The Montreal Canadiens’ power play has been a considerable sore point over the last two seasons. The situation has deteriorated to the extent where a below-average 2019-20 could still be viewed as a positive after a historically bad performance in the season prior. To make matters worse, the Habs’ impotence with the man advantage comes despite having one of the premier power-play weapons league-wide in Shea Weber.
Weber’s presence on the team’s power play has slowly morphed from boon to crutch, as the team’s organization and planning seems to revolve around the Sicamous native’s slapshot. Unfortunately, even the mightiest weapon is limited when the opposition can plan for it. However, what we saw this summer in Toronto indicates that the pendulum appears to be slowly shifting in the other direction, thanks to the emergence of Nick Suzuki and the return of Jonathan Drouin. The Canadiens scored five power-play goals in the bubble, but Weber only recorded a single point.
The addition of Tyler Toffoli gives Kirk Muller even more versatility in this regard. On many teams, Toffoli’s 6’1” frame would be parked squarely in front of the opposition goaltender. For the Canadiens, that space is already occupied by Brendan Gallagher, pushing Toffoli most likely to the slot position in the 1-3-1.
The thing is, Toffoli can play both positions — and should be used in both positions.
In Vancouver, Toffoli occupied the net-front position, but he did so in a more unorthodox manner. In contrast to a Gallagher who makes every goaltender in the league his bestie or a Drouin who acts as a goal-line playmaker, Toffoli established a hybrid role while out west. While still more than capable of jamming pucks in from the doorstep, the ex-King and -Canuck made most of his hay playing a few feet off to the side. This position gave him more space to utilize his shot, but also allowed him to act as a quick bumper passing option for a slot one-timer. Toffoli can even slide below the goal line and serve as a more pronounced Drouin-esque playmaker.
If Toffoli is deployed to the net-front, what then becomes of Gallagher? The first inclination may be to relegate him to the second unit, but a better solution would be to shift the diminutive winger to the slot position instead. His grit and tenacity have a tendency to overshadow all of his other attributes, but the Canadiens’ sparkplug also has superb hockey sense and an underrated shot. After all, despite his reputation as a crease crasher, Gallagher’s even-strength goal map actually looks fairly similar to Drouin’s over the last three seasons.
Moving Gallagher further away from the goal also has the added benefit of lessening the amount of punishment — whether from goaltenders, opposition defenders, or Shea Weber slapshots — on his 5’9” frame over the course of a season. It creates the possibility of using mid-sequence switches to create confusion among the penalty-killers and open space or passing lanes for Weber. Finally, Gallagher’s natural tendencies to play lower rather than higher in the slot will force penalty-killing forwards to decide between covering the slot one-timer or cheating against Weber.
Of course, the Canadiens would also be justified in keeping Gallagher where he’s made a living for himself. In that event, Toffoli also has prior experience at all three mid-zone positions.
With the Los Angeles Kings in 2018-19, Toffoli’s deployment seemingly depended on which defenceman was on the ice with him at the same time. When Drew Doughty manned the point, Toffoli lined up mostly around the left faceoff dot. When it was Alec Martinez, his shots came from the right faceoff circle. When it was Jake Muzzin, he manned the net-front.
Across all of Toffoli’s primary deployments, his main secondary position was the central slot. Interestingly, this is where he had the most goal-scoring success. Further highlighting his versatility, the winger scored in many different ways while in the same central position, showing an ability to jump on rebounds, tip shots, rip one-timers, and even cut in from the wing on the rush.
Either way, Toffoli’s addition does necessitate the removal of someone from the current top unit, and if Gallagher’s staying, who’s going?
The answer there is Drouin. He hasn’t done anything to warrant a demotion, but he’s the best person in terms of skill set to replace the departed Max Domi on the second unit. Moreover, if the Canadiens elect to deploy Josh Anderson down low, have Drouin, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Tomas Tatar occupy the three middle-zone positions, and place either Victor Mete or Brett Kulak at the point, the second unit will have clear strategic parallels to the first unit, helping to streamline training and practice.
Tyler Toffoli’s versatility as a winger extends beyond even strength, as the Canadiens forward has previously played every non-point position on the man advantage. His flexibility gives the Canadiens many more options than their tried-and-“true” Weber-centric focus. The onus is now on the Habs’ coaching staff to recognize what they have in Toffoli, and to draw up appropriate schemes that take advantage of his talents without drowning the units in tactical complexity.
Video montages courtesy of David St-Louis