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The Montreal Canadiens’ Road to Redemption: Part I — The Power Play

The Canadiens simply need to rearrange a few pieces to ice two dangerous man-advantage units.

Montreal Canadiens v Ottawa Senators Photo by Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

I think that most fair observers will be able to look at the current Montreal Canadiens squad and realize that they are not the 28th-best team in the NHL. At the same time, given the emergence of the Toronto Maple Leafs and resurrection of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins, this Habs team — without serious changes — is also unlikely to replicate the Atlantic Division titles that it won in 2015 and 2017.

As a team “somewhere in the middle,” the Habs will need every edge they can muster. In this article series, we will explore ways for the Canadiens to find and exploit these small advantages, in order that the team will become greater than the sum of its parts and be able to punch above its weight.

It’s hardly a secret that special teams prowess has allowed many a team to achieve better-than-expected results — as Jacques Martin’s Canadiens teams will attest. The power play, in particular, is critical for the Habs, given the team’s half decade-long struggle with goal-scoring. The Canadiens’ PP record is inconsistent during the Marc Bergevin era, starting off at fifth in the league during the abbreviated lockout season before slumping to 19th, 23rd, and 25th by 2015-16. The second coming of Kirk Muller has brought the man advantage back to respectability, clocking in at 12th and 13th in the last two seasons, but the Canadiens power play is still hardly anything that strikes fear in the heart of the opposition.

How can the Habs’ power play be improved? I would offer that there are two types of elite power plays: the first uses all-around talent to simply overload the opposition (e.g., the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs), while the second focuses on maximizing the output of one or two extremely potent weapons (e.g., Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets). I don’t think the Habs have an overabundance of elite talent to make the first type of elite power play a viable option, so let’s talk about the second type, using the Capitals and Jets as examples.

Image credit: HockeyViz

Given the above graphic, it can be very easy to say that the Washington power play consists solely of Alexander Ovechkin and that the Winnipeg version is solely reliant on Patrik Laine, but that view is overly simplistic. While both Ovechkin and his younger brother from a Finnish mother are certainly elite talents, they also benefit from carefully crafted power-play schemes designed to maximize the impact of their prodigious shots by focusing on three things:

  1. Presenting multiple methods of getting the puck to the shooter;
  2. Presenting a viable decoy option to the shooter, and;
  3. Maximizing the shooter’s time and space.

Both the Capitals and Jets — like most teams in the league today — operate four-forward, one-defenceman schemes. In addition to the shooter (Ovechkin/Laine), both place a single offensive defenceman at the top of the formation on the blue line (John Carlson / Dustin Byfuglien), a playmaker on the half-wall (Nicklas Backstrom / Blake Wheeler), a man in the slot (T.J. Oshie / Mark Scheifele), and a man near the goal line (Evgeny Kuznetsov / Kyle Connor). Winnipeg sometimes will have Laine and Scheifele switch positions for added fun.

Most power-play schemes will centre around either the point or the half-wall, but Washington and Winnipeg have created formations where both can be used with equal effectiveness to feed the shooter on the left side. In addition, by placing a skill player on the goal line rather than the top of the crease as a screen, these two teams have created a third option that defenders need to be aware of: the down-low backdoor pass.

The shooter himself will roam up and down the left side of the ice, constantly changing shooting angles and passing lanes in order to further confuse the defence. This movement is critical to opening up exploitable seams and making sure the goalie is not fully set when the shot is taken. As we can see in the shot maps below, the classic “Ovechkin spot” is, in actuality, half of the offensive zone.

Finally, three players position themselves to draw defenders away from the shooter. The goal-line player will always remain on the right half of the ice so that the right-side defenceman has to play tighter to the crease, lest the goal-line forward walk out with the puck right into the slot.

Similarly, the point defenceman shades to the right half of the ice as well. This not only makes it easier to receive passes from the half-wall playmaker, but, in combination with the slot forward, it draws the defending right-side forward closer to the middle of the rink.

Lastly, the slot forward serves predominantly as a decoy designed to draw right-side defenders closer to the centre of the ice. He does this by not only shading towards the right half of the offensive zone, but also playing in the high slot — not the low slot — in order to force the forwards to cover him.

The entire configuration is designed to buy time and space for the shooter, and it’s important to remember that for elite shooters who are capable of beating a sighted goalie clean, time and space are much more important than traffic.

Let’s see this plan in action, using Washington’s recent Game Two versus the Columbus Blue Jackets.

As the play starts, Backstrom has the puck. The Columbus left-side forward (LF) is covering the Carlson option, while the RF is covering the Ovechkin option. As a result, Oshie is wide open.

Seeing this, the RF drifts down to take away Oshie. Backstrom slides forward, pulling the LF closer to him and leaving Carlson open. Technically, Kuznetsov is on the wrong side of the ice, but has body position on the RD to prevent him from quickly moving to cover Ovechkin. The Rocket Richard Trophy winner has half the zone to himself. He identifies Backstrom’s movement and moves with him to create a completely new passing lane.

Backstrom, being the passer that he is, makes no mistake — and neither does Ovie.

Let’s look at another example to see what happens when the defence decides to take away the shooter. This time, we head to the MTS Centre for the Jets’ Game One versus the Minnesota Wild.

As Wheeler and Byfuglien play catch along the boards, the Minnesota RF drifts to cut off the Laine option.

Scheifele peels off the LD into open space in the high slot.

The Minnesota RF is now caught in no man’s land. If he aggressively attacks the open Scheifele, he exposes the passing lane that Laine has newly created by moving down deeper into the zone. The RD at the top of the crease is equally trapped, prevented from fronting Scheifele or Laine’s shooting angle because he has to respect Connor as an option for Wheeler.

Scheifele has plenty of space to operate, and makes no mistake.

At this point — or possibly six images ago — you may be questioning why I am using these examples given that Montreal has neither Ovechkin nor Laine.

No, Montreal simply has Shea Weber.

But Weber is hampered by the letter next to his name on the lineup card: “D.” Looking at his heat map from 2015-16 and his shot map from this year, the stigma associated with the defence position means that Weber is poorly utilized; positioned too far back to take full advantage of his shot, and not allowed the range of motion that Ovechkin and Laine can exploit in order to create new passing lanes.

Therefore, I propose that Montreal treats Weber as the winger in the Washington/Winnipeg scheme. Jonathan Drouin will be the half-wall playmaker. Brendan Gallagher will be the goal-line forward, and Max Pacioretty (assuming that he’s still here) will set up in the high slot. Jeff Petry will serve as the point defenceman, as his right-handedness makes for an easier one-time pass to Weber.

Some at this point will be furiously typing a comment about the absence of Alex Galchenyuk. However, having Galchenyuk and Weber — both shooters — on the same unit dilutes the potency of the scheme.

Instead, Weber, the right--hand shot, will play on a unit intended to maximize his space on the left half of the ice, and Galchenyuk, the left-hand shot, will play on a second unit intended to maximize his time and space on the right half.

Here, Galchenyuk is the shooter, Victor Mete is the point defenceman, Nikita Scherbak or Phillip Danault serves as the half-wall playmaker, Charles Hudon is the down-low forward, and either Paul Byron or Artturi Lehkonen is the slot decoy. I also considered Andrew Shaw for Hudon’s place, but I feel that Hudon wins out because he has better hands, better vision, and better passing. As an added bonus, Byron has the footspeed and Lehkonen the defensive acumen to assist Mete should something go awry.

To be honest, Gallagher, as a right-handed shot, is not actually ideal as the goal-line forward on the first unit. A more radical idea may be to put the left-shooting Scherbak in that position and use Gallagher on the half-boards as a playmaker on the second unit. That having been said, it is very difficult to take Gallagher away from the net, even if it means he has to drive out front while on his backhand.

I’m certain that the thought of Petry and Mete as the last man back, as well as the proposition that the slow-footed Weber should venture past the hashmarks, will give more defensive-minded people palpitations. In reply, I simply ask such individuals to consider that the gap between the best (New Jersey, 12) and worst team (Arizona, 2) last year in terms of short-handed goals allowed was 10. The gap between the best (Pittsburgh, 68) and worst (Edmonton, 31) team in terms of power-play goals scored was 37.

I’ll take that tradeoff, especially with a goalie of Carey Price’s ability in net.

In conclusion, in Shea Weber, the Canadiens acquired a player with the hardest shot in the NHL. They must not let their inherent conservatism get in the way of Weber’s ability and potential, especially given how goal-starved the team has been lately, if they are to have any chance of contending for the Stanley Cup.

Special thanks to Micah McCurdy of HockeyViz for graphics and for the inspiration behind this article, as well as to Garry Galley of Sportsnet for reinforcing the notion.