to the test, then, to get a better feel for how the 31 respective teams are utilizing their power plays this season. Which teams are maximizing their scoring opportunities, and which ones are leaving meat on the bone with head-scratching player usage?

Alex Ovechkin is one of a kind

Ovechkin is the gold standard in so many ways. The singular damage he does putting the puck into the back of the net gets the most attention, and deservedly so. He has led the league in power-play goals six times throughout his career, scoring 254 times. To put those figures into perspective, here are the leaders in power-play goals since he entered the league:

1. Alex Ovechkin: 254
2. Steven Stamkos: 149
3. Evgeni Malkin: 143
4. Sidney Crosby: 137
5. Patrick Marleau: 137
6. Thomas Vanek: 137
7. Eric Staal: 127
8. Jarome Iginla: 125
9. Joe Pavelski: 123
10. Daniel Sedin: 119

As strange as it to say about a player whose impact and dominance is so easily visible, the more subtle parts of his game are just as impressive. No one demands the type of attention he does just by standing in his office at the left circle, and his presence on the ice puts the opposing penalty kill in an unenviable position in which they have to pick their poison.

If they opt to play him straight up, we already know what he can do with his shot as his primary weapon. There's no one else who can make the puck go from a seemingly harmless position to the back of the net more quickly. But the most overlooked part of his mastery is that he has broken the geometry of the attacking zone down to a science over the years, knowing precisely wear to stand and what to do to lull the opposition into a false sense of security.

That's why there have been many times when we're left wondering how he managed to get open from the same exact spot. Everyone knows where he is and where the puck is going to go, but two minutes can be a long time, and all he really needs is the one split-second when the penalty killers exhale. The added benefit of that ability to pick his spots is that he can manage his energy, and stay out on the ice for the full two minutes.

If the opponents instead devote a penalty killer to shadowing Ovechkin and crowding him, that just allows his teammates to pick them apart methodically with a 4-on-3 mini-game. There was a great example of that in a game against the Rangers last week, when Evgeny Kuznetsov was allowed to walk in and pick his spot unimpeded because of how preoccupied New York was with where Ovechkin was on the ice.

A star of Ovechkin's caliber must be awfully fun to play with because of how easy he can make the game for everyone else. T.J. Oshie made himself $46 million by feasting on the extra time and space afforded to him in the middle of the ice, while John Carlson is well on his way to a Norris Trophy this season. Once we have access to the NHL's full player tracking data, it'll be fascinating to see how much attention players attract from opposing defenders, and how much cushion they're given in the offensive zone. It's a good bet that it'll wind up being yet another offensive category at which Ovechkin finds himself near the top.

Free Auston Matthews!

As it turns out, there were a lot of things going on behind the scenes in Toronto that culminated in Mike Babcock's eventual downfall. From an on-ice perspective, the most egregious transgression during his time with the Leafs was his handling of Auston Matthews' minutes. For whatever reason, there was a bizarre reluctance to take the training wheels off his most lethal scorer and fully unleash him on the league, which is a trend that will hopefully change under the new regime.

The lack of power-play usage was particularly puzzling, because there was no logical reason for why he wasn't relied upon more heavily, given the natural fit between his skill set and the offensive environment. Matthews is a nightmare for opponents in the attacking zone, largely because of his unique ability to shoot accurately from all sorts of weird angles and positions. An opposing goalie can't really get set optimally if he doesn't know when or where the shot is coming from, which is why Matthews and his devastatingly unpredictable wrister continue to boast such high shooting percentages.

One of the lasting images ingrained in everyone's minds from the shortcomings of the Babcock era will be the distribution of forward minutes in their most recent Game 7 defeat in Boston. With their season literally on the line, Babcock refused to deviate from the plan and show any understanding of the urgency the moment required, continuing to roll his lines and have 40-year-old Patrick Marleau and Tyler Ennis play high-leverage power-play minutes.

All Matthews has done since he entered the league is score at astronomical rates, including on the power play. To show the imbalance between his production and his usage, among players who have played at least 200 total minutes with the man advantage since 2016, Matthews is:

  • 8th in goals per hour

  • 15th in points per hour

  • 146th in ice time per game

The only players who have scored goals more frequently than he has in that time are Patrik Laine, Steven Stamkos, David Pastrnak, Nazem Kadri, Alex Ovechkin, Mika Zibanejad and Mike Hoffman. The players who have seen similar usage to him are Nick Foligno, Alexander Steen, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac and Brandon Pirri.

We don't have nearly enough of a sample size to know how much things will change under Sheldon Keefe, but considering all of the chatter about removing some of the rigidity of Babcock's system and highlighting the strengths of his personnel, the early signs are encouraging. The bar he needs to clear to represent an upgrade for the Leafs is admittedly quite low, because all he really needs to do is get out of the way and let his best players play. It's scary to think that Matthews has another gear to hit if he starts being used properly.

The B's are buzzing

The Bruins' power play is clinical, and the way it operates is quite instructive. We've written about this before, but here's an update on how the B's have scored each of their 24 goals with the man advantage this season:

  • Within 10 seconds after gaining possession in offensive zone: 9

  • Between 11 and 20 seconds after gaining possession in offensive zone: 7

  • Between 21 seconds and 30 seconds after gaining possession in offensive zone: 5

  • Between 31 seconds and 1 minute of gaining possession in offensive zone: 3

The personnel itself is one thing, but their mission statement and execution is what puts the Bruins over the top. That's true in so many different areas of the game, but it's best exemplified on the power play. No team attacks more quickly and decisively than they do when up a man, whether it be off the rush following a zone entry or a faceoff win.

Having David Pastrnak's shot as a weapon in your arsenal certainly simplifies matters, but what other teams can take and adopt for their own is the strategy itself. Whereas some teams choose to methodically pass the puck around the perimeter as they indecisively probe the defensive shell safeguarding the net, the Bruins simply don't allow it to materialize in the first place. There's zero stagnation, and they recover a remarkable number of 50-50 loose puck battles.

While it's true that all of their power-play goals have been scored within one minute of establishing possession in the offensive zone, that stat almost doesn't do justice to the speed with which they strike. There was one occasion in which they scored after 55 seconds of sustained zone pressure, but that was really the outlier. There was one that came 39 seconds after a faceoff win, and another that came 35 seconds after an entry off the rush. All of the others came in the first 30 seconds, which highlights their quick-attack nature.

The thought process is so simple, yet so effective, which is part of its charm. They get possession of the puck in the attacking zone, they stretch the penalty kill out with quick east-west passing, and then they use their skill to capitalize on the openings as they present themselves. It's remarkably fun to watch. For opposing teams, it must be incredibly frustrating, because none of them have been able to consistently stop it yet.

The 'other' Hughes

There was a lot of discussion about Jack Hughes' offensive skill and the immediate impact he'd be able to make in the NHL, but it just turns out we might have been focusing on the wrong Hughes. Older brother Quinn Hughes has been quite the difference maker for the Canucks, turning their top power-play unit from good to great since replacing Alexander Edler as its quarterback on the point:

Top power-play unit with Edler:

  • 82.8 shot attempts per hour

  • 36.9 shots on goal per hour

  • 9.2 goals per hour

  • 4.9 expected goals per hour

Top player-play unit with Hughes:

  • 109.3 shot attempts per hour

  • 66.9 shots on goal per hour

  • 12.6 goals per hour

  • 6.4 expected goals per hour

What has stuck out above all else watching Hughes manage the puck in such high-leverage situations has been his patience navigating traffic and pressure. While many defensemen are taught from a young age to quickly get rid of the puck, what makes young puck movers trickling into the modern game like Hughes and Cale Makar so special is their willingness to hang on for just a beat longer until something better materializes. It's a pleasant evolution for a position that used to be predominantly occupied by players who used to treat the puck like a live grenade.

With Edler manning the point, the Canucks were far too reliant on drop passes in the neutral zone and low-percentage shots from distance. It's remarkable how often the end result of an enticing passing sequence would be a shot right into the shin pads; on the power play, that's essentially the equivalent of an unforced change of possession.

With Hughes, they've been much better at funneling the puck to dangerous areas on the ice. He has done it with the complete package, whether it's explosively creating with his legs off the rush or craftily walking the blue line and keeping the puck in the zone. Much like Makar, to whom he will be linked until the end of time, he's already an expert of forgoing good shots for great shots, and seeing passing lanes before they've opened up.

Hughes' skill set has been the perfect addition to a group that gives opponents no real palatable options. Similar to the setup the Lightning have with Nikita Kucherov and Stamkos, the Canucks keep opposing penalty killers honest with lethal shooters at both circles. Just like Kucherov, Elias Pettersson's abilities as a dual threat are the ultimate driving force, because he can beat you just as easily with his shot or the pass across the seam.

Put it all together, and it's no surprise that no five-man unit has generated more power-play goals than the Canucks' No. 1 group has thus far.

Hop on for the ride

It wouldn't be a list about the top players in the game and their usage if we didn't include Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. The two of them have carried the Oilers all the way to the top of the Pacific Division with Herculean efforts. While Draisaitl leads the league in scoring, it may not be for much longer considering the otherworldly tear McDavid has been on over the past couple of weeks.

He's currently on an 11-game scoring streak, during which he has pretty casually put up 12 goals and 12 assists. The scary thing for the rest of the league is that he seems to be making an effort to shoot more frequently of late, which is a frightening thing to say about a player who already has 41 goals in each of his past two seasons. He has 45 shots on goal and 77 shot attempts during his 11-game streak, which is a deadly quantity of looks when paired with his natural shooting talent.

Dave Tippett has made it clear he's going to squeeze every single last ounce out of McDavid and Draisaitl, so why should their power-play usage be any different? Only Ovechkin soaks up a greater percentage of his team's total man-advantage minutes than the two of them do, and it's hard to argue with the results. Only the Canucks have scored more power-play goals than the Oilers, and only the Lightning are scoring more power-play goals on a per-minute basis than they are.

Few people in the league currently have a better gig than James Neal, who gets to ride shotgun with them on the power play. His 10 power-play goals trail only Pastrnak's 12, which is a remarkable stat considering that he had just 19 such goals over the past five seasons combined. The attention Draisaitl and McDavid demand leaves plenty of room for someone like Neal to make a living around the net, and he has done just that. Either McDavid or Draisaitl has assisted on each of his power-play goals, and they have both assisted on three of the 10.

All of this isn't to discredit Neal's accomplishments, because the person for whom he was traded got the same opportunities and wasn't able to do as much with them.

Over the past two seasons, Milan Lucic played just under 174 power-play minutes with McDavid and Draisaitl, scoring just four total goals that entire time. This is why it has been particularly amusing to see the Flames try to double down on their mistake by continuing to force-feed him ice time in high-leverage situations. He has been used as not only the extra attacker with the goalie pulled, but a regular mainstay on the power play, despite the fact that he's one of the biggest offensive black holes in the league. Calgary has scored just three power-play goals in the nearly 50 minutes he has been on the ice with the man advantage, and he has just one assist. Among forwards, only Joe Thornton has played more minutes this season without scoring a goal, which is quite alarming, considering Lucic currently has as many years remaining on his contract as he has points on the season (four).

Back to the Oilers, who miraculously managed to get out from under that albatross and recoup some value, as Neal-for-Lucic was a one-for-one swap. They have a clearly laid-out game plan, and they show no signs of deviating from it. This is highlighted by their most recent showing in Arizona, in which McDavid and Draisaitl each played nearly the entire five-minute three-on-three overtime on the second leg of a back-to-back (bringing Draisaitl to 29 minutes for the night, with McDavid lagging behind with a measly 25:48). Edmonton is going to go only as far as McDavid and Draisaitl take them. If their play through the first two months of the season is any indication, that's going to be pretty far.

Where every team ranks

To assess every team's power-play strategy, we'll need to break things down to a more granular level by splitting the available power-play minutes by first and second unit. Since it's tricky to precisely hone in on exact five-man units because of how many different combinations are thrown together because of injuries or tinkering, let's instead use the player who's on the ice most frequently in those situations as a proxy for his team's top power-play unit.

Doing so leaves us with rough estimates of what percentage of power-play time a team has its top unit on the ice.

Data is current through Monday evening's games, and is courtesy of the NHL's website and Natural Stat Trick.

1. Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin, 89.3%
2. Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid, 83.5%
3. Pittsburgh Penguins: Kris Letang, 75.6%
4. Florida Panthers: Keith Yandle, 72.1%
5. Boston Bruins: David Pastrnak, 72.1%
6. Vancouver Canucks: Brock Boeser, 71.8%
7. Vegas Golden Knights: Shea Theodore, 71.4%
8. Buffalo Sabres: Jack Eichel, 70.6%
9. New York Rangers: Artemi Panarin, 69.6%
10. Chicago Blackhawks: Patrick Kane, 69.6%
11. Colorado Avalanche: Nathan MacKinnon, 68.4%
12. Ottawa Senators: Thomas Chabot, 68%
13. Winnipeg Jets: Mark Scheifele, 65.6%
14. New Jersey Devils: Taylor Hall, 65.5%
15. San Jose Sharks: Tomas Hertl, 65.4%
16. Toronto Maple Leafs: Auston Matthews, 64.4%
17. St. Louis Blues: Alex Pietrangelo, 64.1%
18. Los Angeles Kings: Drew Doughty, 63.8%
19. Anaheim Ducks: Cam Fowler, 63.4%
20. Calgary Flames: Johnny Gaudreau, 63.2%
21. Detroit Red Wings: Dylan Larkin, 63%
22. Tampa Bay Lightning: Nikita Kucherov, 62.7%
23. Arizona Coyotes: Phil Kessel, 61.9%
24. Carolina Hurricanes: Dougie Hamilton, 61.1%
25. Nashville Predators: Roman Josi, 61.0%
26. Philadelphia Flyers: Claude Giroux, 58.3%
27. Dallas Stars: Joe Pavelski, 58.3%
28. New York Islanders: Mathew Barzal, 57.0%
29. Columbus Blue Jackets: Seth Jones, 56.2%
30. Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter, 53.2%
31. Montreal Canadiens: Max Domi, 52.9%