For the past two playoff runs, every playoff series preview piece on special teams here at On The Forecheck has been my duty. Special teams are fun; a game within a game. Back when I played college hockey, I was a special teams, well, specialist. They are a fascinating part of hockey that can turn the tide of games at the drop of a hat.
Unfortunately, the Predators are a vacuum sucking the fun out of being on the power play, a vacuum of goals, points, and good-old creativity. Conventional hockey wisdom claims that you need to be a top-ten power play team to have a chance at winning the Stanley Cup, and the last two winners did just that. With hockey being such a skill game, being able to capitalize on the advantage has become so much more critical to a team’s success. Eight of the top-ten power play teams made the playoffs last season, five of which won a round and three of which composed the majority of teams in conference finals.
The Predators own a 7-2-0 record but are not playing good hockey. There are such things as a “bad win” and a “good loss,” as everyone who has played hockey will tell you. A few of those seven wins have been “bad wins,” largely because of the failures to generate opportunities on the power play. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I would rather see the Predators do the little things right and get “good losses” than botch a plethora of chances in a “bad win.”
As obvious as could be, the power play is a key reason why the Predators are failing to play good hockey. Last night, the San Jose Sharks rallied to defeat the Predators 5-4. While many might focus on a tough high-sticking call on Viktor Arvidsson that was embellished, good teams don’t need excuses. The Sharks went 2-4 on the power play; the Predators 0-4. They had just as many chances, but did nothing with their opportunities.
Power plays do not get fixed overnight, especially one that is 30th in the NHL and only converts on 9.68% of their chances. However, there are steps both in strategy and personnel that the Predators can take to improve their power play. Here are five steps to take:
1. Use an Overload System with Filip Forsberg or Ryan Johansen on the Half-Wall
To begin, let’s establish the current power play lines, the PP1 and PP2. PP1 consists of P.K. Subban, Craig Smith, Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson. PP2 is composed of Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, Kevin Fiala, Kyle Turris, and Nick Bonino.
For those not familiar with what an overload or umbrella system are, I outline the basic objectives of each system in this preview from the Predators’ 2017 series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Predators currently run an umbrella system on each power play line, but only the first line seems to have found success. Even still, that success has come at a reduced rate due to predictability.
Now, every player at the high school level and above knows how to play each system, so the Predators are more than capable of swapping to an overload system. Naturally, there are strategic nuances at the NHL level that need to be navigated, but we know that the Predators can score from the half-wall on the power play. Johansen’s first goal as a Predators, in his very first game wearing the saber-tooth, was that exact play:
If Ryan Johansen could step right into the overload system on a new team and score, why can’t they run the overload with him there now? Or why not Filip Forsberg? If you’ve seen the Blues’ power play, you’ve seen how efficiently Vladimir Tarasenko navigates the half-wall. Filip Forsberg is a relatively similar player to Tarasenko with a worse shot but more creativity in tight spaces. Look at this classic Tarasenko set-up:
Both Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg should be more than capable of using the half-wall. Utilizing an overload occasionally or on the PP1 would be a change of pace that could catch opponents off-guard.
2. Remove Kyle Turris from Face-Offs
Although he clearly should be a member of the Predators’ PP2, Kyle Turris should never take a face-off when the Predators have a man-advantage. According to Puckbase, Turris is only winning 44.2% of face-offs this season. For a team that has typically dominated the face-off circle in recent year, Turris’ lack of savvy is eye popping.
Now, Nick Bonino has been a passenger rather than a contributor on the PP2, but his place could be solely justified by having him take face-offs in Turris’ stead. It also should not be a “left dot versus right dot” debate - Turris needs improvement in the circle regardless of which hand of the stick he is using. If the Predators lose the face-off and the opposition can dump the puck, that’s 20 seconds (18.3%) of the power play gone. Let Bonino take the PP2 draws, not Turris.
3. Find a Proper Role for Bonino, or Just Use Hartman
After the face-off, a lot of people have been wondering just what Nick Bonino is doing out on the power play. Bonino has looked lost, drifting about next to defenders with no clear, defined role or purpose. He has been unavailable for passes and a turnover liability.
The #Preds insist that Bonino is a power play center and I just can't even.— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) October 24, 2018
Now, is there a role for Bonino? Perhaps out of necessity. Since there are four forwards on the PP1 (which there should be), the Predators need to pick at least one third-line player for the PP2. Bonino appears to be the choice over Ryan Hartman, which I’m unsure if I agree with. However, running with Bonino, where could he play?
The Predators seem committed to the umbrella system so, within that system, he may fit in at the bottom of the umbrella right in front of the net. Bonino has a strong body with a large frame, so he doesn’t need to jump two feet in the air like Arvidsson to screen the opposing goalie. He’s used to the pushing and shoving in front of the net from his standard duties as a center back in his own zone, so he should be able to navigate the defensemen guarding the net.
The problem however lies with his turnovers, as Bonino simply struggles when the puck is on his stick. Should a shot from the umbrella go wide, can Bonino be trusted to corral the puck? From what has been shown so far, that answer is no.
Perhaps the power play would be better off with Ryan Hartman instead of Bonino. Hartman brings more speed and, although he may not have Bonino’s size, Hartman is a more tenacious player. The following clip is not from a power play, but demonstrates how great of an eye Hartman has for the puck in front of the net.
This next clip is a Hartman driving hard to the net and scoring. Although from his time with the Chicago Blackhawks, it shows his ability to dig hard and shovel pucks in.
Ryan Hartman would be just as, if not more effective than Nick Bonino in front of the net. Furthermore, he’s a better passer and has more poise with the puck. Swapping Bonino for Hartman after the face-off would greatly benefit the Predators’ PP2.
4. Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi Need to Keep their Shots Below the Knees
Every hockey coach at PeeWees and above has yelled at a defenseman to keep their shots low. When one shoots the puck high from the point, it has a greater chance of getting blocked by bodies (you have holes between legs, not arms) and being taken back for an odd-man-rush. As everyone knows, odd-man-rushes usually do not end well.
Now, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are smart players, so they have made adjustments to not have their shots blocked. They do a nice job at changing the angle of their shots. The problem is, they seem to rarely get the puck to the net, often shooting high and wide.
The pair could learn a thing or two from P.K. Subban, who has done a phenomenal job at keeping pucks low. In a preview last week for the Predators’ game against the Minnesota Wild, I wrote how Subban did the little things right:
“Subban does a phenomenal job of moving his feet and swapping positions with other people at the top of the “umbrella.” Furthermore, he’s always looking for low, hard shots from the blue line, which is the only kind of shot that should be coming on net from that far out. Pucks are harder to see and easier to reach goaltenders when shot low. Furthermore, they generate the rebounds that are so critical to beating the best goaltenders in the NHL. It comes as no surprise that P.K. Subban led not only the Predators’ defense, but the entire team in power play points. Hopefully we see fewer high shots from the points and more low, hard shots and backdoor ‘slap-passes.’”
Sure enough, later that night, P.K. Subban demonstrated exactly how to generate power play goals via shots from the point: a classic low, hard shot.
Subban’s second chance from the point is the shot that Craig Smith’s rebound goal comes from, but Subban’s first shot shows the lengths he’ll go through to keep his shots low. Look how he drops off-balance onto one knee to get the right torque for the low shot. Then, on his second shot, his fake and ensuing low wrist shot is perfect. Defensemen don’t need to fire one-timers from the point to beat a goalie, they just need to get low shots through to generate rebounds. P.K. Subban knows this and, accordingly, is significantly more effective on the power play than either Ryan Ellis or Roman Josi. Ellis and Josi need to keep their shots below the knees.
5. Rotate and Transition
This more or less applies to everyone sans P.K. Subban. The Predators are extremely stationary on the power play. Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis never move about the umbrella, instead squaring up at their points and just passing the puck around for the inevitable one-timer. This makes their power play extremely predictable and frankly easy to prepare against. The PP2 keeps the puck between one side of the umbrella long enough to get the far forward to bite on the middle-top point, and then quickly send it to the far side for either an Ellis or Josi one-time slap-shot.
The issue is that this has become so predictable that whoever “bites” only does so far enough as to still be in a position to recover and mark the “open” far-side. A lot of their one-timers are still hitting sticks in lanes from that top player.
One of my favorite all-time examples of umbrella transition movement is a simple play. All the play really boils down to is Victor Hedman swapping his position with Jonathan Drouin, a move not at all complex, but it changes everything. It baits Marian Hossa and Tanner Kero so far out of position that they cannot recover in time for Drouin’s shot (which, by the way, never comes above the knees):
Movement that simple can make such a difference, but the Predators refuse to even transition the slightest bit. For whatever reason, there is such an extremely high priority on having Josi and Ellis both having the one-timer available that they reject transitional play altogether.
Doing things like using the half-wall, changing out personnel, shooting the puck low, and transitioning more all could breathe some life into the Predators’ power play. They are all simple changes that, if made, could add a different look and throw opponents off guard.
However, the bigger change that needs to happen to rejuvenate the power play is an injection of creativity. Every power play seems static and predictable. P.K. Subban is the only Predator breathing new ideas into the dead, dry power play being used. Maybe the Predators are stuck and afraid to try something new, or perhaps Peter Laviolette demands they adhere to the plan in place. Either way, what’s happening on the ice is not working, and every power play looks the same as the one before. There is no unpredictability, nothing to catch opponents off-guard with. The above five suggestions will help, but, for the Predators’ power play to enjoy success, there must be a change of culture regarding its use.