The Penguins have the best powerplay in the league this year, and much of that is due to Evgeni Malkin. Malkin is second on the team in powerplay points and first in powerplay goals. Despite the fact that he is a generational talent, he hasn't always been this dominant when the team is up a man. In fact, his powerplay shooting percentage in previous years was downright woeful. That's not really his fault, though. Funky things can happen in hockey.
Let me show you what I mean about Malkin's points and goals. All stats are courtesy of Hockey Analysis.
You can see the big jump that he's experienced this year. One question we should initially ask is whether this is driven by Malkin taking more shots or simply scoring on a higher percentage of his chances. The story seemed to be that with Neal gone, Malkin would keep the puck more for himself, ultimately leading to more goals. Is that true?
Nope. Oddly, Malkin is attempting less shots on the powerplay this year than he has in years past. The reason for his bump in production has been a certifiably insane 30% shooting percentage. That's obviously not sustainable. Once Malkin stops getting as many bounces to go his way, you want him to make it up with more shot attempts.
The biggest thing that sticks out to me from that chart is how bad his 5v4 shooting percentage was the last three years. To make this point as saliently as possible, here's a list of players who had a better shooting percentage from 2011-14 at 5v5 than Malkin did during 5v4 play: Chris Neil, Jay McClement, Olli Jokinen, Cody McLeod, Derek Mackenzie, Tuomo Ruutu, RJ Umberger, and Mark Letestu. The list goes on but I'm sure you get the point. Malkin was the victim of some horrendous (mis)fortune on the powerplay the previous three seasons.
One can reasonably wonder though if Malkin is doing anything different this year. Perhaps, for example, he's taking shots closer to the net. I pulled his average shot distance at 5v4 from Behind the Net.
|5v4 Average Shot Distance (feet)
Hockey can be funny, huh? You can see that Malkin is actually taking shots from farther out this year than he has in the past. And yet, even though he's also attempting less overall shots, he nevertheless is scoring at a career pace. It's extremely improbable. But that's hockey.
We don't have to stop at shot distance to see if Malkin is doing anything different. We can look at the graphs over at Sporting Charts to see which portion of the ice Malkin is taking his shots from and how often he does so.
[Note that the shot distance and shooting percentage in these charts is different from what I included in the tables above because these charts include all PP situations, not just 5v4 data]
It doesn't look like Malkin is doing anything special as far as the location of his shots is concerned. Of course the season is young, and with more data we might see a different picture later on regarding how Malkin picks his spots on the ice. But for now, we don't see any evidence that he's systematically generating higher quality scoring chances.
None of this should diminish the fun of watching Malkin on the powerplay this season. It's only an attempt to explain what's behind his uptick in goal-scoring on the man advantage. The bad news is that Malkin's shooting percentage will inevitably come back down to earth as the season wears on. The good news is that he'll still be a generational talent. As long as he (and the rest of the team) start shooting more on the powerplay, they'll easily maintain their rank as an elite powerplay unit.