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Powerless: The squeaky Weal is the grease for the Canadiens’ power play?

In the fourth part of our series analyzing the Canadiens’ power play, we look at how one seemingly insignificant fourth-liner changed the entire tone of the Habs’ man advantage for the better.

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

On February 25, 2019, the Montreal Canadiens acquired Jordan Weal from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Michael Chaput. What was supposed to be an exchange of minor assets trapped in their respective systems quickly turned into a lopsided victory for Marc Bergevin. Coming to Montreal having amassed four goals and seven assists in 47 games, Weal nearly matched that output in 16 games as a Hab, finishing the year with four goals and six assists in the Tricolore.

The most surprising thing about Weal though wasn’t his offensive production, it was the effect that he would have on a power play that had required periodic resuscitation all season.

Weal’s arrival coincided with a dramatic spike in team power-play success. Delving deeper into the data showed that Weal was more catalyst than passenger to this phenomenon, with the caveat that all of Weal’s metrics are based on a very small sample size of only 27-ish minutes.

/60: per 60 minutes time on ice, xG: expected goals, CF: shot attempts for, SCF: scoring chances for, HDCF: high danger scoring chances for, i: individual

Weal’s on-ice metrics (how the team performed with him on the ice) were team-leading in many key offensive categories, and he individually led the team in goals, total points, and shot attempts per 60 minutes of time on ice.

Weal the Wizard?

The big question is: How?

How did a player who — admit it — was greeted with puns and described as a “skilled upgrade for the fourth line” turn into the straw that stirs the Canadiens power play?

Looking at the footage, there appears to be no great mystery to Weal’s success. The deadline acquisition simply plays direct hockey and chooses to force the penalty killers’ hand by attacking the defensive formation. In this way, Weal served as the antipode and antidote to the Canadiens disorganized and disheveled “system.”

As the clip starts, Weber does very well to knock down Cal Clutterbuck’s attempted zone clearance. Weal jumps on the puck and immediately throws it down to Jonathan Drouin to force the defenders to pull back towards the net. Drouin then tosses it back to Weal, the player in the natural playmaking position, on the half-wall.

At this point, Weal has two obvious options: pass it back to Weber or return the puck to Drouin. Neither are particularly high-percentage options when it comes to generating a goal-scoring chance, as Weber is rooted to the blueline while Drouin is sitting on the goal line. With less than 10 seconds left to the period, Weal knows he can’t dither around, waiting for something to happen.

So he does what Nikita Kucherov was highlighted for doing earlier in this series: he moves forward with the puck. When Kucherov moved forward against the New Jersey Devils, he forced the two penalty-killer forwards to make independent decisions. When those decisions turned out to be misaligned, Brayden Point was able to create an opening.

The exact same thing unfolded here. As Weal rolls forward, Clutterbuck leaves Joel Armia to cut off what he perceives is the greater threat: the passing lane to Weber. However, Casey Cizikas is slow to react to a now-open Armia — and even if he had reacted faster, he would still have to go around Armia’s frame to tie up his stick. Weal finds the open Armia in a much better location than Drouin or Weber, and the Finn makes the opportunity count.

Our second example highlights much of the same thing. Faced with a Winnipeg Jets quartet who are actively cheating toward Drouin and Weber, Weal exploits the space he is given, driving the box rather than staying passive on the half-wall.

Weal’s positive body language attracts the attention of Dustin Byfuglien, who fronts the would-be Habs shooter. But in doing this, Byfuglien leaves Phillip Danault wide open next to the net, something that Weal rolls with.

Rather than returning the puck to Drouin, or trying to force a pass through to Weber, Weal again elects the aggressive option. The pass to Danault causes Byfuglien to turn 180 degrees and forces Connor Hellebuyck to his knees to ward off a wrap-around or jam play.

Armia neatly evades the not-so-fleet-of-foot Tyler Myers by slotting into the space vacated by the turning Byfuglien, and Danault finds him for a one-timer against a swimming netminder.

Finally, Weal shows the same mentality without the puck. Off a faceoff win, Weber elects to reverse the puck to Drouin rather than pass to Weal. Drouin then goes down low to Armia on the goalline.

As Drouin goes down low to Armia, Weal realizes that Mitch Marner has no clue where he is. Rather than stay in the current RFA’s shadow, Weal immediately attacks the net to give Armia another option.

When Armia receives the puck, Weal is in position to create a 2-on-1 against a hapless Martin Marincin. Marner realizes his lost man, but is too far away to make any difference.

Armia now has two poorly defended options in Danault and Weal. He elects to pass to Weal, who has clearly been watching footage of Andrei Markov as he jams the puck in back door.

The Weal Deal Until Proven Otherwise

Ultimately, Jordan Weal’s greatest contribution to the Canadiens’ power play was bringing his style of game to the man advantage. By playing fast, smart, and direct hockey from the half-wall, Weal was inadvertently able to shift the focus of the Habs power play away from the central point position back to where it should have been all along. His synergy with Armia and Danault — two other direct players — brought structure back to a power play that had relied too much on freewheeling and improvisation. Finally, the initiative and aggression of Weal, Armia, and Danault meant that they were able to seize the opportunities presented to them by opposition penalty killers too fixated on Weber and Drouin.

Whether Weal can personally make himself a permanent fixture on the Canadiens power play remains to be seen, but the month of March can easily serve as the blueprint for a much more effective power play in 2019-20.

In our next, and final, segment it’s finally time to take what we’ve figured out and present how to make the Canadiens’ power play an asset to the team rather than a detriment. The answers may be easier than initially envisioned.