Flames Film Room: One simple change that will help the power play succeed

Let’s talk special teams. The power play is always going to be one of the most important, and criticized units on a hockey team. It is the perfect storm of expectation. They feature a team’s best players with a numbers advantage, and as a result, any struggles appear as a lack of effort.

So far this year, the Flames’ power play has been the definition of averaged, sitting currently in 15th place in the league, converting at 21.1%. They find themselves smack dab in the middle of the league, and that was after a positive start to the season when the power play came out swinging.

The numbers were helped the other night by two goals with the man advantage, on route to a 3-0 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. But in the victory, the Flames’ power play allowed three high-danger chances against and only had three themselves. Last night against the Leafs, the power play unit went scoreless in three chances.

the rundown

The quick and dirty on the Flames’ extra man unit is that it always features Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk. The one defenceman has been rotating recently, but the unit has spent the most time this season with Rasmus Andersson at the helm.

Here is a quick breakdown of the stats so far from the first unit.

Player PP TOI PP Goals PP Assists
Gaudreau 89:07 4 4
Tkachuk 82:31 3 5
Lindholm 83.39 2 7
Monahan 77:13 2 3
Andersson 71:45 1 4

The two numbers that jump out to me are Gaudreau leading the way scoring, which is surprising only because he is more thought of as a passer. And the other is Monahan, who has struggled to score outright. This is in large part because of his terrible shooting percentage so far this season, something that is expected to change as the year goes on. But there are also some structural issues that might be hurting Monahan and how Calgary sets up the power play, that I will address later.

That structure is usually the following: Like the rest of the league, the Flames use a 1-3-1 setup. This set up features two half-wall players, one on either side. It also features a point man, a net-front player, and a “bumper” player who usually has freedom to find space for himself in the middle of the offensive zone.

Calgary has been changing it up recently, but the most frequently used set ups include Gaudreau and Lindholm on the flanks, with both on their natural sides (that is to say, not on their one-timer sides).Tkachuk spends most of his time as the net-front option, Monahan is usually the bumper, and Andersson mans the point.

The second unit has consisted mostly of Dillon Dube, Andrew Mangiapane, Milan Lucic, Mikael Backlund, and Mark Giordano. Dube has two goals to lead the way on that unit.

Holy Trinity

Triangles play an important role in the strategy of most team sports. Think Kobe Bryant and the triangle offence in basketball, or the constant series of triangle making that goes on in soccer. The strategy gives the puck (or ball) carrier multiple options for a pass, but relies on constant movement of players away from the puck in order to consistently generate new passing lanes.

This strategy works so effectively for a number of reasons. First, it is much faster to move the puck than it is for a defender to move to cover the new puck carrier. And second, it is the easiest way to attack two defenders with three offensive players. This gives the puck carrier time and space to make the next move. It relies on the puck carrier being able to either shoot or pass the puck, both of which are at the heart of the best team’s power play units.

In looking through the best power plays in hockey, there are important triangles at the heart of all of them. Of the top ten units in the league at the moment, every single one of them use what I am calling the Holy Trinity. This is a triangle between the net-front player, the bumper player, and the half wall player.

Now, every team has this, but the defining feature of the Holy Trinity is that the bumper and the net-front player must be of opposite hands. This seems like a small detail, but it is a huge factors in facilitating the puck into the middle of the ice, and into the bumper player, one of the most dangerous plays in hockey.

Most of the best teams on the man advantage build their Holy Trinity around the player who runs the power play and makes a lot of the decisions with the puck. Note that the person who is the big shooter, often isn’t the focal point of the Holy Trinity. For example, the Washington Capitals build their unit around the trinity of Niklas Backstrom (half-wall), right handed T.J. Oshie
(bumper), and left handed Jakub Vrana (net-front). The trinity is NOT built around Alex Ovechkin, despite the fact that everyone knows where the puck is going.

This set up gives Backstrom a multitude of options. As a lefty on the half wall, he has everyone at his disposal. He has easy passes to the point, and to the net-front, where Vrana can easily slide to the side of the net, protect himself from the defence by keeping his stick to the outside, and then two one timer opportunities inside to Oshie, and cross seam to Ovechkin.

The same thing is true in Buffalo, where Jack Eichel has the puck the lion’s share of the time. This was a goal from their game on Saturday, that provides a great view of the options you have when the hands are all lined up properly.

Eichel is on his one timer side. This lets him survey with the puck and not be rushed. In front of him, he has three one timer options, between Taylor Hall, Rasmus Dahlin, and Victor Olofsson (off-screen). Sam Reinhart does a great job here as well showing how when lined up properly, the net-front player can switch easily between being an outlet, and getting to the net. The defence has to respect the Hall one timer, and Reinhart finds a seam.

Of the top ten units, Toronto, Washington, Dallas, Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, Florida, and Tampa Bay all use this set up, with the handedness set up to form a Trinity around the primary puck holder. Carolina essentially has two net-front players between Jordan Staal and Vincent Trocheck, who both play low and look for double screen actions, but they do shoot opposite hands. Edmonton is unconventional, with the handedness better set up for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins than it is for Connor McDavid, but superstar talent will always help cover up handedness issues.

Even still, the fact that the Oilers have the right hands in the right place lets them do things like this:

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The Holy Trinity makes this goal happen, with help from a pretty slick pass from Leon Draisaitl. This strategy works because Nugent-Hopkins is equally able to take the shot or make a pass from the dot. When he passes it down low to Alex Chiasson, he could take a sharp angle shot, go for the wrap around or make the pass up front to Draisaitl, which he opted to do. When Draisaitl got the puck, he could have elevated a shot, but found a wide open McDavid wide open who buried the puck into the empty net.

Breaking it down further, as soon as that first pass was made, the Canucks’ defenders were out of position. All four guys scrambled to cover. Tyler Myers knew he had to defend for either the pass or the shot. Because hockey passes move faster than skaters can, as soon as the puck gets to Chiasson, Myers is already a step behind, forcing the rest of the defenders to cover. Jordie Benn throws his body in the way to no avail and Quinn Hughes is forced to push over to that side of the ice to support.

But this play only works because Connor McDavid is able to move down from the point, behind the play right to the front of the net for the chance. Just watching McDavid (97) moving down through the play allows for that pass to even be an option, and this play led to the Oilers tying then beating the Canucks.

It was a five on three, but the Canucks used the Holy Trinity perfectly the other night against the Flames.

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In this play, J.T. Miller has three options: pass to Bo Horvat, pass to Brock Boeser, or take the shot himself. Chris Tanev was forced to defend against all three option. He opts to block the shot, but the first pass moves faster than he could recover. From there it was all over for Tanev, Horvat’s movement in the slot allowed him to get open for the final pass, and put it right into the Flames’ net from right in front of the net

It is obvious that most of high end teams have the talent that will make their power plays excel. But one interesting thing about a lot of these groups, is that they often feature surprising names that one might not expect. These unexpected names almost always fill spots in the Holy Trinity. Vrana in Washington is a good example, but he is joined by Nick Ritchie in Boston, and Ryan Carpenter in Chicago as other guys who currently fill a important roles on their units despite not being household names.

so, what changes?

Turning to the Flames, their handedness does them no favours, and needs to be optimized. The Flames power play runs often times through Gaudreau. This makes sense, given that he is a great passer, and Elias Lindholm on the backside is the club’s best shooter.

But consider when Johnny has the puck. As a lefty on the left side of the ice, it is difficult for him to swing the puck through the point, so he is frequently going downhill. This puts Matthew Tkachuk in a difficult spot. As a left-hander himself, it is very hard for him to be an outlet for Gaudreau. He can keep his back to the goal and take the pass on his backhand, but that leaves him with few options. He can stay in front of the net for the screen, but then Gaudreau has no outlets.

By any measure, it will be very difficult for Tkachuk to get the puck back into Sean Monahan. Monahan is a three time thirty goal scorer, with essentially no way to get the puck in a dangerous spot. If Tkachuk were to be switched with a right hander like Josh Leivo, Brett Ritchie, or Glenn Gawdin, they would have a much easier time setting up Monahan.

Conversely, the same problem exists on the other side of the ice. Lindholm can dish to Tkachuk, but Monahan has no ability to one time the pucks he gets from Tkachuk. He can use his quick release, but not nearly to the same extent as he could the other side. In other words, when both guys are the same hand, it doesn’t work either way.

Perhaps easier than switching the net-front player would be to change the bumper. Monahan is an elite goal scorer, who seems to get no respect from anyone. If there is a player on this team who can catch a cross seam pass and get it off quickly, Monahan has the release to do it. What if the Flames put Monahan on the left half-wall, with Lindholm in the bumper spot, and Gaudreau on the right flank.

They actually rolled into a similar look for a brief moment recently, albeit with Gaudreau and Monahan flipped. Notice the triangle at the end of the clip, between Monahan, Lindholm, and Tkachuk. The Holy Trinity.

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Then last night, there was a brief moment that saw Lindholm occupy the net-front position.

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This play did not work out, but I like the look. I think Monahan might have been open for a brief moment, and Lindholm likely would have been better off taking the puck across the crease on his forehand. Regardless, I like the trinity set up, and this is something to build on.

To take it a step further, if Gaudreau was on the other side, he could run the power play with options. He has an easier pass to Rasmus Andersson, who would have an immediate one timer. I love it when Andersson shoots and anything that facilitates that more is good with me.

He would also have an easier pass down to Tkachuk, who would now be on his good side of the ice. From there, Tkachuk would have the ability to feed it into the bumper, or look through the defence to the point man. They actually scored on this look recently. The clip is also a good example how its hard for a lefty bumper, as Tkachuk as to maneuver a lot to get to the net. Luckily Monahan found a great pass through the zone.

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If he does tee up Lindholm, that is a great look for the Flames. Another option is Monahan sneaking back-door. Lastly, he can make a strong move across the crease, something that is nearly impossible on his weak side. And finally, Gaudreau can find Monahan back door, perhaps lower than the half wall play normally would be, where Monahan can take the passes and roof them. That is what he’s good at.

This system would work effectively, but it relies on three things that the Flames need to work on. The first is sharp crisp tape-to-tape passes on the power play, the second is strong off the puck movement from their skaters, and the third is having five guys who are willing to take the shot.

Triangles rely on defensive uncertainty. Defenders need to be worried that the puck carrier at any time could either shoot or pass, and as such makes them defend one, leaving the other option open, or attempt to double team a player, leaving yet another guy open. If the Flames can move the puck more succinctly in the offensive zone on the power play, it will go a long way to create more successful looks.

This look makes sense to me:

Turning to the second unit, the easiest solution is to sub any of the team’s right handers into the bumper position. Leivo seems like the safest bet, assuming he can keep himself in the lineup. It wouldn’t fix everything, but adding in a right hander would help the flow a lot, and make the middle of the ice way more dangerous.

so much to do, so little time

It is important to note that this isn’t a solution that will fix everything. The Flames have struggled with their power play breakout and entries, and they are trying to create without having a top tier shooting threat. But it is something that all of the successful teams are doing, and the Flames can make it happen without too much disruption into their unit.

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