When predicting how this year would go for the Montreal Canadiens, it was commonly said that they needed strong production from their man advantage to make up for a lack of five-on-five scoring. The team is now eight games into the season and a power play that should be among the best in the NHL is near the bottom.
The Canadiens have been suffering from the same issues they had last year when they were up a man: getting in the zone and retaining possession. They're wasting precious time due to multiple failed entries, and are forced into that situation because of an inability to win opening power-play draws.
Until Friday night’s game, Jonathan Drouin was being relied on to do everything, including carrying the puck into the offensive zone. This is putting a lot of pressure on him to finesse his way through opposing formations who already know the Habs' breakout plan too well.
The fact that the team still managed some good looks on the man advantage is a testament to his talent. Drouin's speed and his incredible hands allow him to make use of the most minuscule gaps in coverage to get the puck in the zone. It's understandable to want to maximize the skills of one of the few players able to dangle through multiple NHL defenders, but that being the Habs’ sole strategy shows a lack of foresight.
In a league where everyone consistently adapts to what their opponents are doing, the coaching staff is both showing a lot of confidence and a lack of creativity in having their players behave in the exact same way in the same situations over and over again.
Entries are nearly exclusively tried through the usage of drop passes in the neutral zone in an attempt to attack the blue line with speed. Most teams have that option in their arsenal; it's a trendy strategy in the NHL. It works well when you have a forward able to pierce a neutral-zone defence, or when you want to score goals off the rush with a man advantage. But it's not complex enough to function consistently as the only way to get in the offensive zone and establish possession.
The Habs ranking as one of the worst team in the NHL in controlled zone entries on the power play can be partly explained by this over-reliance on this single method of getting the puck into the attacking end.
The drop pass
A player, most often a defenceman, skates the puck up. He enters the neutral zone through one side of the ice, forcing the other team's formation to back off to protect their blue line, and turning a mid-ice forechecker towards that side to intercept him.
As soon as this forechecker is engaged, the puck is slid back to a forward skating up with speed. This forward can move around the other team's defence that are now out of position or slowed down as a result of the work of the first puck-carrier.
If the middle of the ice remains too clogged, a pass to either player standing at each extremity of the offensive blue line can still make a controlled zone entry happen.
Those passes prove to be especially effective when the opposition relies on a box-like formation that protects the middle of the ice well but leaves the flanks exposed. The players standing at the blue-line are open for a pass when the other team collapses on the puck carrier rushing in mid-ice.
Like any other breakout system, the drop pass works best against specific defensive designs. When the other team uses or adapts a system to counter it, the method becomes a lot less successful.
When the opposition doesn't give the blue line, and refuses to fall back in the defensive zone, even pressured by the intimidating speed difference between them and the second rush, the puck-carrier has very little recourse. The 1-3 formation that the San Jose Sharks used against the Habs on Tuesday was a good example of this.
A defensive-blue-line wall, that collapses on the puck carrier as he approaches, doesn't work when the team rushes up the ice as a five-man unit. The chip-and-chase method becomes too effective as there are multiple players who can get to the puck in the back of the offensive zone much quicker than the outnumbered and flat-footed defenders at the blue line.
However, as the Habs used a breakout in two parts, the’s Sharks’ strategy was very efficient against them. The first unit that skates ahead has to wait for the player who received the drop pass to come up before entering the offensive zone. They therefore don't have the speed advantage over the defenders like in a five-man breakout, and can't reach a dumped puck first. So the weakness of the blue-line wall (1-3) can't be taken advantage of.
With this in mind, the defenders in that formation can freely collapse on the puck-carrier, forcing him to dangle his way through multiple defenders or make a difficult pass ahead to his covered teammates as he's about to cross the blue line.
In short, with that breakout, the Habs lived and died by what Jonathan Drouin was able to accomplish — a recurring theme since the start of the season. If he managed to get through, they could set up great scoring chances. If he failed, they were back to square one.
Judging by the low success rate of the Habs on power-play zone entries, it appears that Drouin can't always accomplish miracles.
The two-man drop pass
Still, if we look at the first couple of games, I don't think the coaching staff was banking everything on him then. Both Drouin and Ales Hemsky acted as options for the drop pass from Pacioretty, with Shea Weber taking a spot waiting at the offensive blue line.
Having two forwards coming in after this drop pass allows for more options to enter the zone. They can exchange the puck to hide their intentions from the defenders, and they have an easier time finding open lanes.
The down side to this structure is the risk of a costly turnover on the breakout, as no defenceman is in a position to defend. It would most likely leave only the two forwards scrambling to backcheck if the entry ever turned into a short-handed chance against.
This model was discarded when Hemsky underperformed too much to deserve a spot on the first power-play wave. After that, Weber was the only player skating alongside Drouin on the breakout and supporting him. As the Habs defenceman can't match his speed, and doesn't have close to the same one-on-one abilities, a lateral pass to Weber was never a real option. His only role was to be a safety net in case things turned sour.
How are other teams using this breakout?
The Chicago Blackhawks have been utilizing the drop pass on their first wave of the power play since at least last year. The skill of Patrick Kane makes this choice of play work very well for them.
Duncan Keith usually drops the puck to Kane in the defensive zone where the star winger is paired with another forward. Those two attackers then skate up together and have multiple pass options to try to get past the offensive blue line.
Once again, this more effective two-man setup is similar to what the Habs used in their first games, before switching to Drouin exclusively carrying the puck.
However, contrary to Montreal, the Blackhawks also have multiple other breakout methods. This way, they keep their opponent guessing.
Changes for the game in Anaheim
Faced with the lack of success of their power play, the Habs’ coaching staff brought some changes to the breakouts on Friday night. It didn't affect the outcome of the game, and it also didn't seem to lead to more controlled entries, but at least they have identified the problem and made an attempt to fix it with the limited practice time they had between road games.
They were using a more traditional breakout strategy that is much less predictable than the drop pass. A defenceman carries the puck to centre ice in a formation comprised of his defence partner and two other forwards. The entry can be achieved through multiple passes or finding an open lane on either side of the boards to skate in with possession.
This defenceman — if he's elusive and bold enough — can also do the unexpected and rush through centre ice and the other team's formation. The Canadiens don’t really have any options other than Victor Mete who can pull this off.
Still, the best chance of a controlled zone entry with this strategy remains the third forward cutting across parallel to the blue line. If he's in position and can be reached with a pass, he's often going to be home free in the offensive zone.
The Habs coaching staff inherited a team with numerous new players this season. It's normal to want to implement a simple system at first, especially if it makes great use of the skill of one of your best offensive assets.
But if Montreal wants to turn their season around, a decent part of their success will come from creative and fluid power-play transitions. That’s something they don't have right now with either strategy they've employed.
That means there's a lot of work on that part of the game awaiting the players upon their return to Montreal. It will start with finding variants to the drop-pass method if they choose to keep it, or cleaning up the new strategy they tried on Friday.
This is just one issue with Montreal's game, and the lack of speed, skill, creativity, and execution applies to more than this one situation where it is made most apparent.