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Powerless: Maximizing Shea Weber’s talents with the man advantage

In part three of our Canadiens’ power play examination, we look at how Shea Weber will be the focus of any Canadiens power play scheme, but are the Habs helping or hindering him?

NHL: New York Islanders at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

So far, our series on the Canadiens’ power play has largely focused on failings — of players and coaches and tactical and strategic levels — and how these failings had all come together to result in the disaster that we witnessed last year. Now, we shift our attention to specific things that could improve the power play for next season.

Naturally, the first of these things involves the fulcrum of any Canadiens power play: Shea Weber.

New tricks for an old dog?

Previously, we’ve discussed how Weber’s set-up, positioning, and shot selection is far from ideal within a 1-3-1. That the Man Mountain needs to play deeper in the offensive zone. That he should be constantly looking for space and creating passing lanes. That he should essentially stop worrying about defence.

But, realistically, there are several factors preventing him from becoming Alex Ovechkin even with a “correct” deployment:

  • Twenty-plus years of defensive imprinting makes it difficult for Weber to play like a forward, even in special situations
  • His offensive hockey sense in terms of identifying gaps and space is unlikely to be as honed as that of a forward
  • Weber’s shot relies on power, and doesn’t have the flexibility or the rapid release of an Ovechkin or Patrik Laine to shoot from the odd angles and positions that they typically encounter

Obviously, Weber does not have to be Ovi to be effective. What he does need is a scheme that plays to his own unique strengths instead of throwing up roadblocks to his success.

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The first problem with how Weber was used on the power play last season was that he often rotated — usually with Jonathan Drouin, but sometimes with Jeff Petry — from the left faceoff circle to a central blueline point position. But Weber should never be positioned in the centre of the ice, as it is the best way to neuter the effectiveness of his primary weapon: his shot.

In a 1-3-1, the central point position player is the furthest away from the goaltender. Moreover, a shot from this position has to evade the most traffic in order to reach the net. While some will see this as a positive, citing the possibility of goals coming from screens or deflections, the way that modern goaltending emphasizes positioning means that without lateral movement, a shot that a goalie doesn’t see will likely still hit him if he’s square to the shooter. Screens are most effective when they render a goalie unable to track the puck as it moves around the zone, not when they prevent him from seeing a shot.

The second problem is that, last season, the Montreal Canadiens had no interest in a one-timer’s best friend: the east-west pass. Much of this was because the system used the high-point player as the primary playmaker instead of the half-board player, essentially cutting the amount of lateral movement required by the opposition goaltender in half.

If we look at Weber’s five power-play goals last season, three of them come after a set-up from the high point player. The other two feature an act of individual power and an act of opportunism.

In two of the three cases, the system is utterly irrelevant. Yes, Weber is set up for a one-timer by either Petry (vs. Arizona) or Drouin (vs. Edmonton), but these passes are easily anticipated by both the defenders and the goalie. In both situations, when Weber shoots the puck, at least one penalty killer is squared up in the shooting lane and the goaltender is set and not moving.

For almost anyone other than Weber, those situations would not represent scoring opportunities.

Mission not-impossible

Ultimately, the Canadiens power-play system only aided Weber on one goal last season. Here, against the Florida Panthers on January 15th, a quick give-and-go between Weber and Drouin gives Weber an open shooting lane and confuses James Reimer to the point where he’s completely out of position.

Interestingly enough, the play is initiated with an east-west pass from Joel Armia to Weber. Weber is not in a position to shoot off that pass, but the recognition of the space that he has causes Juho Lammikko (Panthers #91) to overreact.

With Lammikko chasing Weber, Drouin is now open for a shot. This shot has no chance of actually making it through, and Drouin knows that. But Lammikko doesn’t. All the Panthers defender sees is another open player that he’s responsible for.

Lammikko goes chasing again, Weber drifts backwards to give himself more space and a better angle, and Reimer has no real chance of tracking the puck through the horde that Drouin wisely elected not to shoot at. Now, as Weber receives the puck, there’s nothing between him and a netminder on his knees and out of position.

The result is academic.

Untapped potential

Last year, Weber scored five power-play goals in 147:28; a rate of 2.03 goals per 60 minutes. That number was seventh league-wide among defenders who played 50 minutes or greater with the man advantage. As we’ve explored in this article, Weber accomplished much of that through his own talents and skills.

The first step to supporting Weber is to commit to a scheme that opens up the east-west pass. To that end, the power play must run through a playmaker placed at the half-wall rather than the central point. Fortunately, the Canadiens, in Drouin and Max Domi, have excellent candidates for this role. Drouin will have to ease up on both his shooting and his tendency to roam, while Domi will have to get used to having the puck on his stick more often than he usually does with the man advantage. Still, both have the required skill-sets and hockey sense to thrive in this situation.

The second step would be to put a more legitimate defensive presence in the central point position formerly occupied by Drouin in order to allow Weber to focus exclusively on offence. Petry is the most obvious candidate, possessing an above-average shot and the best defensive awareness. However, having both Weber and Petry as part of the top unit would considerably weaken the second wave. The solution may be Victor Mete. Although the youngster is not renowned as a shooting threat, Mete’s feet and hands are useful for finding space and opening passing lanes. Moreover, Mete’s speed allows him to react to any blueline mishaps and, at the very least, prevent clear cut shorthanded breakaways.

Regardless of what is done, it’s clear that something has to be done. Weber is already one of the more potent power-play threats in the league. How much more could he be with a team there to help him?

Next time, in part four of our series, the late-season arrival of Jordan Weal corresponded with a spike in power-play proficiency. Does correlation equal causation? Or was Weal simply in the right place at the right time?