clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Powerless: The Canadiens’ power play was shot-blocked from the start

In the first part of our series examining the Canadiens’ power play, we look at unit cohesion, tactical direction, and how it translates to on-ice production.

Detroit Red Wings v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

In our introduction to the Montreal Canadiens power play, we noted that while the Habs are middle-of-the-pack in regards to putting pucks at the net, they are distinctly among the stragglers when one looks at actual shots on net. The Habs drop eight positions in the league rankings (18th to 26th) when looking at total shot attempts and shots on goal, but this is overshadowed by the eleven positions they drop (15th to 26th) when those raw numbers are normalized by power-play time.

The Habs are rather unique when it comes to this phenomenon. While multiple NHL teams present the opposite trend — fewer attempts at goal but more shots on goal — the Canadiens are the only team in the NHL to drop by more than three positions when it comes to raw shot counts, and one of only five teams to drop by more than four positions when it comes to shot rates.

Why can the Canadiens get pucks at — but not on — the net? The knee-jerk response might be to blame a lack of shooting accuracy, but the Habs managed to score a bucketload of goals at 5-on-5 with the same players. Instead, it’s more likely that, due to a lack of player cohesion and tactical planning, the Canadiens power play is simply unable to open proper shooting lanes.

Have we met here before?

The best teams in the NHL at 5-on-4, in general, feature established four- or five-man units that partake in the bulk of their power play time. Looking at the teams with the best power plays in the league, all of them have a unit of four players that are on the ice together for at least 27% of their total power-play time — and this lower threshold would be higher if not for Erik Karlsson and David Pastrnak’s injuries. Moreover, while these teams all used a rotating cast to accompany their core power play players, each team’s most used five-man unit played at least 18% of their 5-on-4 minutes. Meaning that the fifth wheels were able to achieve a level of familiarity with their comrades.

In contrast to this, Jeff Petry, Brendan Gallagher, Max Domi, and Jonathan Drouin were only on the ice together for 21% of Montreal’s total 5-on-4 time. When the analysis is expanded to five-man units, the quartet’s most common companion was Tomas Tatar, but the five were only together for 32.4 minutes (8.5% of total power play TOI).

It’s this latter statistic that is most damning. While teams with excellent power plays rotated a handful of players among a core unit (e.g., Winnipeg swapped Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba, Pittsburgh flipped between Patrik Hornqvist and Jake Guentzel, and San Jose slotted a healthy Karlsson in for Kevin Labanc), the Canadiens offered up a terrifying number of personnel permutations. Apart from the five-man unit mentioned in the previous paragraph, the only other combination that played together for more than 20 5-on-4 minutes was Shea Weber-Petry-Gallagher-Domi-Drouin (22 min).

This contrast between dedicated units and a mess of player combinations is neatly captured by Micah Blake McCurdy.

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

What do you do around here?

The fact that the Canadiens most used quintet wasn’t even on the ice for 10% of their total 5-on-4 time underlies the lack of chemistry that frustrated Habs fans all season. Even when Petry, Drouin, Gallagher, Domi, and Tatar were on the ice together, it may stun you to learn that the primary shooter was... Drouin, who took 30% of the unblocked shots that the quintet managed.

Alarmingly, while Tatar and Gallagher have established positions in the slot and at the top of the crease, respectively, Petry alternates between manning the blue line and the one-timer location. Domi’s presence is concentrated in the right half of the ice, as it should be, but given that most of his shots come from above the faceoff circle, the newcomer to the Canadiens waffled between being a half-wall quarterback or a one-timer option. Finally, Drouin is literally everywhere except the slot — taking shots from the blue line, both faceoff circles, and even Gallagher’s wheelhouse in front of the net.

The return of Weber, who would have ideally acted as both a focal point to build the rest of the power play around, didn’t help matters either. A disjointed man advantage that at least used the entirety of the offensive zone now became a predictable one focused around point shots — and not necessarily from Weber.

The captain’s return bumped Petry off the first unit and shifted Drouin to Petry’s blue line position. The Weber-Drouin combination essentially marginalized the remaining three players, as when the two were together, they accounted for a whopping 51% of all shots taken by Canadiens players. The problem though is that two-fifths of that 51% came off of Drouin’s stick, not Weber’s, and the two essentially played catch with each other, occasionally rotating, looking for a shot either from the left faceoff circle or the high point.

You can take care of it, right?

The Canadiens power play never really established what it wanted to be. When Weber was absent, who was supposed to be the primary playmaker: Domi on the half-wall, Petry at the blueline, or Drouin roaming all over the ice? When Weber was present, why was the backup option a point shot from someone who wasn’t Weber instead of a one-timer from the opposite side? This lack of definition extended to the secondary players as well. Tatar roamed all over the ice when playing with Andrew Shaw — including space already occupied by Shaw. Jesperi Kotkaniemi was tasked with manning either the right side, left side, and central slot positions at various points during the year.

Given this, it’s hardly surprising that many of the Canadiens attempts at goal would be rushed, experimental, or taken as a last resort. The data paints a picture of players reacting to each other rather than acting in concert. Players improvising on the fly while their teammates watch. Players opting for the safe play — putting the puck at the net — rather than trying to create.

And quite frankly, much of the blame has to be placed at the feet of the coaching staff. When questioned on the subject after a particularly disheartening 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers, head coach Claude Julien deflected responsibility to the players:

“Obviously the question’s been asked to the players, they don’t seem to have the answer, and we keep working at trying to find the answer. If we had it, it would be fixed by now. It’s a frustrating power play to watch because you basically put more or less 10 of your best players out there and at the end of the day the decision making and what we do with the puck is not even close to being that.”

The thing is, in other sports, set plays are the domain of the coaching staff. Soccer players are given specific instructions on corner kicks, basketball players are given specific instructions on half-court inbound passes, and football players are given specific instructions on every play from scrimmage. In all of these situations, the plays are specifically drawn up so that proper execution begets success. In none of these situations is the majority of the decision-making onus placed on the players themselves.

Special teams action, whether the power play or the penalty kill, is the closest thing in hockey to a set play, and we’re seeing other teams recognize this. For example, Washington, Winnipeg, and Tampa Bay plan exclusively to maximize the time and space afforded to very specific players. Even when an explicit set play isn’t employed, it’s evident from the on-ice product that most teams with good power plays give their players specific instructions regarding their roles and how they should respond to certain on-ice situations.

There are two exceptions to the rule. Boston and Pittsburgh, both of whom feature three players on their top units who are given more latitude. The problem for the Habs is that none of their players are Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Torey Krug, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, or Evgeni Malkin.

In part two of our series, we’ll explore how coaches create good power plays through proper planning and tactical direction, and the sort of strategies that could be effective with the Habs’ personnel and their respective skill sets.

Special thanks to Meghan Hall for power play data, Micah Blake McCurdy for visualizations, and Natural Stat Trick and Corsica for statistics.