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Five Observations on the Montreal Canadiens Powerplay

There has been a major focus on the Montreal Canadiens powerplay woes despite an impressive 4-0 start, their first since the 1977-78 NHL season. Despite the second most opportunities in a small four game sample, the Canadiens powerplay is currently sitting at 12.5%, 22nd in the league. Last year the team finished with the 23rd best powerplay and a particularly embarrassing 5.5% powerplay in the playoffs. 2013-14 wasn’t much better with the 19th best powerplay, a standing that frustrates Habs fans who know that since the lockout, the Canadiens have had one of the most consistently strong powerplays in the league, finishing top five in 2005-06, 2006-07 (1st), 2007-08 (1st), 2009-10, and 2012-13.

Montreal Canadiens Powerplay Conundrum

There have been many theories as to why the Canadiens powerplay has struggled, from losing assistant coach Gerard Gallant to an emphasis of David Desharnais in the top unit to pulling anything out of a hat. I have never had to write up powerplay strategies in my life, nor do I scour analytics to back up my arguments. Consider everything written here to be an observation and nothing more. That said, I’ve watched Canadiens powerplays succeed from one shot wizards (Michael Ryder) to one bomb wizards (Sheldon Souray) to enigmatic Russian wizards (Alex Kovalev) and through my times observing these wizards, as well as the powerplays of other teams, I can at least form five observations and give a suggestion for head coach Michel Therrien’s squad.

On looking at the PP’s lack of success, I’ve noticed five things:

1. Subban Pressure

P.K. Subban is often protected against by shot blockers. If the puck comes to the right side of the ice, there’s usually two to three players on the opposing team ready to block shots or dig out pucks from the corners. Teams put heavy pressure on Subban because even though he has an excellent pass, the focus is on his slapper. They are more willing to make a risky pick on him as opposed to other players where they could be burned from being out of position.

2. Player Positioning/Movement

Something that has been worked upon in exhibition and the past few games has been their movement in the zone. For the past two seasons, players just stand in place and make their passes. Finally, players are moving around and making use of the limited space. Andrei Markov and Subban started switching positions to confuse defenders which is a good idea but easy for teams to eventually change strategy. What worked the other night was Max Pacioretty moving to the right side and taking shots from the slot on his off-wing. This is the sort of thing that will lead to more goals.

3. Get to the Net

The Canadiens are terrible at crashing the net and creating pressure around it. This is more than just a screen. Anyone can screen a goalie. Brendan Gallagher is quite good at screening goalies, as was Brian Gionta. You don’t have to be six foot six. The best screeners in NHL history are probably Phil Esposito and Tomas Holmstrom. These are not giants. They had smart hands and great positioning. But what I’m more talking about is forcing the defenders to collapse on their goalie by creating a lot of pressure.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have a strategy they employ in almost every game: they purposely shoot the puck wide (but not too wide) to get deflections and rebounds. It’s the sort of strategy teams should have been catching on to, and it took the Chicago Blackhawks to realize it. I saw it over and over, Nikita Kucherov or Tyler Johnson would shoot the puck not at the goalie but the boards, causing the puck to bounce back out right in front of the goalie. By the time it bounced back, there was more than just Johnson at the net and it meant a scramble. These are the kinds of plays the Habs never attempt. They always go towards play around the boards instead of targeting the goaltender directly.

The good news is that Alex Semin, Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk are starting to focus more on going straight to the goalie, which I feel like Semin deserves a lot of credit for, as it’s not what Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and Gallagher are doing and Galchenyuk may have done a bit but not as effective. Eller is still going straight for the corners with his pucks, which is more learned than something to blame him on.

4. The Slot

One of the big problems with the Subban cannon is the distance he fires it from. Subban has one of the best shots in the league, forward or defenceman. He shouldn’t be always firing from the blueline. He could get far more effectiveness if he moved up. The team should be employing Pacioretty and Subban on opposite PP units with both targeting the Kovalev/Ryder/Mike Cammalleri heat zone to the right or left sides. Both men have great puck control and the ability to protect it from a defender to make a pass and get set up. We’d have a lot less wild pucks if Subban could get closer to the net.

5. Powerplay Defence

For all of the focus on not scoring, there’s a bigger problem with how they defend on the powerplay. This is partially due to the team trying to move the puck a little more, but also due to the fact that when a team focuses on defending against our right side, they are also targeting our weakest wing. That’s why the team went out and acquired Devante Smith-Pelly, why they got Zack Kassian, why they got Alex Semin and why they got Jeff Petry at the trade deadline last season. Recognize where they all naturally play? The right (an argument could also be made for the acquisition and re-signings of Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn, both right handed shots with centre/right wing experience, though Flynn has been moved to the left wing). Only Tomas Fleischmann was a left side guy.

If Subban fumbles the puck, Brendan Gallagher is usually too deep to come back. The other issue is that Max Pacioretty is over on the left side, too deep usually, and guys like Andrei Markov, Alex Semin, David Desharnais, etc. are either too slow or not defensively skilled enough to come back and break a play up. Who can? Jeff Petry, as he proved against Curtis Lazar. Nathan Beaulieu is also developing into the type of guy who can as well. Both of these guys have offensive instincts and, if separated but placed on the PP units, could provide the kind of coverage this team needs during a PP mishap.

Some of the best PP scoring chances are not created by the players all set up. It actually comes when a team steals the puck, tries to make an offensive play on the penalty kill and the PP team steals the puck back for an odd man rush of their own. That’s where the ice is clear in the zone for a play instead of three bodies laying on the ice to block shots with a fourth rushing the man with the puck.

In a Nutshell

  1. Teams are aware of Subban (team is addressing this)
  2. Team needs better player/puck movement (team is addressing this)
  3. Team needs to cocoon the net better (team is addressing this, but not on both units)
  4. Subban needs to come up and be separated from Pacioretty (team is not addressing this, though might have last game)
  5. Team doesn’t defend enough when coughing up the puck (team is not addressing this)

If I was to throw together two powerplay units based on my observations, it would look something like:

Powerplay Unit 1A

Semin – Galchenyuk – Pacioretty
Markov – Petry

PP1A is all about Pacioretty getting to the slot while Petry can recover any slip-ups and Semin/Galchenyuk/Markov have a lot of opportunities to gain puck control, pass and shoot. This also allows the players to instead of setting up, go full attack at a goaltender. All five players are capable of successful zone entries.

Powerplay Unit 1B

Gallagher – Eller – Subban
Beaulieu – Plekanec

PP1B is all about Subban, but utilizing Subban properly. Beaulieu and Plekanec play the point to both distribute and come to defence in case of a mistake. Gallagher and Eller work to dig pucks. Subban can now receive a left handed pass from a tighter position and get into the slot position. At least three of the five can maintain a successful zone entry. It doesn’t matter who takes the faceoff, and Gallagher is going to be focused more on revolving around the goalie like a moon. Eller would likely still focus more on the left wall.

It’s not all about the powerplay

I have to stress at the end of this for Canadiens fans that while focusing on the powerplay when it’s this bad is important, what’s more important for the Habs is to score in the first period and keep their five on five scoring up. The Canadiens were 11th in the league for second period goals and 5th in the league for third period goals. First period? 29th. They scored less first period goals than the Buffalo Sabres. The problem is that there’s no quick fix to this, and thankfully, the Habs are starting the year with a first period goal in every game. The other important factor is the five on five, which is necessary in the playoffs when whistles go away and teams have to make goals out of opportunities instead of special teams. Yes, the Canadiens powerplay needs to get to a respectable place, but if it doesn’t finish in the Top 10 in the regular season, that doesn’t make the team a failure. The Stanley Cup champion had the 21st best regular season powerplay. The LA Kings had their 2013-14 powerplay outside of the Top 10 in the regular season. Look at every team who won the Cup and how their regular season powerplay performed, and you have to go back to the 2009 Stanley Cup champions to find a Top 10 regular season powerplay winning the Cup. Again, do the Habs need to improve on the man advantage? Absolutely. But it isn’t everything, and it won’t be the primary reason this team doesn’t hoist the Cup should they not in the spring.


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