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Lightning lead NHL’s best special teams units


When it’s time for a power play, you’ll usually just see a quick graphic with a team’s percentages. If you’re lucky, the sound crew will play Super Mario’s powering up sound effect when it’s time for a home power play.

Flashing up those percentage stats give you a perfectly fine snapshot, but let’s dig deeper. Now, to clarify, we’ll still keep it pretty simple, as we’ll leave expected goals and high-danger chances to the Natural Stat Tricks of the world (for now? ominous music plays, probably from a Super Mario Bros. castle).

Allow me to re-introduce a stupidly simple study: special teams plus/minus. The formula is pretty simple, even if it takes some manual inputs (risking some human error) to actually put together the crude Google spreadsheets that power this list:
(Power play goals [PPG] for + shorthanded goals [SHG] for) - (PPG against + SHG against) = special teams plus minus.

Generally speaking, deeper stats often reinforce what we already know, and this is the case here. What we already know is that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s power play was frighteningly effective, especially last season. Now we ... uh, extra know that.
Cream of the crop

To keep this from getting too unwieldy, Part 1 of these two posts will feature the teams who had a “plus” rating for 2017-18 and 2018-19 combined, while Part 2 will include the teams on the negative side. You can see the full results in the chart at the bottom of each post. Interestingly, only 13 teams hit the “plus” side, at least for 2017-18 and 2018-19 combined.

Tampa Bay Lightning: +43 in 2018-19, +51 overall during the past two seasons.

The Lightning made history last season, and their special teams dominance stood as a big reason why. Not only was their power play deadly (74 PPG), it also took very little off the table, as Tampa Bay only allowed three shorthanded goals, behind only three other NHL teams. Remarkably, they tied the Devils for third-fewest power-play goals allowed with 40, and scored an impressive 12 shorthanded goals. The Bolts have the talent to be strong in this area once again in 2019-20, but we may not see many seasons like this one again anytime soon.

Other teams that were at least +20 combined the past two seasons:

  • Florida Panthers: +19 in 2018-19, +26 combined. The Panthers were the only other team to hit 70+ goals alongside Tampa Bay, as the Cats grabbed 72. They flipped shorthanded goals allowed (12) and for (three) with the Lightning, though. The Panthers will need to show that their special teams dominance wasn’t due to power play/assistant coach Paul McFarland, who was fired this offseason. The Panthers were among just five teams with 70+ power-play goals since 2009-10, so a dip should be expected -- it’s likely a matter of how much.
  • Winnipeg Jets: +13 in 2018-19, +29 combined the past two seasons. You’d think this will be a consistent strength for Winnipeg, especially as Patrik Laine climbs the ranks ... right?
  • San Jose Sharks: +12 in 2018-19, +36 combined. Seems safe to bet on continued competence, if not brilliance, in this area.
  • Colorado Avalanche: +9 in 2018-19, +23 combined. Improved depth could help Colorado after allowing 58 PPG this season.
  • Boston Bruins: +8 in 2018-19, +28 combined. The Bruins power play was deadly (65), but also high-risk, high-reward, with 15 shorthanded goals allowed.
  • Pittsburgh Penguins: +9 in 2018-19, +26 combined. Penguins special teams sequences are frantic. Not only are the power play goals going both ways, but the Penguins scored plenty shorthanded (12 for) and allowed even more (15 against) last season.

Still positive, not as dramatic

Teams with at least 10+ (but less than 20+) combined during the past two seasons

  • New Jersey Devils: +5 in 2018-19, +18 combined. Should be fascinating to see how Jack Hughes and P.K. Subban might move New Jersey up the ranks.
  • Toronto Maple Leafs: +1 in 2018-19, +13 combined. Maybe trading away Nazem Kadri means more William Nylander on the top unit? Either way, a middling 46 PPG for and troubling nine SHG against is hard to fathom with all of that talent.
  • Vegas Golden Knights: +4 in 2018-19, +16 combined. Limiting shorthanded goals allowed (two) while scoring 11 shorthanded goals of their own, the Golden Knights were otherwise uninspiring on special teams last season. The Golden Knights have so much forward talent, they might want to experiment a bit; maybe try that whole five forward power play idea?

Remaining teams with positive special teams plus/minus over the past two seasons:

  • Calgary Flames: +14 in 2018-19, +8 combined. The Flames’ power play was rough in 2017-18 (just 16 percent success rate, 43 goals for and seven shorthanded against), accounting for the slip into mediocrity. An absurd 18 shorthanded goals for is what really pushed them into having one of the league’s most beneficial special teams last season, as they only scored three more goals on the power play (53) than they gave up on the penalty kill (50).
  • Minnesota Wild: +6 in 2017-18, +5 combined. Minnesota enjoyed some net benefits from special teams last season, but the difference was fairly marginal.
  • Arizona Coyotes: +15 in 2017-18, +2 combined. Darcy Kuemper was the main reason the Coyotes almost made the playoffs despite a slew of injuries, but effective special teams, particularly managing 16 shorthanded goals, helped Arizona stay in the mix, too. Can Phil Kessel help Arizona make special teams a net positive once again next season? It’s tough to ask Kuemper to repeat last season’s magic, that’s for sure.

Full list

Again, Part 2 will include teams that were in the minus - even marginally so - during the past two seasons combined. Here are the full 31 teams, sorted from highest to lowest in special teams plus/minus for 2018-19. You may note that some teams were positive one season and negative the other, so teams with recent strong seasons (Arizona, Calgary) could be interesting to monitor. The chart also includes: 2017-18 special teams plus/minus, the ST plus/minus for the past two years, and then to the right: goals totals for the four different special teams categories from 2018-19:

TEAMspecial teams +/-2017-18 +/-two years +/-PPGSHGAPPGASHGF
Tampa Bay438517434012
San Jose122436579459
New Jersey5131845104010
St. Louis5-13-8507435
NY Islanders-6-11-17331446
NY Rangers-115-6444587
Los Angeles-2811-173513544

Yep, the Lightning have been living large on special teams lately.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.