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Across the NHL powerplays are powering up

Goal scoring is up this season. And powerplays appear to be a major factor. A look into the key drivers, the growing importance of powerplays, and how this could impact the Edmonton Oilers.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

When I was digging into the Oilers special teams numbers recently, I found that there’s been a real increase in the rate of powerplay scoring across the league. Goal-scoring overall (all-situations) has been increasing over the last few seasons thanks to an influx of talent in the league, with more and more players becoming point-a-game producers. And powerplays appear to be one of the driving factors.

First we have to keep in mind that powerplay opportunities this season are up slightly. In the last six regular seasons (2017/18 to 2021/22), teams on average received about 2.84 powerplay opportunities per game. This season, it’s up to 3.15. (Source: Hockey Reference).

So far in the 2022/23 season, teams on average are scoring at a rate of 7.84 goals per hour on the powerplay, which would translate to about 55 goals over a full 82-game season. This rate of goal-scoring is an increase of 10.2% compared to the goal-scoring over the previous six seasons (7.12) when teams would score around 49 powerplay goals on average (over an 82-game season). The upward trend appears to have started in 2021/22 - the first real 82-game season following two pandemic-shortened seasons that had limited games, limited fans and limited gate revenue.

What’s interesting is that it’s not necessarily just the finishing ability that’s driven the powerplay success. Shooters as a collective are getting better, currently converting 13.9% of their powerplay shots into goals this season, an increase from the 13.4% players had posted on average over the previous six seasons (an increase of 4.2%).

But the bigger factor in the growth of powerplay scoring has been the increased rate of unblocked shot attempts (i.e., Fenwick, a proxy for scoring chances) and shots on goal - things that are driven not only by the talent on the ice but the tactics implemented by the coaching staff.

This season, teams are averaging 78.66 unblocked shot attempts per hour on the powerplay, an increase of 7.0% compared to the previous six seasons. And the rate of actual shots on goal is up by 5.9%, sitting at 56.26 per hour so far this season (refer to Appendix A for a summary table). Again, the upward trend in generating chances and shots appears to have started last season - and I think we can expect it to continue to climb because of the talent in the league, and with teams recognizing the importance of powerplay scoring.

This season, 1,179 powerplay goals have been scored in the league, which is 21.8% of the total goals scored (i.e., all-situations). This is a 7.8% increase over the previous six seasons when powerplay goals made up 20.3% of the total goals. So that’s about 85 more powerplay goals than expected. Should note, the proportion of even-strength (5v5) goals is actually down compared to previous seasons – sitting around 64.9% of total goals this season compared to 66.9% over the last six seasons (refer to Appendix B for a summary table).

From an Oilers perspective, I think the key takeaway here is that the competitive edge that their powerplay currently provides is eventually going to be reduced as more and more teams get better on their powerplays. I think teams, and especially owners, want to be more competitive not only to win games, but to also re-coup their financial losses caused by the pandemic and other factors. And to do that, it’d probably be in their best interest to use the growing talent pool to push for more goals - especially on the powerplay - and more wins in the standings.

In response to the increased offence generated by powerplays, which will likely continue increasing, it may be in the Oilers best interest to find new solutions for the penalty kill. As I wrote about recently, the Oilers penalty kill started off very poorly this season but has improved as they’ve adjusted their deployment, reduced the rate of shots and chances against and received better goaltending. But it might be time to bring in more expertise at the coaching level and player level to ensure that the penalty kill doesn’t cost the team any more wins, like it did earlier this season.

Put another way, the Oilers penalty kill has to become one of their competitive edges if they want to have success.

Data: Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference

Appendix A: League-wide powerplay averages by season

Appendix B: Goals scored by season, across different game-states