37Dillon Dube
Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports

Special teams improvements are a work in progress

“How can a power play with so many good players be so bad?”

It’s a refrain that was often shouted from the Scotiabank Saddledome stands, and undoubtedly something that crossed the mind of Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving before he relieved the previous coaching staff of their duties following the 2017-18 season.

Part of the rationale behind hiring new coach Bill Peters (and especially associate coach Geoff Ward) was to make the special teams units dangerous again. Through three-quarters of the preseason, the transition to the new staff is well underway.

Disappointment in 2017-18

Special teams are about three things: shot generation (or suppression), generating in-game momentum, and scoring (or preventing) key goals. They don’t need to score every time, and they don’t need to shut the opposition down every time, but the hope is that a special teams unit will create some momentum when a team needs it.

The power play was fairly bad at creating momentum in 2017-18. While they were among the league’s best (per 60 minutes of PP time) in Corsi For (puck at the net; fifth), Fenwick For (unblocked pucks at the net; ninth), Scoring Chances (fifth) and High-Danger Scoring Chances (third), they struggled to convert that into Shots For (16th) or Goals For (28th).

While the Flames performed fairly reasonably well at faceoffs while on a man advantage (winning 51.3% of their draws), they often whiffed on passes and struggled to re-enter the offensive zone. The gap between their various shot rates points to a general trend of a lot of their unblocked shots (and scoring chances, high danger and otherwise) missing the net entirely and bouncing out of the zone. To be blunt: they missed the net a lot and when they did hit it they had the league’s third-worst shooting percentage.

The penalty kill hovered around the NHL’s middle in terms of shot suppression rates: 13th in Corsi Against, 18th in Fenwick Against, 23rd in both Scoring Chances and High-Danger Scoring Chances against. They weren’t bad, but with the power play struggling they needed their PK to be better than it was.

High hopes with new hires

When the Flames hired Ward back in June, many fans and analysts were excited. Why? Because he had previously coached the power play in Boston and New Jersey; he won a Stanley Cup with the Bruins and made the Devils a formidable group with the extra man.

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.

The general trend has been to use wingers on their strong sides (e.g., left shots on left side, right shots on right side) to allow for the ability for rapid-fire passes or effective shooting – in theory, shooters from the strong side should miss the net a lot less.

Speaking at WinSport following a recent practice, Flames head coach Bill Peters described Ward’s approach to the power play.

“He’s been real good on the power play through his career, real creative mind,” said Peters. “He’s got variations, right? Depending on what you’re doing he can counteract that. He’s done that for a long time at the NHL level.”

Making in-game adjustments would be a nice departure from last season’s power play.

New assistant coach Ryan Huska is running the penalty kill, and his level of familiarity with the team’s personnel and recent systems is arguably his big strength as he was tasked with mimicking the systems of the NHL club while coaching the farm team.

Results so far

There have been six preseason games coached by the NHL coaching staff so far. Aside from the first game against the Jets, where the Flames sent prospects to Winnipeg, the lineups have mostly featured NHL players.

Here’s how they’ve fared on special teams:

Opponent Power Play
Penalty Kill
Boston (Shenzhen) 2 for 8 3 for 3
Boston (Beijing) 0 for 6 6 for 6
Winnipeg 1 for 3 4 for 5
Vancouver 1 for 3 7 for 8
Winnipeg 0 for 3 2 for 3
San Jose 0 for 4 2 for 3
Total 4 for 27 24 for 28

When the power play has worked, it’s looked really nice. Here are three examples of their 1-3-1 layout working well. (The second goal was on a two-man advantage with the goalie pulled, but the attack was structured as a PP.)

When I spoke with Flames captain Mark Giordano following a recent practice at WinSport, he noted that the overall PP scheme isn’t terribly different from last season’s – Dave Cameron also ran a 1-3-1 most of the time – but the personnel changes the team made over the summer (the addition of all the new right-shot forwards, for example) are the primary difference.

When the Flames’ PP works, there’s rapid-fire puck movement and the speed of that movement opening up both passing and shooting lanes. Where they have challenges are when they struggle to gain the offensive zone; it’ll be interesting over time to see if Ward can get them away from the “bump-back” pass on zone entries.

The penalty killing strategy is a little bit different from last year’s. Giordano described it like this: “I think we’re trying to hold the line, not give up our blueline too much and not give up easy entries. A few different philosophies, not letting teams enter, but even in the zone we’re playing our in-zone a little bit different so it’ll take a little bit of getting used to. But I think it’s looked really good so far.”

When it works, it involves a lot of active disruption on the zone entries and within the one. The defensemen don’t roam around the zone a ton, but the two forwards are key in disrupting offensive attacks and creating turnovers – if you remember how Paul Byron was used by Jacques Cloutier years ago as a rover that created turnovers at the blueline, that’s fairly similar to what’s envisioned here.

When it doesn’t work, usually because the active forecheckers get running around a bit too much and get turned around (or they get tired), here’s how it looks.

Since the PK approach seemingly relies on both strong positioning and the forwards having the energy and precision to disrupt passes, taking a ton of penalties in each game seems like a poor idea – the jet-lagged Flames group that played at home against Vancouver took many penalties and were progressively less effective on their kills.

Looking ahead

After the Winnipeg game, Peters noted there are “11 or 12 guys in the mix” for regular power play work and it seems likely that most (if not all) of them will dress for the final two preseason games in San Jose and Edmonton. The same can probably be surmised of the penalty killing group, though there are likely fewer players involved in that mix.

While both groups have shown some promise thus far, they’ll need to find some consistency in order to really build up their systems prowess. It’s necessary to note that almost half of those “11 or 12 guys” are all new faces: James Neal, Elias Lindholm, Derek Ryan, Austin Czarnik, and Noah Hanifin.

The first step to consistency in play is consistency in lineups, so having some reps with the same units will go a long way towards having strong special teams when the season begins on Oct. 3. This is especially true for a power play that will really be dependent on players that are still relatively new to each other developing an offensive rapport very quickly.

  • freethe flames

    The one thing I dis not like about the PP in the last game was what I call the dump and differ. The defenceman bringing the puck up the ice and makes the back pass to the 4th forward (frequently Johnny) and none of the other forwards are moving. I would much rather have all the forwards get a little further back and start moving forward; if this team is a forechecking team 5 on 5 it certainly could do some of that with the man advantage. Guys waiting at the blue line not moving is ugly to watch. Especially with great passer like Andersson on the ice.

  • Cheeky

    Momentum in the game is probably the biggest thing with a powerplay. Last year I swear teams took penalties when the Flames were gaining it just to get the momentum back. I’m fine if we don’t score on every PP as long as we looked good and didn’t give the other team life… The stat about our great Corsi and Fenwick on PP last year is more proof that these stats don’t equal wins…

  • BlueMoonNigel

    Best way to increase PP goals is to actually shoot the puck on net. The Flames were one of the worst teams for excessive passing on the PP last season, and the results showed. The players have to shoot more and worry less about making tic-tac-toe highlight reel goals. If I were coaching the Flames PP, I’d tell the lads to be selfish–be very selfish on the PP. Think shoot first and pass second.

  • buts

    Any good PP starts with the treat of hard point shot. Brodie tho a good skater is a PP killer, keep him off it. With the drop pass to a faster skater bringing the puck into the zone I’d rather see Stone who has a great shot out there more so than Brodie who you know is going to pass not shoot.

    • Brian McGrattan's Salute

      Ah not in today’s game. A good wrister with eyes is usually just as good. We see more of those and less blasts from the point. Also, Stone doesn’t have any accuracy, and he doesn’t belong on a 1-3-1 PP. I look forward to a season where Brodie gets back to his passing and spinning prowess.

      Andersson, on the other hand, should get some good looks.

    • JoelOttosJock

      I agree about Brodie being aPP killer but Stone has no business being on a successful NHL team let alone its PP.Yes he has a cannon, but he has cement in his boots, does not think the game quick enough, is not a talented passer, and well, he is Micheal Stone. Hanifann should be being groomed to QB the #1 unit.

    • Baalzamon

      There are a lot of players who should be used on the PP over Brodie. Stone is not one of them.

      You want a booming slapshot? Rasmus Andersson raises his hand.

  • Brian McGrattan's Salute

    Those PK stats tho! I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from the PK. I’m hoping this will be another year where we score lots of PK goals (looking at you Backs, Fro, and Janko)

  • Jimmyhaggis

    The bump back pass doesn’t work any longer, every team knows how to defend it. Hartley introduced it and it worked fine. When you have group speed, on the PP, there’s always 1 man open, so attack as one unit, like Vegas. I think the PP will be better this year.
    I like the PK philosophy, stand up at the line, last year teams just breezed through the blue line, setup, pepper the net.

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    The big difference I see in the P.K. is Huska’s confidence in Janko and Bennett. The PP has had good territorial advantage but Johnny’s shot from the wall relies on tips and screens and rarely will over power a keeper.

  • Off the wall

    That PP against Vancouver was a beauty! Every player on the ice touched the puck. It took literally seconds once they gained the O-zone. It was our 2nd PP unit.

    I don’t remember who the D was on that PP, but it went from D to Dube, to Tkachuk ( beside the net) to Backlund, to Czarnik for the goal. Crisp, fast puck movement, the Canucks didn’t have time to setup- box out the Flames.

    That was probably the best puck movement I’ve seen to date.

    I think we’ll improve immensely on the PP, the boys are getting familiar with each other and Ward has a great mindset for creativity.

    Huska has done a great job with the PK. I like less movement from the D, and more activity from the forwards to disrupt play. Amazing what standing up at the blue line does- make the opposing team EARN every entry into our zone!

    • Jobu

      Its all about those quick passes and releases.

      Looking at previous 1st unit examples, then plan is STILL to give it to Johnny for either a pass to Monahan or Neal for a quick release one timer… this doesnt work… Johnny, bless him, just doesn’t have an NHL calibre shot (yet?). PK just plays the pass. It was the main PP story last year, and I hope it doesnt repeat this year.

      • Brian McGrattan's Salute

        I’m hoping that is just the last vestiges of the ghastly influence of the duly departed GG, and that the coaching staff will hammer that out in the course…

  • oilcanboyd

    Kristen Anderson

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    All five #Flames players cut yesterday cleared waivers: Tyler Graovac (C), Morgan Klimchuk (LW), Alan Quine (C), Buddy Robinson (RW) and Kerby Rychel (LW).