After three days of scrimmages, the attention in Nashville Predators training camp turned back to drills, focused exclusively on special teams as the team prepares to open their preseason schedule tomorrow night against the Carolina Hurricanes at Bridgestone Arena beginning at 7 PM.
With the team divided into an early (9:30) and late (11:30) session and each session broken down into two groups (power play in white, penalty kill in blue), head coach Barry Trotz lead the workouts focusing exclusively on the power play personnel while associate head coach Brent Peterson instructed the penalty killers from the bench and Milwaukee assistant coach Ian Herbers guided the men in blue on the ice with assistant coach Peter Horachek taking care of coaching the power play personnel individually when they were not actively participating in the drill.
Was there reason for optimism that the power play could improve this season? After the jump, I breakdown a few of the key areas of concern from last season and tell you what, if anything, appears to be underway to address them.
Watching the team from training camp through the final game of the playoffs last season, several areas in particular stood out to me whenever the referee raised his arm and put the Predators on the man advantage. The issues began with the opening faceoff, which was moved into the offensive end of the rink to provide the power play with an extra advantage, but seemed to become a disadvantage for Nashville as they lost the opening draw and had to go back and carry the puck up the ice 200' again before they could even mount an offensive attack. Then there was the lack of cohesion on the power play breakout that seemed to struggle not to trap the attackers at the blue line and force a dump-in with no one moving and in a position to succesfully retrieve the puck. Finally, the issues all came to a head when once the team got set up in the zone with possession, everyone stopped moving and stood still leading to an easy kill for the opponent and forced passes by the Predators.
Thankfully, after watching today's practice session I can tell you that I believe the Predators are on track to addressing some of these issues and, that assuming they continue to practice in the same fashion, there is reason for optimism if you are a fan of the team.
Trotz in Charge
Yes, it would seem like the head coach of the team should always be in charge of the team, but that is not always the case and commonly with all teams at all levels responsibilities are delegated to the assistant coaches to run an area of the team just as a football program has an offensive and defensive coordinator under the head coach or a baseball team features a pitching and batting coach under the manager.
Today there was one man in charge of the power play personnel and that man was clearly Barry Trotz. Trotz spent the afternoon very actively instructing the power play personnel on everything from positioning to strategy and even had the coach going in front of the net a couple of times to demonstrate a skill to the players.
After seeking input from all over the organization regarding the power play last season, Trotz had said this summer that he would be taking a more active role in the special teams department and I was glad to see him as active as he was on Day 1 of special teams instruction.
Winning the opening faceoff to start a power play means that the team has control of the puck and a full 2:00 to work it around for a prime scoring opportunity. Last season as a team the Predators won only 49.3% (252 wins vs 267 losses) of the faceoffs during their power play opportunities. This meant that the Predators started their man advantage without control of the puck on over half the time and were wasting precious seconds of the power play attempting to get it back and even bring it back into the offensive end of the ice if it was cleared. (Note from Dirk - typically, teams on the power play win 55% of draws)
Gone is Jason Arnott who lead the team taking a total of 215 of the Predators 511 draws and winning only 48.8% of his faceoffs as the center on the top power play unit. With this change comes new opportunity and with this season's arrival of Matthew Lombardi from Phoenix, where he won 54.8% of his faceoffs on the power play, and an increased role from second year forward Colin Wilson, who won 53.8% of his power play draws in limited action last season, there is hope that a simple change in personnel and not a major overhaul will help the Predators improve on their shortcomings in this aspect of the power play.
Breakout and Zone Entry
I'll be honest, the breakout is the same from last season and there is no change there, but what was refreshing to see was that the team warmed up running 5 on 0 full ice breakouts and was actually running full-ice power plays with breakouts and regroups for a good 30 minutes of practice to end the day today.
While there were some kinks in the timing and a few breakouts that got sloppy as the ice deteriorated, the Predators attacked with speed on most rushes taking what the defense gave them, where able to retrieve pucks that were dumped in when the penalty kill stood them up at the blue line, and even featured a few nice goals coming off the initial attack in both the early and late sessions of practice.
The change to be excited about here though is the fact that they were working full ice during the special teams practice. In previous seasons, unfortunately, I can not recall the team using the full ice for more than a few breakouts before dividing the rink into two halves and working on the power play from a half-ice set with the power play generally getting control of the puck on the halfboards or off an uncontested faceoff. My hope is that the team will continue to run full-ice special teams practices throughout the season (not necessarily exclusively) to continously address the breakout and offensive zone entry aspects of the power play and insure that the team sees more opportunities this season than last.
"Standing on X's"
It's a phrase I learned from former New Jersey Devils assistant coach Dennis "Red" Gendron at a USA Hockey Level IV Coaching Clinic a few seasons ago and it directly refers to the lack of movement by the offense on special teams. When the offense stands still (like stationary "X's" drawn on a diagram) it makes life easy for the penalty kill because there is no movement which means that the passing and shooting lanes remain in the same positions and as long as the defense has a man standing there and there is no movement by the power play, then they can insure that the options are limited for the offense.
Today the constant mantra of Coach Trotz to the power play was a mixture of "keep moving" and "everyone moves" whenever the offense seemed to stagnate and begin to stand around looking for options. And move they did with all five men moving in sync, creating new passing options, and keeping the penalty killers on the go which lead to more and better scoring opportunities.
Not to harp on him because one man was not the cause of multiple years of power play futility, but again it must be pointed out that with the departure of Arnott (who excelled when he was able to find a quiet spot in the defense and set up to blast his one-timer) and the additions of Lombardi and Wilson to the power play should lead to more mobility on the ice and potentially create new opportunities for the Predators man advantage to exploit.
It was refreshing today to see some new approaches to the power play worked on in practice today and if these trends continue to be worked on throughout the rest of camp and into the season, when combined with the changes in personnel, I think I can safely say that there is reason for optimism that the team should improve their results on the man advantage this season, but only time will tell...
The team returns to camp today with the roster for tonight's preseason exhibition going through a morning skate at Bridgestone Arena beginning at 10 AM and the remaining players scheduled to practice at Centennial Sportsplex beginning at 12 noon. Remember, for updates throughout the day from Predators training camp at Centennial Sportsplex, please make sure to follow my Twitter account (@SLakePreds).
To keep up with all of our coverage of the Nashville Predators, you can subscribe to the RSS feed, follow us on Twitter (@Forechecker, @predatweeter, @SLakePreds & @Short_Shifts) or catch the site on Facebook.