When the haze of the NHL’s 2004-05 lockout finally lifted, the hockey world saw the beginnings of what wound up being a significant offensive evolution for the sport. And if the 2017-18 pre-season is any indication, we may be on the cusp of a similar shift.
With an increased emphasis on enforcing obstruction penalties coming out of the 2005 lockout, the league saw its rough-and-tumble style slowly transition into a quicker, more skillful product. It also saw a sharp rise in the importance of special teams proficiency, as the average number of power-play opportunities earned by teams each game spiked from 4.24 in the year prior to the lockout to 5.85 in the first post-lockout campaign.
That abrupt rise made the 2005-06 season the historic ceiling for power-play opportunities, as teams earned more man-advantage time, on average, than in any other season in which such numbers have been recorded. It didn’t last, of course. The average dropped down to 4.85 power-play opportunities per game one year later, and continued to slide for the next decade. Last season saw clubs earn just 2.99 man-advantage chances per game, the lowest since these stats have been kept.
But for that one 2005-06 campaign, clubs were rolling in power-play time, and the most offensively gifted squads were reaping the rewards.
Through the early goings of this year’s pre-season, we’ve seen the potential for 2017-18 to bring a similar effect for the game’s highest-scoring teams.
First came the faceoff violations, which had both fans and NHL players in a tizzy, as pre-season game after pre-season game became bogged down with calls off of draws.
Then the big fish arrived: the crackdown on slashing penalties, which many a quick-footed NHLer has likely hoped for in recent years.
Though the number of penalties currently being called is almost certain to drop off once the schedule shifts to the regular season — and could very well slide in the next few years as was the case in the mid-2000s — there’s certainly precedent to suggest 2017-18 could bring a notable uptick in slashing calls, especially with the game’s most marketable talents often the victims of these rogue plays.
That being the case, who stands to benefit from some more time on the man-advantage?
There’s certain to be a fair bit of ‘the rich getting richer’ should penalties indeed climb significantly. The Buffalo Sabres (ranked first in the league), Toronto Maple Leafs (second), and Edmonton Oilers (fifth) already proved their power play worth last year, and all head into 2017-18 with dominant, young scoring talents who look likely to keep improving each season. The presence of Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, and Connor McDavid, one year older and stronger, will already provide potential for a step forward in terms of man-advantage play.
Giving them more time to go to work offensively can only help things along.
As for the other two clubs among last year’s top five power-play squads – Pittsburgh and Washington tied for third place – more time to flex their offensive muscle is likely the last thing the rest of the league is hoping for.
The back-to-back champs return a dominant unit featuring the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, while No. 1 rearguard Kris Letang returns to the fray to further torment opposing netminders. The Capitals are similarly stacked, with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetsov continuing to lead the top unit.
More interesting, however, will be the few clubs for whom the timing of a possible rise in penalties couldn’t line up more perfectly. Jonathan Drouin amassed the 12th-most power-play points in the league last season – his 26 man-advantage points ranking just one fewer than McDavid’s – and he’s already got the Montreal Canadiens faithful buzzing about his potential future impact on the team’s special teams effectiveness.
The Dallas Stars are in a similar situation. After underperforming on the man-advantage in 2016-17, the club went out and snagged free agent Alexander Radulov, who led all Canadiens forwards in power-play points last season. He’ll round out a star-studded cast that also includes Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, and John Klingberg.
While a number of these clubs have already established themselves among the best in the league and would likely simply pull away even further, the Stars are perhaps the most intriguing case.
Finishing 15 points out of a playoff spot last season, Dallas loaded up this summer and looks primed for a redemption campaign. Unsurprisingly, adding offensive pieces was one of their primary off-season tasks, their minus-39 goal differential in 2016-17 a far cry from the Western Conference-leading plus-37 they posted one year prior.
We saw in 2015-16 just how dominant a Stars club with a rolling offence can look. Throw in Radulov and a glut of extra power-play time, and we might just see that team again this season.