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What to expect from Geoff Ward’s power play

When the Calgary Flames’ season began going down the tubes in roughly February, many began calling for the head of assistant coach Dave Cameron (and head coach Glen Gulutzan by extension) for the team’s woeful power play. Not only did general manager Brad Treliving swing the axe and clear out the big league bench, but he went out and hired Geoff Ward away from the New Jersey Devils.

A veteran coach with a Stanley Cup ring from Boston’s 2011 triumph over Vancouver, Ward has spent a decade in the NHL running power plays – primarily good ones. So what can Flames fans expect to see from the Flames power play beginning in 2018-19? After some poking around, here are our general expectations.

Four forwards, one defenseman (probably)

During Ward’s entire run in the Garden State – and much of his time in Beantown – his power plays ran with four forwards and one defenseman. Throughout much of this season, even through injuries and call-ups, the Devils ran two units of four forwards and one defenseman. More and more, special teams units with two defenders are the exception and not the rule.

The usual first unit for the Devils this season was Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, Will Butcher and one of Patrick Maroon or Brian Boyle. That’s a lot of left shots. But it’s not the mixture of players that’s particularly novel, but rather how Ward positioned and deployed them.

The ever-familiar 1-3-1 structure, with a twist

The Devils used a variation on the familiar 1-3-1 structure: a defenseman at the top of the zone distributing the puck; two players up the slot for tips, redirections or quick passes; and players on the two wings to either shoot or pass defending if lanes are available. The Washington Capitals have famously used the right-shot Alexander Ovechkin on his “off” (left) side for quick one-timers, and a lot of teams have followed suit.

But more recently, things have flipped a bit. Tyler Dellow over at The Athletic examined the newer phenomenon where wingers are actually staying on their strong side. Here’s his explanation regarding what’s been happening:

So you don’t get the release as quickly as you do when one timing the puck but then the league is littered with players who can’t one time the puck. Instead, the movement makes it harder for a goalie to have all of the angles covered on the goal. There’s not just east/west movement of the puck — there’s north/south movement as well, which means that the goalie has to change his depth.

The strong-side winger allows for a more precise shot, but also avoids telegraphing the one-timer because a quick pass is just as viable an option. And the lack of reliance on the rapid-fire one-timer also means that you see the puck miss the net and careen off the glass and out of the offensive zone less frequently – there’s less of a blind panic to get the shot off.

The Flames utilized this strategy at times last season, but it was less structured and a bit messy. The variable quality and health of their right-shot options (Troy Brouwer, Kris Versteeg and very little else) also created challenges that they’ll need to overcome this summer.

Chaos in the slot, ideally

The side effect of the strong side wingers is some added precision and an entire system that’s seemingly design to create maximum chaos in the slot and net-front area. The wingers are making the goaltender shift around. The two attackers up the middle are (a) creating screens, (b) creating tips and (c) in an ideal position to outnumber the defenders for loose rebounds. And the point man at the top of the zone has a lot of bodies providing cover for his shot – Butcher got a ton of points last year based on the chaos unfolding in front of the opposing net.

There’s a potential variation of this scheme to think about: Bill Peters alluded to looking at using a forward below the red line (behind the net), which would create different looks and lanes and essentially force the goaltender and defenders to spin around rather than get used to a particular viewpoint on the ice. It’s still a 1-3-1, but a very different look that’s also based on creating chaos in the net-front area.

In other words, expect a lot less perimeter play from the 2018-19 power play.

More variation on zone entries

How many times did TJ Brodie skate very rapidly towards the offensive blueline, only to awkwardly stop and chuck the puck back to Johnny Gaudreau in the neutral zone? It’s called “the bump-back” by coaches and it’s the worst thing the power play has seen in years. You’re basically screaming to the opponent, “Don’t worry, Gaudreau’s bringing it in!”

Well, the Devils had a lot of fun, creative zone entry schemes. I watched five complete games worth of power plays. I saw zero bump-backs. But I saw this, which is largely resemblant of how much Ward wants his players to keep the defenders guessing. (Stick-tap to Mike Pfeil for the gif.)

Breeding predictability out of the special teams units seems to be the goal.

Faceoff improvements

The easiest way to avoid worrying about zone entries is by winning offensive zone faceoffs consistently. While it’s hardly a “tactic” per se, the Devils’ most common players at the dot won a lot of their draws and it helped them keep the pressure on. Pavel Zacha (61%) and Boyle (58%) took most of their draws, but Hall (63%), Nico Hischier (50%) and Drew Stafford (69%) also took a lot and won a lot.

For the Flames, Sean Monahan took the vast majority of draws at a 51% winning rate, followed by Mikael Backlund at 47%. The Flames will need to be better at the dot, and it’ll probably also be beneficial for them to get some more right-handed players that can take draws.

(Hopefully) more goals

The Flames scored 43 power play goals on 269 opportunities this past season. The Devils had 54 goals (11 more) on 252 opportunities (17 fewer). If the Devils had the same number of power plays as the Flames and scored at their same rate, they would’ve put up 58 goals. Even if the Flames can split the difference, an additional six or seven power play markers at key times in key games could be huge in 2018-19.

    • Beer League Coach

      Agreed. I absolutely hated watching Cameron’s 5 man penalty kill unit trying to create some offense. Really looking forward to seeing much improvement on the PP this season.

    • Jagrrrrr, baby. Yeah.

      I hate the bump back so much. Besides telegraphing who is going to carry the puck over the line, it also leaves 3-4 players STANDING STILL OUTSIDE THE BLUE LINE. Sad.

    • Honkydonk

      Lol hey Treliving. You know that guy Chiason you let walk for guys like Hathaway and Glass and on and on.

      Well he just won the Stanley Cup.

      Great Judgement!

  • Off the wall

    Don’t we need strong Centre men to maintain possession for faceoff’s?

    I’m sorry but 51% is ok, but wouldn’t 60% at the dots make a huge difference?!

    ROR is tops in the league. Hmm

    • BendingCorners

      Winning draws is a learnable skill. If the centers spend a summer practising it they will be much better at it. Not playing with two broken wrists might help too.

        • Baalzamon

          No kidding. I read on the Flames site that he could barely hold his stick for like half the season. And he still had a career year.

          Imagine if he’s actually healthy next year. Good god.

      • MDG1600

        Backlund and Stajan still haven’t got that memo about winning draws being a learnable skill. Flames as a team have finished in the bottom half of the league every year for the last 10 years.

        • Cfan in Van

          I was surprised to learn that Stajan had 51.5% last season. I could have sworn that it was far lower, but I think my perception was skewed from the fact that he couldn’t seem to win a draw (got waived from the circle every time) in the first few weeks of the season after the new rules took effect. He must have stepped it up afterwards.

    • Hockeysense9393

      Would ROR be worth his salary to take faceoffs and maybe teach the other centres how to do it? Would it over-shadow the cancerous stigma he has created for himself? It just makes one wonder why he seems to always be in the middle of these “culture change” scenarios

      • Hockeysense9393

        On the other side of the coin…I have looked up and read many reports about ROR and am starting to lean on the “worth a deep look” type of candidate. There are good reports that say he is one of the more proud, hard working players to better his craft and team. His focus to be better may be exactly what the Flames need? Another proud vet who can help the younger players become a little more focused on what they are trying to accomplish. The more I look at it, the more I am seeing that the Flames may just be the team that he would be very happy with, and vice-versus.

        • Kevin R

          I absolutely would love to get RoR. But rumours of RoR for Dougie are ludicrous. Doubt Brodie gets it done, but maybe we have a decent prospect Buffalo may want. Dahlin is going to be a stud but for him to just drop in & be a premier top pairing D in the NHL in his first year is also unrealistic.

          • Jessemadnote

            When it comes to Ryan O’Reilly, I would prefer the discount contract and free acquisition cost of right-handed center Derek Ryan who over the past 2 seasons has outperformed O’Reilly (per 60 minutes at even strength) in terms of game score, goals, points, primary assists, secondary assists, individual shots, Corsi for percentage, and expected goals for. Ryan also won 56.5% of his faceoffs last year. Let’s save our assets for a high end-winger.

            https://public.tableau.com/shared/DGMXMTTTB?:display_count=yes

    • Rudy27

      Calgary has been pathetic at faceoff wins for as long as I can remember! The timing of the faceoff win (own end shorthanded, dying minutes trying preserve a 1 goal lead, etc.)is more important than the percentage, but I don’t think we’ve done well there either.

      • MDG1600

        Rudy 27 is right, Calgary has been a complete dumpster fire on face-offs for years and the stats absolutely prove it. When you look at special teams where face-off wins are arguably the most important here is what you get (in order from most face-offs taken to least): Penalty Kill face off records: Backlund 42.7%, Brouwer 45.9%, Stajan 42.9%, Monahan 38.1%. Power Play face-off records: Monahan 50.6%, Backlund 45.6%, Jankowski 52.2%. I have 2 take aways from this. First I was surprised Brouwer took the 2nd most face-offs on the PK. Second, for a veteran Backlund is really terrible at face-offs.

  • Off the wall

    Just checked Puckbase and Carolina had 4 centres in the top 20!
    In order, Staal, Ryan, Rask and Lindholm

    I’m thinking Rebar must like players who are strong at the dots.

    I betcha they actually practiced faceoffs…

    • Beer League Coach

      Ryan is a 30+ year old who was well above 50% on face offs. He is also a UFA on July 1. Hope we can sign him for 2 or 3 years at a reasonable cap hit. Glenn Gawdin was around 58% on face offs last year in jr. A year or two in Stockton he could step in and replace Ryan.

      • Jessemadnote

        I’m kind of considering it a forgone conclusion given Calgary’s needs and Rebar and Ryan’s history. That said lots of Carolina fans insisted Ryan was their Brouwer, given way too much opportunity for no good reason. Statistics put him in the top 10 faceoff men and top 10 Corsi for players in the league… He’ll definitely be a polarizing figure!

  • Burnward

    Good article Ryan, I humbly submit though that running Gaudreau off the half-wall on the RW is the biggest change that needs to happen.

    Sticking him on the left side leaves him with very few options. On the offside he can spin, create, dance, shoot from a better angle, pass.

    On the strongside he can pass it, skate behind the net, or shoot from a brutal angle.

    Give our magician room to make magic and magic might happen.

  • Calgarycandle

    Unpredictability on the PP means they understand the major flaw from last year–total predictability. I think Cameron was a big part of the reason we missed the playoffs last year. Ward seems like a definite improvement.

    • cjc

      For Monny to hit 40, he’d need to take 267 shots (assuming career avg. shooting %). He took a bit of a step forward in that regard last year, but it would still mean 65 more shots than he has ever put on goal. Possible, but I wouldn’t expect it. 35 seems a more reasonable target.

  • Hockeysense9393

    No more tell-tale bump back!?! Wow what a concept. A four forward and one defence scheme would mean plenty of PP zone time for the likes of Tkachuk and Bennett? Monny should be considerably better at faceoffs this year now that he will be healthy. Shore…a right handed centre with pretty good faceoffs. PP darkhorse? Maybe Ward is a pretty good faceoff coach as well…seeing the percentages from the Dev’s centres? Or bring in a faceoff trainer to focus on that (important) specific point of the game? I’m pretty excited about this actually, and not just cuz I have Dougie in my keeper pool. Keeping the opposition guessing on PK coverage? What a concept. Looks like Ward may be a great steal for the Flames and then with Huska as the perfect transition coach for the young ones coming up. Good going BT! I’m actually getting optimistic about this.

  • The Fall

    I hated to watch GG&Co scramble three separate lines and two D pairs, on the totally ineffective PP. It always took three shifts to get the lines back together and totally killed any momentum.

    • Kevin R

      Watching our PP at the games last year was absolutely horrible. The only thing worse would be eating a Nachos at the Dome that has bad cheese, rancid jalepenos washed down by a flat beer.

      • Hockeysense9393

        It’s funny…but already reading many “conspiracy theories” on how a lot of Casino cronies are pooling together to NOT allow a 7th game scenario to give any chance of the city losing millions upon millions of dollars due to lost betting revenue. Makes one wonder? ?

      • Al Rain

        I’m all about crazy conspiracy theories, but only if they have a grain of truth to them. How does anyone, much less a bookie, affect the result of any hockey game, much less a SCF?

        I think conjecture about shady dealings and powerful hockey people pulling strings should start and end with the cards that Bill Daley turns over at the draft lottery.

        • Hockeysense9393

          That truly is the conspiracy (right Oilers fans?). The conspiracy about organized crime using resources to manipulate the outcome of sporting events is just a joking matter of course. Just ask the 1919 World Series losers…

          • Hockeysense9393

            I was laughing too of course. It’s all about the stigma of Vegas casinos being closely related to organized crime families ever since Vegas was a thought in people’s minds (thanks Bugsy). I know that mobsters have never reeeally been connected to sports betting manipulation like baseball, horse racing, boxing, college football, basketball…or anything like that. Makes a good story though ?

  • Garry T

    I am sure the changes to defensive systems. the power play, penalty kill , the forecheck and the attack are going to improve the Flames next season. Having said that there is little coming out about players being released or traded. Why can we not quietly go about making trades to improve our club in the manner the Coyotes do?

      • Baalzamon

        Birds will fly, fish will swim, and disappointing free-agents on bloated contracts will train hard in the summer to generate hope for a “bounce back”. Ho hum.

        • freethe flames

          He is a RFA so that depends on what the Caps choose to do. They know he is 4th line RW who this year appears to have demonstrated that he plays the right way and gets rewarded for his effort. The Caps however do have a cap issue going into the off season; even if the cap goes all the way up to $80m they will be hard pressed to sign everyone. Carlson, Wilson, and Gruabuer would take all of their cap space even at $80m.