31 October 2014

Pondering the Sens as a special teams team.

Forget being a high-event team: meet your 2014-15 Ottawa Senators, a high-special teams-event team. ...Okay, I take that back, that makes the club sound too much like a group of scantily-clad faux-firemen available for hire to flaunt their parts at special occasions. But look, the Sens spent an average of 17 minutes per game over the month of October playing in situations other than 5-on-5 (as calculated from war-on-ice.com game logs). League-wide, they're 6th in terms of time with the man-advantage and 23rd (or, inversely, 8th) in terms of time spent down a man. These measurements aren't quite precise, since teams evidently haven't played the exact same number of games. But combine it with the eye test and it seems reasonably safe to conclude that the Sens have been relying quite heavily on special teams for these first nine games.

Being unable to play at 5-vs-5 even strength has significant impact: forward trios have less real-time to grow accustomed to each other, ice-time is dished out unevenly, unpolished set plays are relied on and possession stats start to skew dramatically in favour of one team or the other. Taking penalties results in players who can kill penalties being given icetime (although you might not call "stand-there-and-be-bombarded-with-shots" icetime a good thing); drawing power plays results in Erik Karlsson playing 5-minute shifts and our top two lines rotating continuously in the offensive zone.

Special teams aren't necessarily a signifier of bad play, of course; the Carolina Hurricanes are winless in 8 and have spent the 8th-least amount of time on the PK (although they're 28th in PP time). If you're a team that gets shelled at 5-on-5 even-strength play, you might prefer to spend as much time as possible on the PP or playing 4-on-4. This seems to speak more to a certain style of game played by the team, and as a possible added condition, against certain other teams.

Out of the nine games in October, the Sens played less than 40 minutes at 5-vs-5 even strength against the last game against Columbus, the Colorado game and the first Chicago game. All three are in the top 7, along with Ottawa, in terms of PP time, and Colorado is 30th in PK time. (Columbus and Chicago are 3rd and 16th, respectively.) It'd be prudent to note here that, obviously, certain man-advantage situations expire conditionally upon the scoring of a goal. As such, PP% and PK% are intricately implicated in the measurement of PP/PK time. Suffice to say for now that a team like San Jose that happens to be in the top 10 for both PP time and PP% would be tangibly more lethal than a team like Winnipeg, 8th in PP time but 25th in PP%. Regression will likely happen — but that's a different piece.

It's hard to extrapolate concretely from special teams stats to make conclusions about how a team plays overall (a quick graph from hockey-graphs shows an initial attempt at establishing a very basic correlation), but there is potentially some use in forecasting the need for special teams when facing certain clubs. A coach could specifically practise power play set-ups during the morning skate of a match-up against a team that's shown a trend in accumulating penalties; or the team could analyze video of the opposing power play to decide which formations to use on the penalty kill. This was evident in Ottawa's successful killing of ten out of eleven of Chicago's power plays in two games (along with a hilarious short-handed goal by Michalek, assisted by the lone ref); the Sens consistently prevented the Blackhawks from entering the zone with possession.

Furthermore, once we've established the real effects of special teams, corrective measures teams can be employed if necessary: divvying up ice-time carefully at the start of games, creating PK or PP units that help lines cohere through different situations, adjusting players' deployments in offensive vs. defensive starts, and on. By examining the phenomena of playing in situations other than even-strength, it becomes possible to address, change and use them to our advantage (or at least, to keep the other team from using them to their advantage).

There lies even more potential on the coaching side of the game to go one step further and examine what, exactly, causes a team to draw and take so many penalties. This knowledge isn't necessarily developable by an average fan like yours truly, which is why, for now, this brief speculation has no conclusion. Nevertheless, the possibilities of analyzing the causes and effects of a high-special-teams playing style are tantalizingly promising.


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