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College Hockey’s Best Power Plays

Columbus Blue Jackets v Winnipeg Jets

Months into the dull abyss of the Covid pandemic, the Big Ten Network has become so desperate for programming that they’ve begun to re-air old hockey games they barely wanted to show the first time. One such game this past weekend featured the 2015-2016 Michigan team, which is probably appreciated more now than they were at the time, thanks to some now-famous names.

Anyway, one of the stats I came across re-watching that game is that that Michigan team scored on an astonishing 32% of their power play opportunities that season. That made me curious enough to look through College Hockey Inc.’s stat database, which goes back to the 2012-2013 season, to see what some of the top power plays have been in recent college hockey history. Not surprisingly, that Michigan team tops the list. Some of the other names to show up behind them were obvious, while there were also some pretty surprising teams on the list.

Here’s a look a the five best power plays in college hockey over the past eight seasons.

  1. 2015-2016 Michigan

The stats: 48 for 150, 32.0%

How they got there: When you think of dominating lines in college hockey over the past eight seasons, the first that probably comes to mind is....well BC’s line in 2013-2014 of Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes, and Bill Arnold is still the gold standard for this era. But a strong candidate for next on the list is Michigan’s ‘CCM’ line of Kyle Connor, JT Compher, and Tyler Motte.

Everyone knew this line was very good at the time. But given the hindsight of their still-burgeoning pro careers, it just looks silly. Motte and Compher became serviceable NHL regulars. Compher has hit double digits in goals in each of his three NHL regular seasons, which is no small feat.

But Connor and Michigan’s top defenseman that season, Zach Werenski, have turned into truly special offensive players at the NHL level. Connor has scored at least 30 goals in all three of his full NHL seasons. Werenski scored 20 goals from the blue line this past(er, current) season to lead all defensemen in the NHL. Having one player that goes on to that type of NHL success is enough to make a college team remarkable. Having two players with that kind of talent is truly special.

It is worth noting that while the big name talent combined for 29 of the 48 goals scored on the power play, their second unit was quietly pretty good too. They got five goals from a talented, but inconsistent Alex Kile, four from Tony Calderone, a limited even strength player with excellent shooting ability, and Cooper Marody, who would go on to get a cup of coffee in the NHL, added four goals.

Michigan’s offense wasn’t just dynamic with the man advantage. In total that season, they averaged 4.76 goals per game, which is unheard of in modern college hockey. Only two teams over this eight-year span even come within half a goal per game of that mark(In 2019, Penn State averaged 4.54, and in 2016, St. Cloud State averaged 4.27).

Here’s a game recap from a night Michigan put up a casual 4-for-6 on the power play.

But despite having the most dominant offense in recent memory, Michigan was plagued, as they were much for much of the late Red Berenson era, by poor defense and a shocking lack of depth. The Wolverines finished second in a very weak Big Ten, and managed to win an NCAA Tournament game with a dramatic OT win over Notre Dame before being manhandled by North Dakota in the quarterfinal round.

2. 2016-2017 Ohio State

The stats: 49 for 155, 31.8%

How they got there: This is easily the biggest “Huh?” on the list. Their overall resume doesn’t really stand out. The Buckeyes finished third in the Big Ten that season, which had a very good Minnesota team and not much else. They lost in the conference semifinal in front of maybe 25 people in Detroit, and then lost a heart-breaking OT game to Minnesota Duluth in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Their overall shots on goal margin was slightly in the negative, usually a recipe an average-to-below-average team, but they were carried by their amazing power play, which helped them to the second-best offense in the nation.

The driving catalyst for the Buckeye power play was diminutive center Mason Jobst, who is probably one of the more underappreciated players in recent college hockey history. The Buckeye power play was excellent at getting the puck to Jobst with room to work, usually below the goal line in the offensive zone and allowing him to use his quickness and passing ability to distribute pucks to his wingers, who could snipe the puck. Senior linemate Nick Schilkey led the nation with 16 power play goals, while David Gust, a strong forward that was effective in tough areas of the ice, contributed 10 goals.

In total, 30 of Jobst’s 55 points that season came on the man advantage, including 21 assists. He was named a second team All-American that season.

3. 2019-2020 Harvard

The stats: 34 for 109, 31.2%

How they got there: Like everything related to the 2020 season, this comes with a pretty big asterisk. Harvard plays fewer games to begin with because the Ivies start their season later, and the sudden end of the season due to Covid-19 meant the Crimson only played 31 games in the season, and only have about 75% of the power play attempts as the other teams on this list. We’ll never know, but it would be fair to argue that they might have dipped a bit during the playoffs when the competition increases and goals are harder to come by.

Still, their number is what it is, and it’s an impressive mark. Especially when you consider that Harvard had to replace Adam Fox, who scored 1.45 points per game the season prior, the best mark of any college hockey defenseman in over a decade. Of Fox’s 48 points in 18-19, 23 of them came on the man advantage.

But an influx of youth filled the gap for Harvard left by Fox. The Crimson basically got scoring from seven guys with the man advantage this past season, and of those seven, junior defenseman Reilly Walsh was the only upperclassmen.

The big surprise was freshman forward Nick Abruzzese. A smaller forward that was a later round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Abruzzese became the top-scoring freshman in the NCAA last year. Behind Abruzzese, a really strong sophomore class took off. Jack Drury improved from 24 points as a freshman to 39 as a sophomore. Casey Dornbach improved off a very good 29 points as a freshman to score 36 of a sophomore. And defenseman Jack Rathbone, who recently signed an NHL deal with the Vancouver Canucks, improved from 22 points, playing in the shadow of Adam Fox, to leading the defense and scoring 31 points.

Normally I’d say that bodes very well for Harvard’s future, but they’ve already had the first half of next season erased by Covid, and there are no guarantees they get to play the second half either.

4. 2015-2016 St. Cloud State

The stats: 41 for 139, 29.5%

How they got there: This St. Cloud State team probably gets overlooked a little bit for a couple reasons. First, even though there’s a strong argument that they had the second-best offense of any team over this period, it happened to come the same year that Michigan had the best offense of this era(see above). Though if you want to factor strength of schedule into the equation, there might even be an argument that this St. Cloud State team was better.

Reason number two is that they were almost the exact opposite of Michigan’s offense. While Michigan relied on their high-end top line with future NHL stars, St. Cloud State relied on depth. They had a lot of very good players, but there’s nobody on that roster your average NHL fan would recognized today.

The other reason this team might not get the credit it deserves, like similar St. Cloud State teams, is that they had an entire magnificent season of work erased by a single bad afternoon in a sterile, empty arena in March.

The depth on this team was pretty incredible. There’s an argument to be made that this team’s five-player senior class was the second-best recruiting class in school history, and an even better argument that the six-player freshman class was the best recruiting class in school history.

Senior playmaker Kalle Kossila led the team in scoring with 14-40-54 to finish sixth nationally in scoring, effectively setting up Joey Benik and Patrick Russell, who each had 20-goal seasons. But the real story here is the team’s depth. Ten different skaters scored at least 10 goals on the season, and All-American defenseman Ethan Prow added eight and racked up a ton of assists running the point on the to PP unit. Of their 41 power play goals, no individual player had more than six.

In keeping with that theme of depth, it’s worth noting that eight skaters on this SCSU went on to sign NHL contracts, a very high number for a single team, though none have yet developed into what one would necessarily call NHL regulars.

It’s also interesting to note that this St. Cloud State team is the only team with a team shooting percentage above 13%, scoring on 13.2% of their shots on goal. That number correlates very strongly to having a great power play, as the next three highest teams on the list, all at 12.8%, are two teams above SCSU on this list(15-16 MICH, 16-17 OSU), and this past season’s North Dakota team, which didn’t play any typically low-scoring playoff games.

5. 2018-2019 UMass

The stats: 43 for 151, 28.5%

How they got there: Cale Makar, Cale Makar, and also Cale Makar.

In Greg Carvel’s first season at UMass, 2016-2017, UMass went 5-29-2. Their power play was equally dismal, scoring at just 8.8%, which ranked 58th out of 60 teams nationally.

But two years later, UMass had almost entirely remade their roster thanks to some masterful recruiting work by Carvel and staff. They gained some valuable experience in senior transfer Jacob Pritchard, who scored seven power play goals. Sophomores Mitchell Chaffee and John Leonard each blossomed and scored seven PP goals apiece. And they got surprisingly good contributions from rookie defensemen Marc Del Gaizo and Ty Farmer on the man advantage.

But what took this group from very good to special was the guy who had been recruited by the previous regime but chose to buy into Carvel’s vision and keep his commitment to UMass, even as his NHL Draft stock exploded in his draft year. Cale Makar became the first Canadian Jr. A player in a decade to be selected in the top-5 of the NHL Draft when Colorado selected him fourth overall in 2017, banking on his enormous potential. Makar’s freshman year was good, though not necessarily what one would expect from such a high NHL Draft pick. He was even outscored by fellow freshman defenseman Mario Ferraro, who had been selected 45 picks after Makar.

But in Makar’s sophomore season, all of that promise and potential came together and Makar put together an absolutely dominating season. He finished third nationally in scoring, tops among defensemen, with 49 points in 41 games. His 1.20 points per game as a defenseman is only bested by Adam Fox’s 1.40 that same year over the past decade in college hockey. UMass won their first ever Hockey East regular season title, made their second ever NCAA Tournament, advanced to the national title game, and Makar was named the Hobey Baker winner for his efforts, before becoming a Calder Trophy finalist in his first NHL season.