How Special Are Your Special Teams?

Special teams success have tied together the past five AHL champions.

by Clayton Hansler
May 18, 2012

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When a club is absolutely terrible while either up or down a man, is it really fair to refer to it as a ‘special’ team?

In one playoff game during the 2008 Western Conference Finals, the Marlies allowed four powerplay goals against. Not that special at all.

During that 2008 glory run the penalty kill limped along at a 77.3% kill rate. The powerplay didn’t help much, converting on only 11.4% of the chances. It is now a little more apparent why it took the full 14 games to gain entrance into the post-season’s third round.

When looking at special team excellence, setting the bar for post-season production seems to be a bit tricky. The San Antonio Rampage, Chicago Wolves and Hershey Bears rank as the league’s top with the man advantage. What that stat doesn’t tell you is not one of those teams successfully made it into the conference finals – and only one made it past the opening series.

Telling a more accurate story of their demise, the penalty kill of all three clubs rank no higher than 12th of the 16 post-season participants (CHI 68.2%, SA 75% and HER 75.9%).

As part of my constant endeavor to invent new statistical categories (I dream of a metrics system being named after me one day), I am now plotting a way to measure the overall effectiveness and contribution made by both special teams – and unearthing whether they are indeed special, or perhaps more aptly called ‘toxic teams.’

Let’s start this one off simple. A fair performing team should have the efficiency of their powerplay balance the deficiencies of their penalty kill over an equal number of penalties. A 80% kill rate should be matched by a 20% conversion when up a man.

By example, the Albany River Rats finished the regular season with the lowest combined score of 94.4% - more toxic to a team than special. Where the Eastern Conference’s eighth seeded Monarchs were counted as fair with a combined total of 99.5%.

Now move ahead to the post-season.

Sitting still in toxic levels, the Oklahoma City Barons combined PP/PK stat ranks them at an overall 95.6% efficiency. Their struggles when not five-on-five came to the fore when they allowed a powerplay goal against (the first time since November 2010 they allowed one by the Marlies), while failing to capitalize on six opportunities.

Of the four remaining Calder Cup finalists - with an adjusted figure to represent balanced times short-handed and advantage figures - their combined PP/PK statistic kinda looks like this.

Oklahoma City: 95.8%
St. John’s: 103.3%
Norfolk: 105.5%
Toronto: 109.5%

If I hadn’t thought of enough ways already to compare the past Marlies teams to this present rendition, this one may just take the cake. The 2008 Marlies squad that advanced to the Western Conference finals saw a combined balanced powerplay and penalty kill (CBPPPK) efficiency of 88.8% while today’s has bumped more than 20 points to truly be operating in the realm of ‘special’ at 109.5%.

Of the seemingly simplistic keys outlined by any analyst for winning a championship, successful ‘special’ teams are always among the top (goaltending, star player contribution, unlikely heroes and discipline the others). Hate to say something like ‘the proof is in the pudding,’ but it really is. If it looks like chocolate pudding, and it tastes like chocolate pudding, it’s pretty safe to say it’s chocolate pudding.

Here’s a breakdown of the past five Calder Cup champions using the same CBPPPK principles.

Binghamton – 109.9%
Hershey – 104.5%
Hershey – 101.9%
Chicago – 107.4%
Hamilton – 109.4%

And just to make sure – ya know, if you weren’t quite clear – when comparing the 12 series to have already wrapped in the 2012 Calder Cup race, nine saw the higher CBPPPK team come out victorious (seven of eight first round matchups).

The point of this long list of numbers and comparison’s isn’t to toot my own horn. No, not at all. It’s not even to predict that the Marlies (who presently hold the league’s top CBPPPK percentage) are going to take home the Cup.

Really, my hope is to avoid the use of the word ‘special’ when speaking of a terrible team’s play when up or down a man.

Because really, if you go around calling everyone special doesn’t it just water down the exclusiveness of the word?

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