Sometimes, you write the same article year after year.
The Nashville Predators, again, have one of the worst power plays in the NHL. After 11 games, they convert power plays to goals only 11.1% of the time, only better than the Detroit Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks, and Minnesota Wild. That’s one out of every nine chances with the advantage being converted.
While that number is certainly jarring on its own, it also must be taken into the context of how miserably the power play has performed the last three seasons. Cumulative across all regular season games since the start of the 2018-19 season, the Predators have the worst power play in the NHL. In those 160 games, the Predators have averaged a 14.7% conversion rate with the man advantage. So, if it feels like this story is old, yes, this is a persistent issue for which no remedy has been found.
Of course, the coaching staff has tinkered with the power play, but to no success. Former Head Coach Peter Laviolette eventually changed the unsustainable success of the power play in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final run. The power play those playoffs relied on an umbrella formation with 5’9” Viktor Arvidsson bunny hopping at the perfect time to take away a goaltender’s eyes while Ryan Ellis one-timed a shot from the top of the left circle. It was an unreliable strategy that worked briefly before revealing that Ellis’s shot was not elite enough to beat a goaltender with that consistency when Arvidsson was simply moved out of the way.
Accordingly, the 6’6” Brian Boyle was brought in to replace Arvidsson on the power play, to simply be a massive body in front of the net, but the power play still floundered. The Predators were plagued by poor shot selection, taking countless slap shots from the top of their umbrella formation that were easily blocked instead of lofting tippable wrist shots towards the net. Moreover, their heavy reliance on the umbrella system meant that they never moved the puck towards high-danger areas, an issue that hasn’t died with the new coaching change to John Hynes.
That’s not to say that the umbrella system—which is still the primary system used by the Predators—is impossible to make work. While it’s outdated and outclassed by a number of modern hockey power play systems, numerous NHL teams still use it to great effectiveness. Take this goal by the John Carlson of the Washington Capitals the other day:
While it absolutely helps to have the greatest goalscorer in NHL history on the power play, it isn’t through Alexander Ovechkin’s own doing that the Capitals are second in the NHL in power play percentage, converting 40.9% of their opportunities. The Capitals took the base form of the umbrella, modernized it (look how deep Carlson is in the zone compared to where the Predators take their shots), and made it work with the skillset of their players, giving them the opportunity to succeed.
Ultimately, this is why the Predators’ power play fails, because the players on the Predators are not given the opportunity to succeed based on their skillsets. So, instead of focusing on what the Predators lack in an umbrella system, let’s look at what skillsets define the Predators and some systems that work with those skills.
Up and down the Predators’ roster, there are phenomenal passers. Be it Forsberg, Josi, Johansen, Granlund, you name it, when this team is on the same page, they can make incredible passes. Moreover, the Predators are also fairly good at protecting the puck once they gain possession. When they settle the puck down in the offensive zone, the Predators do a decent job at remaining poised and keeping their heads on a swivel, always looking for that next opportunity.
Unfortunately, for an umbrella system to work, you need at least one player with a truly elite one-timer. While Viktor Arvidsson is great at riffling slap shots on the rush, the only player on the Predators with a one-timer at the caliber needed for this system to work is Eeli Tolvanen, who’s only played in one game this season. I doubt you’d find many people outside of Nashville who would claim that the Predators have a player with a top-20 one-timer in the league. It’s simply not part of their toolkit, but the system remains from the days when Shea Weber was still on the team.
The problem with this lies in the fact that an umbrella power play inherently generates low-scoring chances far away from the net. The farther away from the net one shoots the puck, the better and stronger the shot has to be to retain its effectiveness. It’s a basic concept—shoot close to the net, and the goalie will have less reaction time. The umbrella relies on one-time shots from the edges of it and low, hard wrist shots from the top. Those shots all typically come from above the circles. You need to have an elite shot to make those pucks find the net from above the circles, and the Predators don’t have an elite shot.
That’s okay—there’s no hard and fast rule that a team has to have an elite shot to have a successful power play. It just means that an umbrella system is maybe just the wrong setup. The coaching staff is relying on their players to perform a skill that they aren’t elite in, so the power play unit isn’t being put in a position to succeed. That’s not the fault of the players in any way.
Take these shot heatmaps below comparing the Nashville Predators’ power play with that of the Colorado Avalanche. The Predators actually have a higher expected goals per 60 than the Avalanche, but the Avalanche have the 9th-best power play in the NHL, while the Predators languish at 27th. PDO plays a role in this, as the Predators could be considered unlucky, but it’s also incredibly important to note where the shots are coming from on the ice.
The Avalanche do a significantly better job at not taking low-risk shots. That also has to do with them not running an umbrella. Nathan MacKinnon is a top-three player in the NHL, but he provides more value controlling play rather than being the go-to shooter. Without another heavy, elite shot, it wouldn’t make sense for the Avalanche to run an umbrella, so they chose not to. The Predators should follow that example.
If not the umbrella, then what should the Predators consider as their power play setup? Well, they can pass and posses the puck well, so let’s look at two systems that reward those skills.
First is another traditional power play setup, the overload. The goal of the overload system is true to its name, as the team on the power play hopes to overload one half of the offensive zone with their players.
Most overload systems have one player below the goal line, one low on one side of the boards, one player in front of the net, and then two defenders up at the blue line. If a line were drawn connecting each player, nearly the entirety of either the left or right side of the offensive zone would be covered, while the other half would be empty.
This system gives teams a lot of options. A common play is operating a give-and-go between the player on the boards and the player below the goal line. The defenders both need to have hard shots, but more importantly they need good puckhandling skills. Of course, the player in front of the net is there to net as many garbage goals as possible.
While it’s important with any system, it is imperative in the overload to be constantly moving. The moment an opponent is sucked in to the player with the puck, passing lanes are open. If an opponent is being sucked in to the puck-handler while rotating with a teammate, a quick drop pass can easily result in a lopsided 4 on 3 or a dynamite give-and-go scoring opportunity.
The overload could work wonders for the Predators for a few reasons. To start, the Predators are a great passing team, and this is a system with a lot of options. It’s fairly easy to predict where a pass will go when defending against an umbrella, so it neutralizes one of the Predators’ best skills. Moreover, it’s easy to imagine Filip Forsberg as the man on the half wall working a give-and-go with Ryan Johansen working as a distributor below the goal line. This whole power play would flow through Forsberg, the most creative player on the Predators, which is exactly what a power play should do. Finally, the defenders are able to creep a bit lower in the zone compared to the umbrella, meaning they are put in better positioning to fire a one-timer if that becomes an available option.
The second system that would show off the Predators’ skillset is the increasingly popular and hypermodern behind-the-net power play. Behind-the-net systems look kind of like an umbrella, just with that center tip of it behind the net and with the defenders spread out as opposed to forming a straight line perpendicular to the top of the umbrella.
The system flows through the player behind the net, who has to be a great passer and puck protector, but not necessarily someone who shoots the puck. If you’re thinking this would be a perfect role for Ryan Johansen, you’re right. The behind-the-net system is incredibly intriguing, because whoever is behind the net has no option to shoot the puck. This is why the system is traditionally bucked by hockey minds, but playing with the puck primarily behind the net has two key benefits.
First, a behind-the-net system will inherently draw defenders deeper in their own zone. That means that the team on the power play is free to move further into the offensive zone than in other systems. Once a pass is made and a shot is attempted, the odds that the shot is medium or high-danger is significantly higher than in an umbrella system.
Second, just because a player is behind the net doesn’t mean they can’t crash it once another player attempts a shot. In addition to their passing and possession skills, the Predators are actually fairly decent at digging for those “dirty goals.” Behind-the-net systems ensure that at least one player is always near the net, ready to dig for rebounds and other second-chance opportunities.
Quick, pinpoint passing makes the behind-the-net system work like clockwork, and the Predators have an abundance of players with that skill. It too, like the overload, is tailored to the Predators’ skillset.
Head Coach John Hynes has kept the power play relatively intact, but it is clear that what is intact is a broken system that fails to put the Predators in a position to succeed. It’s no mistake that the Predators have the worst power play in the entire NHL over the last three years. The quickest fix to the power play is not waiting and hoping the Predators master the umbrella when they lack the skills necessary to do so; the quickest fix is to adopt a system that is tailored to their skillset. If the coaching staff was to develop an overload or behind-the-net system tailored to the Predators’ skillset, the Predators could finally become a dangerous team on the power play.