Analyzing the best power-play quarterbacks in the NHL

Vancouver Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes (43) controls the puck in front of New York Rangers centre Kevin Rooney during second period NHL hockey action in New York, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. (Adam Hunger/AP)

Who is the best power-play quarterback in the league?

There are a few ways to look at this, but parameters help. For a player to be the best, they have to lead in usage — that means bonafide top-unit deployment by playing in the majority of the available minutes to them throughout the season. That player also tends to be his team’s sole defenceman on the ice, too.

That’s our jumping off point to define the field of players.

The first way to look at this is the most obvious: points. No one has scored more on the advantage than Roman Josi; the Predators defender has a leading nine goals and 34 points on the power play. The Avalanche’s Cale Makar (33) and the Rangers’ Adam Fox (32) round out the top three. The Colorado defenseman trails Josi by one goal, while Fox is the league leader in power-play assists from the blue line: all 32 of his power-play points are helpers.

Every player’s power-play ice time ranges. Teams see a different number of opportunities, and how long those last depend on the firepower of a unit connecting. So, when accounting for those differences, Fox’s 9.08 points per 60 rise to the top, followed by Josi and Makar.

When it comes to directly influencing scoring plays with primary points, Makar jumps out as No. 1 (20), with, who else, but Josi (19), Fox (18) and Tampa’s Victor Hedman (18) just behind.

Just how important is that scoring to a team’s power-play goal generation? One way to look at that is the percentage of goals these defenders get a point on. At the top, it’s not a clear No. 1 quarterback.

Of teams’ bonafide power-play quarterbacks – which excludes the Kings’ Sean Durzi, who has split time between units, and now is a part of PP1 with Drew Doughty out – the leader is the Coyotes’ Shayne Gostisbehere, who has a point on 84 per cent of the goals he’s on the ice for. Behind him, Josi and Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin match with points on 77 per cent of their respective teams’ goals while deployed.

Primary points are valued more than secondary, and can show the direct influence a player has on a team’s goal scoring. So, focusing just on primary points percentage, Anaheim’s Cam Fowler and Vegas’ Alex Pietrangelo rise to the top. Neither, however, have been season-long fixtures on PP1; their usage is just below 50 percent of the available minutes. Rather, it’s Hedman in the lead, with primary points on 51 percent of the Lightning’s goals in those situations.

Points aren’t the end-all, be-all, though. A point signifies a goal is scored as the end result, but other non-scoring sequences bolster offensive creation. Those have to be taken into consideration as well.

Working our way back from the result of a goal, let’s start at shots.

The goal-scoring leader is also the most frequent shooter on a top power-play unit; Josi leads with 33.4 per 60. Many blue-liners are counted on to fire one-timers from the point while on the advantage. That’s where San Jose’s Brent Burns slips ahead, with 15.3 attempts per 60. Josi isn’t far behind the Sharks’ skater, though. No quarterback leans on that shot more than Edmonton’s Tyson Barrie, though – one-timers compose about 73 per cent of his shots.

When it comes to shot quality, San Jose’s Erik Karlsson is the PP1 defenseman who slips through and makes it to the slot most often; his 5.49 slot attempts per 60 lead the way. Dallas’ John Klingberg, Makar, and Florida’s Aaron Ekblad follow closely behind.

What tends to precede a shot? Passing.

Passing from the blue line can direct play, and no one moves the puck around the offensive zone on the power play more than Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes. He leads the league with 201.5 pass attempts per 60, almost 92 percent of which connect to a teammate. Barrie, Fox, and Makar follow in shot volume.

Defencemen aren’t the only players to be leaned on for one-timers in these situations, of course. It helps to have forwards stationed in the circles ready to fire, ideally from their off-wing to improve the shooting angle. Passes from the point can set these shots up, and no one does that more than Washington’s John Carlson. That’s unsurprising considering he’s on a unit with Alex Ovechkin, a player who is known for ripping that shot from the left circle. Hedman also can be found sending his teammates passes for one-timers, whether it’s Stamkos on the left or Kucherov across the way.

Hughes, in addition to leading in pass frequency, also finishes first in lateral passing that crosses the middle line between the crease and blue line. Toronto’s Morgan Rielly, Barrie and Fox all move the puck often east-to-west in these situations too. So does Noah Dobson, who has stepped up as the Islanders’ No. 1 defenceman on the power play.

When it comes to pass quality, what tends to be emphasized is puck movement to the more dangerous areas of the ice. That can take vision and creativity to either find or create passing lanes. Quick puck movement to the slot can leave a forward with the space to shoot before penalty killers can react.

Hughes, the most frequent passer on the advantage among blue-liners, also leads in his rate of setups to the slot, with 31.9 per 60. Thomas Chabot in Ottawa follows, with Fox rounding out the top-three of defencemen who can thread their teammates. Makar, Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang and St. Louis’ Torey Krug can be counted on to connect with their teammates in that area of the ice as well.

Transitional play should be highlighted as well. But on the power play, this is viewed a bit differently from even-strength. There, frequency is impressive. On the power play, it means a team lost possession, whether their opponents simply cleared the puck or pushed play back down the ice. If a unit constantly has to regroup, they lose time in a formation, which is the best place for shot generation.

Nevertheless, it helps to have a player who can help move the puck up the ice with possession in these situations. Klingberg, Hedman and Karlsson have the best rates of controlled zone exits. Klingberg is first in carryouts and leads in his stretch passes out of the defensive end.

But what really is necessary from a defenseman on a top power-play unit is the ability to extend zone time. That means intercepting penalty killers’ attempts to possess the puck or exit their own end.

No one has stepped up to hold the blue line more than Rasmus Andersson behind the Flames’ top unit. Letang, Dobson, Charlie McAvoy and Fox round out the top five, all helping their teams to extend offensive zone opportunity.

No one, however, is more successful in his attempts than Josi. In the 25 instances he’s been tested, the Predators’ MVP has been perfect.

McAvoy also deserves credit here: he’s been successful 97.4 per cent of the time, going 37-1 in his attempts to keep play in the Bruins’ offensive zone.

A team’s top power-play unit tends to be filled with elite talent and varying skill sets. So, each squad may need something different from their No. 1 defenceman to really complement the rest of the group. But some just stand out above the rest.

Hedman is part of a dynamic top power-play unit and manages to direct play from his position. Josi has a MVP-caliber level in how he influences play. Fox’s poise from the point and vision elevate his passing. And Makar can walk a blue line and generate offense better than most.

Those four may lead the way, but the rest of those top skaters who have solidified themselves as the lone defenceman on their teams’ first units all bring something to help make their teams’ advantages click.

Data via Sportlogiq

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