Ron Wilson, Difference Maker

Jonathan Willis
November 04 2011 04:11PM

Ron Wilson has always been one of the more interesting coaches to follow in the NHL. Aside from his gruff temperament, he’s also heavily involved in using new technology to help him coach, and using advanced statistical measures to make player decisions. He’s an innovator, and that makes him a fascinating coach to study.

He also seems to have discovered something that most NHL teams are still blind to.

Nearly every fan, player, coach and manager can agree that being on the power play is vastly preferable to playing five-on-five (this is true even for teams with a lousy power play), and that playing five-on-five is far better than playing shorthanded (again, this is true even for a poor five-on-five team with a great penalty kill). If there were a way to ensure that a given team could spend more time on the power play than on the penalty kill, it would represent a significant advantage.

Ron Wilson seems to have found a way.

Because Wilson has had three full seasons at the helm of both the Sharks and the Maple Leafs in the post-lockout era, we have a nice sample of how both teams play both under him and under other coaches. If we look at how many times each team was shorthanded vs. how many power play opportunities they got, we see a striking pattern:

Toronto

Season Team Pen. Kills Power Plays Difference Coach
2005-06 TOR 496 501 +5 Quinn
2006-07 TOR 418 401 -17 Maurice
2007-08 TOR 352 343 -9 Maurice
2008-09 TOR 308 330 +22 Wilson
2009-10 TOR 288 315 +27 Wilson
2010-11 TOR 275 326 +51 Wilson
Average TOR 422 415 -7 Other
Average TOR 290 324 +33 Wilson

San Jose

Season Team Pen. Kills Power Plays Difference Coach
2005-06 SJS 399 500 +101 Wilson
2006-07 SJS 330 410 +80 Wilson
2007-08 SJS 310 374 +64 Wilson
2008-09 SJS 306 360 +54 McLellan
2009-10 SJS 327 309 -18 McLellan
2010-11 SJS 274 289 +15 McLellan
Average SJS 346 428 +82 Wilson
Average SJS 302 319 +17 Others

These are two completely different teams, yet we see the same trends. Under Wilson, both clubs had more opportunities on the power play than on the penalty kill. The Sharks had the most favourable ratio of power plays to penalty kills in the entire league under Wilson; they dipped a little in his first year gone and have hovered around the break-even mark ever since. The Leafs went from a team that was always shorthanded to a club that gets far more power plays than penalty kills.

It seems at least plausible, given this information, to credit Wilson with the shift.

Does it make a difference? We’ve seen that the Leafs were below average at generating power plays/avoiding penalty kills prior to Wilson, and given the emphasis on “truculence” under Brian Burke there’s little reason to believe that has changed. However, we’ll compare the Leafs under Wilson to a break-even team (a team with an equal number of power plays and penalty kills):

Season Team Extra PP Fewer PK PP% PK% Expected Goals
2008-09 TOR 11 9 18.8 74.7 +4.3
2009-10 TOR 14 13 14.0 74.6 +5.3
2010-11 TOR 26 26 16.0 77.4 +10.0

Over three seasons, the Leafs’ ability under Wilson to generate more power plays and kill fewer penalties has gained them almost 20 additional goals – an extra eight goals for and 12 fewer goals against. It’s a little more than an extra win per year.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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