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Analyzing the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ power play

It’s time for a deep dive!

Heather Barry / SB Nation

If you’ve been paying attention this season, you’ve probably seen us (among others) complaining into the void about the Phantoms’ struggling power play. To date, the Phantoms have a 12.7 percent conversion rate and 21 (17 at 5-on-4) power play goals in total, good for 29th and 30th in the league, respectively.

It’s been pretty ugly, and we got a pretty perfect(?) example of exactly what that looked like this past week.

Let me set the scene for you: last Wednesday in Providence. The Phantoms get a power play in overtime. Four-on-three. There’s some sort of tangle up by the blue line and a Bruin is down on the ice for a bit, not able to get to the bench or back into the play. Four-on-two. Another Bruin’s stick breaks, blocking a shot. Four-on-like one and a half. The Phantoms have clean possession in the offensive zone. Greg Carey hits the post and the momentum is effectively killed. *audible groan*

Now, while this is a little outside of the scope of this forthcoming project, being a four-on-three attempt, it does pretty perfectly capture this season’s power play zeitgeist.

And all of this also leaves us with a question—with the firepower that they’ve had to work with for much of this season, how is it that this power play has under-performed so tremendously? And this is what we’ve set out to find out.

A quick note on process

Before we get into the findings, we just want to take a moment to talk a bit about the project itself. Over the last month or so, we went back and rewatched all of the Phantoms’ 5-on-4 power plays through the first 45 games of the season and tracked All Of The Things, in hopes of finding out just why the power play has been under-performing this season. We tracked:

  • Shot attempts (both individual, and on-ice) split by danger level (as explained in our stats primer from the beginning of the season), and if they’re a one-timer.
  • Pass types; royal road, behind the net, low to high, D to D, misc.
  • Timing of entries, and their type.
  • Timing of clears.

And from this we were able to gather:

  • Total, and primary shot contributions.
  • Zone time, and average zone time based on entry type.
  • Time on ice at a team level, and estimated time on ice at a player level.

And all of this gives us, while not perfect, a pretty comprehensive picture of what the Phantoms did and didn’t have going on for them on the power play. Here’s what we learned.

Offensive zone time

The trouble the Phantoms have had this season with sustaining offensive zone pressure on the power play has been pretty distinct. Indeed, if asked, based on they eye test, what one of their biggest issues has been, this would likely be at the top of the list. We know it, and the team knows it. In fact, Scott Gordon spoke on this just last week:

“I think we’ve gotta get better on our in-zone... as far as from a possession standpoint, moving it around a little bit more, we’re kind of one shot and done. And that’s been kind of ongoing all year, we don’t really wear down the penalty killers, so I think that’s something we can get [better] at.”

The numbers back this up in a big way—up to this point, the Phantoms have averaged 50.23 percent zone time while on the power play, which is to say that, on average, they’ll only spend a hair over a minute (60.28 seconds) in the offensive zone on a full two minute power play.

And, of course, we know that this average minute of zone time isn’t continuous, and this is where the one and done-ness really comes into play. Depending on their type of zone entry, the Phantoms have averaged in-zone shift lengths of 14.53 seconds for controlled entries and 12.04 seconds from uncontrolled entries. This, obviously, is not a lot of time to work with before the puck is cleared, and they’re sent back down ice to retrieve it. Especially when you take into account that they don’t play much of a rush game, and will defer to more of a cycle game once they get the entry into the offensive zone. This is all to say that they’ve given themselves a pretty narrow margin to make something happen, and it shouldn’t, then, be much of a surprise that this has backfired on them more often than not.

Zone Entries

Since we touched on entry type already, let’s dig in to that in a bit more detail. Given what we know about how zone entry types influence shot rates at five-on-five, ostensibly, we should see them having some kind of effect on offense generated on the power play, as well.

For a bit of context, in 2016 Arik Parnass found that dump-ins led to more zone time than any other type of zone entry. Interestingly, we came to the opposite conclusion with our data. This could be because we are working with a much smaller sample size, or could potentially be a difference in leagues and/or team-related.

As mentioned above, what we found was that, on average, a controlled entry led to two and half additional seconds of offensive zone time than an uncontrolled entry. At first that seemed rather inconsequential, but it may have some level of importance in relation to puck possession time — which we can only imagine would be a nightmare to manually track.

Given that a team is conceding possession by dumping the puck into the zone, they will, naturally, possess the puck less on average than they will when carrying, or passing the puck into the zone. Since you need to have the puck to shoot the puck, it’s unsurprising that controlled entries lead to more shots being taken than uncontrolled entries. The difference looks to be less dramatic at five-on-four than it is at five-on-five — likely, at least in part, due to being able to more easily outnumber opponents while up a skater — but the logic still applies.

The Phantoms have entered the zone with possession on 72.43% of their successful entries, with Morgan Frost leading the way.

Individual Zone Entry Numbers

Player Carry-ins Pass-ins Fails Uncontrolled Controlled Entry % Fail % Success %
Player Carry-ins Pass-ins Fails Uncontrolled Controlled Entry % Fail % Success %
Cal O'Reilly 25 15 2 6 86.96% 4.17% 95.83%
Greg Carey 23 1 1 8 75.00% 3.03% 96.97%
Mark Friedman 5 13 1 7 72.00% 3.85% 96.15%
German Rubtsov 7 6 3 13 50.00% 10.34% 89.66%
Morgan Frost 32 17 7 7 87.50% 11.11% 88.89%
Mikhail Vorobyev 9 8 4 3 85.00% 16.67% 83.33%
Chris Bigras 11 5 2 6 72.73% 8.33% 91.67%
David Kase 12 7 3 4 82.61% 11.54% 88.46%
T.J. Brennan 9 11 4 10 66.67% 11.76% 88.24%
Minimum of 15 attempted entries required to be included.

For Frost, he’s clearly been the team’s top choice when it comes to entering the zone. Despite missing 17 games, he has attempted more entries than any other Phantom by a significant amount. His controlled entry percentage of 87.5 is bested by only Kyle Criscuolo, who has just ten entries in total.

Another standout, Cal O’Reilly, is just behind Frost in controlled entry percentage, and has failed on just two of his 48 attempts. Carey is the king of carry-ins so far with 23 of his 25 successful attempts being such, and Mark Friedman has been their most reliable defenseman when it comes to successfully entering the offensive zone.

An interesting outlier here, as a bit of a tangent, is German Rubtsov, as he has only controlled half of his entries on the power play, which is curious, considering that he’s been very consistent in generating controlled entries at 5-on-5 (60.78 percent on the season). And honestly, we don’t really know what to do with this. It’s a sharp enough disparity to seem significant, but intuitively there’s no reason why he should defer more to controlled entries at 5-on-5 and then hit the power play and suddenly decide “nah, not doing that.” It’s something worth keeping an eye on.

But to bring this back around to the point here—the fact that controlled entries are working well to equal more zone time and shot attempts for the Phantoms, this is a positive we can take away. They’re emphasizing a piece that’s working, and that’s one less thing to worry about, when it comes to looking for the fix to the power play.

Shots, shots, shots

A power play’s ability to generate shots — dangerous ones, at that — is arguably the most important factor to its success. Knowing that the Phantoms are good at creating zone entries that lead to more shots, it’s compelling that their shot rate is poor, relative to NHL averages. Now, maybe there is a real difference in shot rates across leagues, however, if we were to venture a guess it would be that shot rates would likely be higher in the AHL, due to worse defensive play, not lower. But that’s feeling, not fact.

A fact is that the Phantoms have generated 89.63 shots per sixty minutes at five-on-four, making their closest comparable the Chicago Blackhawks, who sit 22nd in the NHL in that category. What stands out further is that over half of their shots have been blocked or missed the net. That’s meaningful, because over the last three seasons combined no NHL team has had fewer than 52% of their shots on the power play hit the goaltender or go into the net — the Phantoms are at 49.58% through these first 45 games.

The reason for that may have something to do with there being too much perimeter play. Shots from the perimeter, naturally, have further to travel, making it easier for them to be blocked by an opposing skater. This thought is reflected in the data.

Percentage of Phantoms Shots Blocked by Type

Shot Type # of Shots # of Blocks % Blocked
Shot Type # of Shots # of Blocks % Blocked
Low Danger 205 79 38.54%
Medium Danger 72 24 33.33%
High Danger 76 9 11.84%

Just to note, while AHL to NHL comparisons probably aren’t the strongest to begin with, we really cannot compare scoring chances, as our data accounts for pre-shot movement. That said, we found that the Phantoms have generated 37.58 scoring chances per sixty minutes, and 19.3 high danger scoring chances per sixty minutes.

Individually, Carey has taken 27% of the team’s shots on the power play with 96 in total — a whole 54 more than second place T.J Brennan. There’s no debating who their go-to trigger man is, not that there ever would be one. The two — Carey and Brennan — also account for over 62% of the team’s 94 one-timers. Following them, Andy Welinski has taken nine, and everybody else has shot five or fewer. Finding another one-time threat to either play opposite of Carey, or to have the offense run through on the second unit, could be one way to improve the power play.

Lastly, a note on actual goals scored, and how they coincide with our danger levels; fourteen of their goals have been scored off of high danger scoring chances, two have been scored off of a medium danger chance, and one of their goals resulted from a low danger shot.

Shot assists

While shot location is massively important, the passing plays that lead to shots being taken are important as well. Logic tells us that cross-ice passes, or royal road passes, will increase the probability of a goal being scored, and the data is there to back it up. We used to see a good amount of these passes in Philadelphia, when Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek would be set up on their off-wings.

So far there have been 15 shots where the primary shot assist was a royal road pass, and just three of which were one-timers. Thinking that just three over the first 45 games of the season seemed low, we revisited the beginning of the 2018-2019 season. It was evident, rather quickly, that this type of pass was utilized more frequently last season; especially by Phil Varone.

It’s not as simple as “do this more” or everybody would do it. It’s no secret that these types of passes lead to goals, and defending passing lanes in the middle of the ice is of high priority for penalty killers. A highly skilled passer is required to make these work, making it no surprise that this is another area of the power play where Frost stands out.

With five of the team’s fifteen primaries, as well as two of their five secondaries, Frost has more royal road shot assists than any other Phantom. O’Reilly and Chris Bigras are the only other Phantoms with more than one, with four and three respectively. It’s something we’d like to see more of from O’Reilly, as he’s up there with Frost as one of the team’s best passers.

And again, it’s not as if royal road passes are easy to complete — attempts are going to lead to turnovers. But most of the time the payoff of cross-ice one-timers will outweigh the negatives, as long as you have the passer, and the shooter, needed to pull them off. In O’Reilly, Frost when he’s been there, and Carey, they should have the players that are needed, at least on the first unit.

Now, another passing play that seems to have gotten lost a bit are behind the net passes. Early in the season, specifically when Matthew Strome was on the power play, the space behind the net was used a fair amount. Andy Andreoff had been creating shots from behind the net as well, but generally speaking it’s something that the power play has done very little of this season.

Passes from behind the net were something that former Phantom Chris Conner did a lot of during his time here, and they’re also one of the main things that made Mikhail Vorobyev stand out in both international play, and in previous seasons with Lehigh Valley. This season Vorobyev has zero shot assists from behind the net at five-on-four — there could be potential in a role change there.

This isn’t to say Vorobyev has been uninvolved, but with his vision it could be beneficial to have plays run through him a bit more. His estimated shot contribution rate is low, relative to other power play regulars, and he has just one power play assist on the season.

5v4 Shot Contribution Rates

Player eTOI Shots/60 Primary Shot Assists/60 Shot Contributions/60 Primary Shot Cont./60
Player eTOI Shots/60 Primary Shot Assists/60 Shot Contributions/60 Primary Shot Cont./60
T.J. Brennan 98.84 25.50 28.53 63.74 54.03
Andy Welinski 82.96 21.70 27.48 57.86 49.18
Morgan Frost 111.20 18.88 17.81 50.18 36.69
Carsen Twarynski 25.89 30.13 9.27 48.67 39.40
Greg Carey 151.21 38.09 4.76 47.62 42.06
Chris Bigras 48.83 8.60 28.26 40.55 36.86
Cal O'Reilly 135.91 8.83 20.75 40.17 29.58
Mark Friedman 39.42 19.79 10.65 36.53 30.44
Pascal Laberge 31.77 17.00 9.44 33.99 26.44
German Rubtsov 47.66 10.07 5.04 30.21 15.11
Mikhail Vorobyev 62.95 9.53 9.53 29.55 18.11
Andy Andreoff 97.67 11.67 8.60 24.57 20.27
Connor Bunnaman 55.89 11.81 6.44 22.54 18.25
David Kase 54.72 8.77 5.48 21.93 14.25
Matthew Strome 40.60 7.39 7.39 20.69 14.78
Estimated time on ice based on the percentage of all events that a player was on the ice for. Skaters with 25+ minutes included.

With that being said, Vorobyev did only have three power play assists last season, and maybe there’s something we’re not seeing when it comes to his play on the man advantage. His fault or not, the Phantoms’ ratio of high danger chances for to against has dropped from 76% to 70.37% when he’s been on the ice.

What the overall contributions tell us is that a lot of the offense has been run through the defense, especially when Brennan or Welinski hit the ice. This isn’t exactly surprising, as the power play quarterback serves as the safest way to move the puck from left to right, and vice versa. It may not be terribly surprising, but it just also hasn’t been terribly effective for them.

Conclusions

In summation, while this isn’t a power play that is wholly broken, there are a number of areas which need improving if they want to start contributing in a meaningful way. From less perimeter play, to emphasizing more dangerous passing plays, to adding another true one-timer threat, there are ways that, on paper, they should be able to improve. It’s not as easy as saying the things out loud that are going poorly, spinning around three times, and they’re magically fixed, but it remains that there are relatively clear fixes to be had.

If they want to do this, Frost is going to be one of their keys to doing it—given his impact relative to the minutes he plays, how he generates more controlled entries (which equal more zone time and should positively impact shot rates, in turn) and has created the most individual high danger passing plays which led to shots, he’s a player they rightfully should be (and have been, of late) running things through. He won’t be the only player whose skill set they’ll need to even better optimize, of course, but he should well be a primary target.

But the good news, perhaps, is that they may be trending, if only marginally, given the ground they have to cover, in the right direction. We’ve seen some true flashes of brilliance from them over the past handful of games, sustaining a good bit more zone time and having more of their shots make it on net. And the results have been pretty remarkable, to the tune of five 5-on-4 goals in the last ten games, after registering just 12 in the previous 35. It still hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been something.

It may be too early to say with confidence (and as soon as we do, regression might just come around and slap up in the face), but some of the recent returns have been distinctly positive. They may well be trending in the right direction.

NHL data referenced via Natural Stat Trick.