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Powerless: How can the Montreal Canadiens fix their power play?

The Habs’ man advantage was historically bad in 2018-19. In this introduction, we look at just how bad it was and outline several potential reasons why.

Montreal Canadiens v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

If you’re a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, what you are about to read will not surprise you: Last season, the Canadiens’ power play was bad. Really bad. Historically bad.

In fact, that was perhaps the one constancy of the 2018-19 campaign; through the roster turnover, extended absence of captain Shea Weber, trials of Carey Price, and adventures of Antti Niemi, the Canadiens dragged a limp and ineffective power play to a near-playoff finish like their own Stone of Triumph.

Finishing with a 13.2% conversion rate, the Canadiens were proud bearers of the 30th-ranked power play in the NHL, and the underlying metrics show that they were full marks for said accomplishment. In terms of raw values at five-on-four, despite being middle-of-the-pack in terms of total shot attempts, the Habs finished 26th in shots on goal, 27th in goals, 30th in expected goals and scoring chances, and 29th in high-danger chances.

When prorated per 60 minutes of five-on-four power-play time, very little changes. Their ranking for shots on goal and goals scored remain at 26th and 27th, respectively, their high-danger chance generation jumps to 26th, but expected goals for and scoring chances created drop to dead last in the league.

To make matters worse, it wasn’t as if the league was tightly compacted when it comes to these metrics. In most of these categories, and especially the goal-related ones, the Canadiens could only muster roughly half of what the league leaders accomplished on the year.

Montreal was not short on offensive ability. With 188 goals scored at five-on-five, the Habs finished fifth in the league — a mere 18 tallies fewer than the league-leading Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Canadiens were also not lacking top-tier talent, featuring the fifth- (Brendan Gallagher), 17th- (Max Domi), and 27th- (Tomas Tatar) ranked five-on-five goal producers league-wide. All in all, Montreal possessed nine different 10-goal-scorers at five-on-five, with Shea Weber (nine goals) likely to have made it an even 10 if not for his truncated campaign.

So just what is going on?

The short answer is that there’s no single reason that the Canadiens have power-play issues. However, there are several aspects worth a closer look, and that’s what this series will do.

Part I: Shot-blocked from the start

The Canadiens’ place in the league falls from 18th to 26th when going from raw total shot attempts to raw shots on goal. This drop of eight positions is not only the largest in the league, but the Habs are unique in having a fall of greater than three spots. Switching to shot rates instead of raw totals, while the Habs have some company for their misery, their differential of a whopping -11 positions is still the worst in the league by some margin. Why can’t the Habs get their shots on — and in — the net?

Part II: Foundational cracks

The ethos of any power play is ultimately simple: maximize your man advantage. Why have teams seemingly never been able to stop Alex Ovechkin from doing the same thing over and over? Because his team plays a system designed to set up that one-timer which has terrorized the league for over a decade. What’s the theory behind the 1-3-1 formation? How do good teams execute it? And what did the Habs do instead?

Part III: Making a (man) mountain out of a molehill

It’s almost sacrilege to refer to Shea Weber as a “molehill.” After all, all the Canadiens captain did upon his return from injury was place seventh in the league for goals scored per 60 minutes among defenders with over 50 minutes of five-on-four PP time. At the same time, it’s also clear that the Canadiens aren’t even close to developing a system that truly maximizes what Weber can do. Starting with positioning and moving to teammates and mentality, could Weber become as prolific as the Ovechkins and Stamkoses of the league?

Part IV: The squeaky Weal is the grease?

After the normal ups-and-downs of a season, the Canadiens experienced a surge in power-play proficiency to close the year, one that coincided with the addition of one Jordan Weal to the unit. Did a guy on his third team of the year really turn around a power play in a mere 27 minutes on the ice? If yes, how in the world did he do it? Could he be the answer next season as well? How much Weal-related wordplay can one fit in a single article?

Part V: Failing hands no more

Diagnosing all of the many problems facing Kirk Muller and his subordinates is well and good, but how can the Canadiens reinvigorate what was one of the major roadblocks to a playoff berth last year? What is the optimal combination of personnel, tactics, and positioning for the power play to exit its hibernation and evolve into something that can be compared positively to the power plays of yore, those legendary units that forced rule changes and cast Don Cherry out of the NHL?

So stay tuned as we delve into the good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2018-19 Canadiens power play. Take heart though, ye faithful, for at this time last year, we were speaking in this exact manner regarding the 29th-ranked penalty kill in the NHL. One year later, with a change behind the bench and a few tweaks on the ice, the Habs closed out the season 13th-best in the NHL when short-handed.