How Important is Playing the Off-Wing on the Power Play?

Do Shots From One’s Off-Wing Go In More Frequently?

Alex Ovechkin is ferocious from the left faceoff circle largely because he gets a great angle on his shots and can easily hammer one-timers, seeing as how he is on his off-wing. Ovechkin is also one of few players who play their off-wing by choice at even-strength.

Alex Ovechkin is ferocious from the left faceoff circle largely because he gets a great angle on his shots and can easily hammer one-timers, seeing as how he is on his off-wing. Ovechkin is also one of few players who play their off-wing by choice at even-strength.

It is expected of fans to have strong feelings about certain aspects of the game, just based on watching and following the sport over long periods of time. Personally, I have always felt strongest about power play concepts, and maybe the biggest and strongest of my convictions has regarded positioning on the power play.

At even-strength, the majority of NHL wingers and defensemen play their strong sides. That is, if they are right-handed they play right wing or right defense, and vice versa. This is done for a variety of reasons, but the biggest among them are the facts that a) it is easier to protect the puck when it is to the outside of one’s body, considering defenders position themselves between the player and the net, b) it is more comfortable to take a puck off the wall and make a successful play on one’s forehand, and thus on one’s strong side, and c) it is less awkward defending on the strong side largely because of the resting position of one’s stick. There are disadvantages to this tendency though, the major one being that shooting from one’s strong side leads to a weaker shooting angle towards the net. 

Strong puck handlers often prefer to play their off-wings because they want those stronger angles, and are good enough at stickhandling that they can get away with the puck being closer to the opposition’s waiting stick.

On the power play, besides simply shooting at a better angle, playing one’s off-wing allows players to one-time pucks towards the net, which is a huge advantage considering the importance of pre-shot movement and forcing the goalie to shift laterally prior to a chance. On the flip side, the inherent disadvantages to playing one’s off-wing all but disappear when up a man. Defense is a secondary consideration on the power play, the puck should be on the boards as little as possible, and with five players against four, there is more space to stickhandle and step into a shot without the danger of a turnover.

Despite all this, and admittedly sometimes because of a handedness imbalance in team lineups, coaches continue to deploy some players on their strong sides on the power play, or at the very least promote fluid systems that lead to shots from the strong side at bad angles with little pre-shot movement.

Since the lost season, there have been 100,291 NHL 5-on-4 shots attempted from a player’s off-wing, and 82,751 attempted from his strong side. That’s more than 45 percent of shots taken from the lesser shooting angle.  Of course, we don’t know exactly how successful shooting from each side is, or what kind of impact that might have on total shots taken or overall power play success. Matt Cane found a while back that at 5-on-5, only certain kinds of shots — scoring chances mostly — registered at a higher percentage on one’s off-wing.

I will note here before I go any further that I haven’t included backhands, deflections, or other types of shot attempts that wouldn’t accurately reflect the principles of my hypothesis that shots from one’s off-wing go for a higher percentage.

I separated the 183,042 5-on-4 shot attempts by whether they were taken on a player’s strong or off-wing, as well as whether they were taken by a forward or defenseman, and whether they were in the scoring chance home plate area or not. I then looked at the Corsi shooting percentage in each of those bins.

Unlike at even strength, on the power play in each bin players shoot for a higher percentage on their off-wing. Overall, the Corsi shooting percentage for players on their off-wings was 7.1 percent, compared to 6.1 percent on their strong wings. The breakdowns were as follows.

It’s interesting that the big discrepancies are in shots on net and blocks, but not misses. I’m not sure if there’s anything to that.

For those wondering how the landscape has change of late, last year teams attempted about 48 percent of 5-on-4 shots from their strong sides, despite the shooting percentage gap seemingly getting larger, with 6.5 percent of off-wing attempts hitting the back of the net, while only 5.2 percent of strong-wide tries registered.

Which Teams Have The Most Extreme Strong/Off Splits?

The Canadiens this year have struggled at times to get their two big-shooting point men, Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban, shots in good positions. Even without considering shooting talent, this shot is significantly less likely to go in than the one above.

The Canadiens this year have struggled at times to get their two big-shooting point men, Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban, shots in good positions. Even without considering shooting talent, this shot is significantly less likely to go in than the one above.

The next step was to separate this data by team and season and see if there were teams that had a particularly extreme split in terms of player usage based on handedness. I also looked at each team’s shooting percentage split into strong and off-wing shots and if there was a significant difference between the two. The results are here.

The first few columns are raw goal and shot attempt totals from each side, followed by Corsi shooting percentages from each side, and then the percentage of shots from the off-wing. I then took each team’s Corsi shooting percentage and adjusted it based on the league average for that season, producing an adjusted shooting percentage that places each team in each year on an even playing field. The average adjusted Corsi shooting percentage was 6.87 percent.

If you sort by percentage of shot attempts from players’ off-wings (PctShOff), you’ll see the top results were the 2013 Edmonton Oilers and the 2014 Washington Capitals, both over 70 percent. Both had higher off-wing shooting percentages than strong-wing, in Washington’s case significantly so. And their adjusted shooting percentages were both significantly above average.

On the flip side, the 2014 Chicago Blackhawks and 2011 Atlanta Thrashers both heavily favored players on their strong sides, but still produced respectable shooting percentages (not surprising in the case of the former).

Feel free to play around with each column to get a sense of the leaders and trailers in each category.

Do Power Plays With Players on Off-Wings Score More Frequently?

Under Mike Babcock, the Leafs 1-3-1 PP has become a shot juggernaut, but with many of those looks coming from players' strong sides, the team's shooting percentage may be taking a hit.

Under Mike Babcock, the Leafs 1-3-1 PP has become a shot juggernaut, but with many of those looks coming from players' strong sides, the team's shooting percentage may be taking a hit.

So what about at a league level? Using a linear model, I found that the percentage of shots taken from players’ off-wings explains 3.7 percent of the variation in their total shooting percentage (all at 5-on-4). With a p-value of less than 0.001 and a fairly large sample size, this effect, though small, does appear significant. Going back to the first chart in this piece, that isn’t altogether surprising, but it is important. Taking more shots from the off-wing does lead to a higher shooting percentage.

The next question I had was whether taking more shots on a team’s off-side leads to more shots overall, since one-timer options create a more favorable shooting environment. It turns out the answer is no, at least not league-wide, as the correlation between the two variables was -0.09.

Finally, I developed linear models to determine how the percentage of shots taken from the off-side impacted goals for and scoring chances against per 60 minutes of 5-on-4 time (I preferred scoring chances against as an evaluator of shorthanded activity against because of small sample considerations with goals), as well as overall goal differential.

Though once again the connections are modest, it seems as though shooting from the off-side leads to slightly more offensive output from a power play, but slightly more shorthanded output against for the opposition. This is reasonable, if you think about the downsides of playing on one’s off-wing that were discussed above, as well as the fact that shooting from the off-side often goes hand-in-hand with a 1-3-1 formation, which would mean only one player defending the point and a greater chance at a 2-on-1 break against.

Since the connection between shooting from the off-wing and scoring goals appears to be the strongest, I plotted each one of the teams in the sheet above with GF/60 as the y-axis, and highlighted some of the extreme examples.

So what is the takeaway from all this? Shooting from one’s off-wing on the power play leads to a higher goal probability. While the impact on goal differential may be negligible, and much of the decision-making process regarding this is team and personnel dependent, in particular if a team is trailing in a game, there is no reason to have players on their strong sides. Give players the best possible chance to tie the game.