Saturday, February 2, 2013

Is Kris Letang even good on the power play? The numbers may surprise you.

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

Over the last two-plus seasons, the Penguins' power play has been the team's most confusing, yet predictable, feature.  It's confusing because it has hall-of-fame talent but feels wildly underachieving.  And it's predictable because Dan Bylsma will always try ridiculous configurations in practice, Paul Coffey will always volunteer to consult even though no one is asking him to, and the Pittsburgh media will always say that either Crosby or Malkin would be upset if they were put on different units despite no evidence that their egos couldn't handle it.

The one constant on the power play during this span has been Kris Letang.  So we thought it was worth asking: is Kris Letang even good on the power play?

The surprising numbers, after the jump...

We wrote on Friday about the holes in Letang's skill-set and suggested that he's not a very good point man.  The numbers suggest we're right: Kris Letang is not good on the power-play.  (Sort of).

(NOTE: The peer group in the comparisons below consists of any defenseman who finished in the top-30 in power-play points or goals in either 2010-11 or 2011-12.  And Chris Pronger.  It's a universe of 53 defensemen).

For the sake of this analysis, we're only going to look at Letang's 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons -- "The Post-Gonchar Era" -- because his power-play opportunities changed drastically after Gonchar left.  Here's Letang's average power-play ice time per game over his career.  (He played only 7 games in 2006-07).

The first chart looks at Letang's power-play goal scoring productivity over the past two seasons only, during which he led all defensemen in average power-play ice time per game (2010-11, 2011-12).  He's 19th among his peer group, averaging one power-play goal every 16.63 games over the past two seasons.

If you change the numbers to capture points instead of just goals, Letang jumps to 6th in his peer group, averaging one power-play point every 3.41 games over the past two seasons.  That's more like it.

But it doesn't end there.  As I said, Letang led the league in average power-play ice time over the last 2 years so his raw totals are at least somewhat inflated.  When ice time is factored in, things look a lot bleaker.

Over the past 2 seasons, Letang averages one power-play goal for every 71.94 minutes of power-play ice time, which is 36th in his peer group.

Takeaway: Yikes.  Not a goal scorer.

When it comes to points, he averages one power-play point every 14.76 minutes of power-play ice time, good for 26th in his peer group 

Takeaway: It's not terrible, but far from elite.

Overall, Letang's total power-play point production is relatively strong over the past two years (6th in the peer group), but he's significantly less effective when you factor in how many minutes he's playing on the power-play (drops to 26th in the peer group). At best, he's OK.  At worst, he's underachieving.

Even if you interpret his numbers as favorably as possible, there's still that feeling you get watching him on the power play that something's missing.  And that is due, in large part, to our perception of the man who preceded him: Sergei Gonchar.

The next chart compares Gonchar's averages over his 5 years with the Pens to Letang's averages over the last two years (2010-11, 2011-12).  It's fairly stunning -- Gonchar was almost twice as productive on the power-play on a per-game basis.  Gonchar averaged one power-play goal every 8.7 games, which is 91% better than Letang.  He also averaged one power-play point every 1.84 games, 85% better than Letang.

(In fact, Gonchar was such a beast that if you compare his numbers during his 5 years with the Pens against anyone's production over the past 2 seasons, Gonchar would be first in power-play goal and point productivity on a per game basis).

Letang looks a little better compared to Gonchar when you factor in ice time but he's still inferior. Gonchar was 29% more efficient at scoring goals, and 25% more efficient at scoring points.

Some closing thoughts:

1) Considering the ice time he gets on the power play, and the talent he's surrounded with, Letang's numbers suggest that we are right: he's not very good on the power-play (26th most efficient power-play defenseman in his peer group).  Admittedly, however, when it comes to his overall game, there probably aren't more than 10-15 guys you'd rather have.  Still ... 26th?  Yuck.

2) He's no Sergei Gonchar.

3) Of course, whether Letang is getting points on the power play is less important than whether the power play is getting goals.  Through 8 games this season, it's at 19.4% (Letang has two power-play assists).  Last year the Pens finished at 19.7%, good for fifth in the league.  So maybe we shouldn't be complaining too much.

And besides, our only better alternative isn't going to be available until next year.

Unrestricted free agent.


  1. I love watching Letang play, not just because of his skating but because he plays with an edge. (Yes, yes, he sometimes loses his cool, but I like that he's a little crazy.) And I find him to be pretty damn dependable, although I know you disagree. The only d-men I might take over him are Weber, Chara, and perhaps maybe Doughty and Pietrangelo.

    That said, I don't know how anyone could think Tanger was anything better than a mediocre PP QB. I think that's the major issue: you need someone to take charge. Tanger can't or won't - perhaps because he feels like he should defer to Sid or Geno. In any case, he takes too long to make decisions and to get the puck off - which is why his shots are getting blocked. I don't know why he seems to lose his instincts when a man goes in the box.

    I'm not going to pretend to have the answer as to how to fix that hideous mess, but it ain't Gonch (much as a love him), unless he comes back as a consultant. Even if he'd sign cheap, you'd be taking spots from our younger d-men who need to be playing. Despres and Bortuzzo have looked good - and they are only going to reach their potential if they play. When Niskanen gets back, Engelland may end up up in the box with Lovejoy. Gotta go with upside.

    Our only hope for a great QB might be one of the youngins. Maybe Morrow (although he's had some serious growing pains in WBS). For now - I'd be all for your theory of booting Kunie for Despres. Can't get any worse, and Sid and Neal can play down low, with Geno on the wall. Sometimes I think the Pens are too conservative, especially with how they use their assets, because they are in win-now mode. That's also why I hesitate more than you do to make a trade for a top-4 man. How are we ever going to know what we have in these rookies if they only get on the ice when someone is hurt?

    1. None of the PP numbers are meant to be an indictment of Letang's overall game, and I agree there aren't many defensemen I'd rather have (though my list is longer than yours). The reason I looked all that stuff up was because through all the constant discussion about how to tweak the power play, Letang is always considered part of the solution, not the problem. I think the defensemen are the most important guys on a power play to keep it organized and to keep possession of the puck. Letang just isn't great at it.

      I'm not really suggesting Gonchar as a solution going forward (the pic is a joke). But it is really interesting to look at how much better his numbers were here than Letang's.

      I think the numbers show that the younger guys should get more time on the #1 PP, even if that time comes at the expense of Letang, not Kunitz (as you suggest).

    2. Fair enough - but the issue is the left point position. Letang has the offensive abilities to be on the PP and that was his position when Gonch was here. I just prefer he not be in change if he won't actually BE in change. If you remove Letang for Despres - you haven't solved that problem.

      I mean this as a sincere question: it will be years before, say, Morrow or Pouliot come up. Does anyone even have a sense of how well Despres has performed on the PP in WBS? He has good offensive instincts, but as this whole conversation suggests, it is a specialized skill, especially for dmen.

    3. Despres had zero PP goals in 44 games in 2011-12. He has one PPG in 27 games in 2012-13. No idea how much time he got on the PP there.

    4. That explains it. I'm wondering how Martin would do. I would have said no last year, because he refuses to shoot the puck. But the 2nd unit seems to be much better on entries than the 1st, which I suspect is largely him. He's also been more willing to shoot and seems to have a bit more on his shot - enough to get it near the net for the guys down low, at any rate. The 4-forward PP has to go.

  2. put sid on the point and put my check in the mail.

  3. Here is something other things to look at: How many powerplay goals do the Penguins score without a player at the blueline getting a point relative to other teams (or Pens with Gonchar). It seems like the Pens powerplay really operates close to the goal (lots of passes from the side board, to below the goal line, into the faceoff circles etc.) so maybe point players on the Pens get less chances to earn points? Another way to ask the same question: How many PP points have the Pens (as a team) earned relative to other teams (and what percentage go to players at the point)?

    How many PP shots does Letang get to take relative to Gonchar or other players on your list? I don't think they are running the same PP system as when Gonchar was here.

    1. These are all fair questions. Not having answers is more a matter of not having time to look it up than not thinking it's relevant.

      Obviously whether Letang is getting points is not a true measure of whether he's good on the PP. There are other things he can do to be effective. I just think it's interesting that for a guy who is often touted for his offensive abilities, his actual numbers -- especially on the PP -- are not overly impressive.

      Whether we have a better option is a different story.