“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:
|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.)
Wrist surgery: pretty effective pic.twitter.com/4N93ifb7kj
— FlamesNation (@FlamesNation) September 15, 2018
— FlamesNation (@FlamesNation) September 15, 2018
Italian chefs everywhere are kissing their fingers pic.twitter.com/HVyiu0kJsx
— FlamesNation (@FlamesNation) September 23, 2018
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.
— JetsNation (@NHLJetsNation) September 22, 2018
— JetsNation (@NHLJetsNation) September 25, 2018
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.
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.