Now that the NHL off-season is truly here – my apologies to the lingering free agents who will likely find a new home in the coming days – we can start to tackle some of the strategic topics we’ve had in the queue for some time. Up first is the evolution of the modern-day power play from a personnel perspective.
Though most hockey fans are at least vaguely aware of the shift in power play strategy, it is worth reiterating here. Since the 2015-16 season, we have started to see teams more frequently deploy a four-forward lineup. The traditional three-forward setups haven’t been abandoned, but they have become less popular across the league.
There is a simple reason for this shift: four-forward power play units generate more net goals per 60 minutes than their traditional three-forward counterparts. While those units will give up marginally more goals, their offensive production greatly outweighs real or perceived defensive limitations.
I liken the four-forward power play setups to similar shifts in coaching strategy, like an increased propensity in pulling goaltenders more aggressively when trailing late. The math supported the change, and as a few teams started to incorporate the philosophical shift the results were compelling and obvious.
Back to the power play setups for a minute. There is an awful lot of context as to why teams have enveloped the fourth forward, but at a high level it’s really about having more capable offensive shooting talent in those premium scoring minutes. This, I think, raises another question: Why have we stopped at utilizing just four forwards? Is it possible that a five-forward power play makes sense in certain spots, especially on teams that may be (a) heavy on offensive forward talent; and/or (b) light on capable offensive defencemen?