• Washington, Yakupov and the Lessons of Lupul

    by  • February 3, 2014 • Hockey • 26 Comments

    Since the start of the 2012-13 season, Alex Ovechkin has scored 31 power play goals. He leads the NHL in this during this time. Chris Kunitz, who is second in that time period, has 21 power play goals. Ovechkin isn’t just leading the league, he’s crushing the competition.

    I’ve been fascinated with the Capitals PP over the course of the last two years. They were a top ten power play in terms of shot attempts for in 2012-13 and are top five this year. They’ve led the league in GF/60 at 5v4 in each of those two seasons. They are a shining example of the sort of PP that you’d hope that the Oilers could have for, oh, the next fifteen years or so.

    One of the things things that catches the eye when you go through what the Capitals are doing at 5v4 is what a neatly defined system they have that creates clean shots, frequently with the goalie moving, for their best shooter, Alex Ovechkin. I’ve gone through and grabbed shots of about 20 or so moments before Ovechkin goals. I’ve tried to grab the moment of the last pass, although I was a little slow on the trigger a few times.

    If you don’t watch the Capitals a lot, here’s what you should look for. The Caps play a 1-3-1 at 5v4. The main unit revolves around four players set up to the goalie’s left. They’ve got a left handed shot below the goal line, a left handed shot on the boards, a right handed shot in the slot and a right handed shot on the point. Then they have Ovechkin, over to the goalie’s left. Ovechkin, of course. shoots right so he’s on his off-wing there.

    As you go through these, there are two things that you should note. First, note how the Caps generally manage to suck the opposition’s two forwards and the left defenceman to the side of the ice on the goalie’s left. The right defenceman is generally defending nobody in front of the net. He can’t abandon the front of the net to put heat on Ovechkin because he needs to be there if the Caps attack the net from the goalie’s left. The forward in the slot requires the attention of the right sided penalty killer. The other forward is occupied with the defenceman and the Cap on the boards.

    The net result is that there is absolutely nobody defending Ovechkin. There’s basically a 4v3 created with the four Caps to the goalie’s left, the two opposing forwards and the left D. The right D is kind of a useless appendage – he’s stuck in a position where he doesn’t contribute a ton to the defending of the PK because of what will happen if he wanders. As you go through these pictures, pay attention to how much space this is creating for Ovechkin before he shoots. In particular note how you could basically draw a line from the goal post nearest to Ovechkin right up the middle of the zone and have nobody but the right defenceman on Ovechkin’s side of that line.

    (You can’t see Ovechkin here but he’s backdoor.)

    I don’t think I can be accused of cherrypicking here – we’re talking about 70% of the goals that Ovechkin’s scored since the start of 2012-13 at 5v4, which, in and of itself, is more 5v4 goals than any other player in the NHL has scored. Ovechkin’s knocked home a few rebounds, scored off a few faceoffs but this is his bread and butter.

    Sportsnet’s Chris Boyle has noted that it’s not just goals – the Capitals are phenomenal at getting Ovechkin shots from this spot on the ice. Boyle’s fine piece (which you should all read) contained a fantastic graphic showing how Ovechkin’s 5v4 goal binge of the past calendar year has been built around getting him shots from a good spot on the ice and forcing the goalie to be in transition as he tries to deal with the shot.

    It’s pretty evident from that graph how concentrated the spots from which Ovechkin shoots have become. It’s a very narrow area. This lines up with the images that I posted showing the moment before the shot – the Capitals have a player who’s elite at shooting the puck and they structure their power play in such a fashion that he gets a lot of high quality shots.

    It strikes me that this is a power play that works for the Capitals for a couple of reasons. First, they’ve got a guy with an elite shot/release in Ovechkin. Get him the puck, particularly with room, and he can score. This is probably the hardest thing to do – there are only a handful of guys who are that good at shooting the puck in the NHL.

    Second, they create shots for him in such a way that the goalie is moving when Ovechkin releases the puck. They do this by passing the puck a greater distance to him. If, for example, Ovechkin’s shots were coming off passes from a defenceman who was at about the centre of the blue line, the goalie has much less distance to come, which he can do quickly while opening fewer holes. You people are smart and can probably guess where I’m going with this so I’ll tip my hand a little bet – I would bet that if I had the average pass distance before shots that Nail Yakupov took at 5v4 this year, it would be a lot shorter than this. Go back and look – the goalie is frequently being forced to come all the way across the crease from the far post.

    This is linked up with the importance of the majority of the puck movement taking place to the goalie’s left. By separating Ovechkin from the rest of the players like that, they create that opportunity for the pass that forces the goalie to move all the way across. If Ovechkin was playing the right point or playing in the slot, he’s not going to face as many goalies who are moving. If the Caps were set up on the same side of the ice as Ovechkin, he’s not going to get to face goalies who are moving. The goalie moving opens up the holes for him.

    Third, I think the handedness of the players matter, maybe more than even the skill of the individual players, although Washington has a lot of wonderfully talented guys at 5v4. Look at the guy below the red line to the goalie’s left, who I think is usually Nicklas Backstrom. A left handed shot, he can go through the slot to Ovechkin, into the slot to the forward there, to the half boards or the point, all on his forehand. If he’s a right handed shot, his angles for the forehand pass across the crease to Ovechkin are limited.

    Similarly, if you go through, you see a lot of right handed shots on the point – I assume that these are mostly Mike Green and John Carlson. A left handed shot either has to make the pass to Ovechkin on his backhand or move his feet, giving the goalie time to adjust to where the shot is coming from.

    The right handed shot in the slot is kind of obvious. He’s in a position to one time passes from the man below the goal line or coming off the right boards. If he’s a left handed shot, he can’t do that. Similarly, having the left handed shot on the boards means that he’s on his forehand going into the slot or cross-ice (without needing to adjust his feet as much as a left shot D would) or with a pass to the forward below the goal line. Everyone is kind of naturally in the best position to make the plays that they’re likely to have to make.

    One of the problems with the Oilers this year has been their power play. After 25 games where things went pretty well, it’s been a complete disaster. In their last 33 games, the Oilers have played 203.9 minutes of PP time, scoring 5.0 PPG/60 on 41.2 PPSF/60. It’s like the terrible power play that we’ve seen for, oh, a decade or so.

    It strikes me that there’s a lot that the Oilers could take from the Capitals’ PP. I don’t know how familiar they are with it – the Oilers don’t see the Capitals all that often – and I don’t know how much time teams spend scouting what other teams around the league do and looking for ideas that they can steal.

    There’s a bit of a problem though. The Oilers’ personnel don’t really fit with the power play. Or, at least, the people who they seem to think should be on the ice don’t really fit with the power play. Edmonton’s encountered this before. In 2006, the Oilers traded for Joffrey Lupul. Lupul was kind of sold as a big piece of the puzzle, a guy who could play PP1 minutes and contribute. It was a disaster.

    Part of the reason that it was a disaster was because there wasn’t really a spot for Lupul. The Oilers PP ran through Hemsky. Smyth had the gig in front of the net locked up. Hemsky liked to be on the left boards so he wasn’t going to be giving pucks to Lupul in a position from which Lupul could shoot them quickly. Hemsky had 25 points on the PP that season – only one of those goals saw Lupul get a point. Lupul got one PP point every 10.1 games that season; for his career he’s scored a PP point every 4.7 games. A lot of his inability to fit in Edmonton (on the PP at least; I have other grievances) was that he didn’t fit with the pieces that the Oilers had. He was more skilled than some of those other pieces but he didn’t complement the main pieces.

    The Oilers are a bit weird with the PP because they’ve got a collection of pieces that don’t entirely fit. Nail Yakupov is, by miles in my estimation, the guy with the best release on the team. Hall’s not bad either. They both shoot left. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is, by virtue of his skill and draft pedigree, The Puck Handler on the first PP unit. He shoots left.

    The two guys I’d most want shooting the puck from any distance (we’ll come to Eberle), neither is well suited to receiving and releasing passes from Nugent-Hopkins. As far as right handed shots go, the Oilers don’t really have any forwards who shoot right and can hammer the puck. Hemsky’s not a triggerman. Eberle is more of a deceptive shooter. Gagner isn’t a big gun. Neither is Justin Schultz.

    It seems to me that the challenge for the coaching staff is to find a way to assemble five guys who can create a ton of high quality shots rather than getting the guys on the ice who seem like they should be out there. The Oilers do have a bunch of guys who shoot right who can handle the puck and are gifted passers. None of Hemsky, Gagner or Eberle are hard shooters but all are good passers who can thread the needle.

    In a way, RNH almost seems like the sand in the gears – he has to play on PP1 because he’s a great passer but the Oilers don’t really have the players who complement the hand that he shoots and where he wants to play with the puck. The Oilers seem to get into a rut with this because they want RNH out there and then Hall should be on PP1 because he’s a first overall draft pick and it just doesn’t seem to work. Hall ends up kind of wandering around, there’s no real shooting threat from the point…it just doesn’t seem to have much in terms of how you can see it succeeding. It’s hard to see what they’re trying to do, which is kind of the opposite of Washington’s PP, which seems set up with the killer threat on the far side and then a bunch of guys in a position to use it or shoot themselves.

    It strikes me that the Oilers could, however, cobble together a pretty good looking group of players into a sort of mirror image of Washington’s power play. Imagine what something like Eberle below the goal line, Hemsky on the right boards, Belov on the point, Hall in the slot and Yakupov on the far side of the ice would look like. It’s a mirror image of Washington’s PP and although Belov’s a guy who’s been in and out of the lineup, he can shoot the puck and would be put into a position in which you could see him succeeding.

    PIeces of this have worked at times this year. When RNH was injured early in the season, Hall and Hemsky played together at 5v4, with Hall in a role similar to what I’m suggesting.

    Hall’s presence there kind of creates the space for Justin Schultz to shoot, leading to the goal. What I’m describing is different but still.

    Yakupov’s only scored one sort of structure goal at 5v4 this year – the rest are rebounds – it was off a longer pass that forced the goalie to move, although he was set before Yak shot. To my eye, there’ve been a lot of shorter passes to Yak, resulting in shots into a goalie who was set or shots off his back foot.

    (The crazy thing about that goal isn’t evident from this replay but the puck was bouncing around as it crossed the ice.)

    One thing I’ve been cognizant of with Yakupov this season is that the coaches have been using 5v4 time to try and coax him into doing things at 5v5. I’ve been a bit reluctant to criticize his usage on the PP as a result. There are some cases where there are soft issues and people outside just don’t know enough to have a well founded opinion as to why.

    The thing is, even if they’re on some sort of carrot/stick system with him, the PP’s just not good enough. What they’re doing doesn’t work. Combine that with the need for some sort of good thing to happen over the final 30 games and maybe it’s worth looking at. There has to be a way to assemble the pieces of the Oilers PP and get better results than we’ve seen to date.

    Email Tyler Dellow at tyler@mc79hockey.com


    26 Responses to Washington, Yakupov and the Lessons of Lupul

    1. Marko
      February 3, 2014 at

      A great read! I have been trying to work out Ovechkin’s secret for a while, thanks for the clear analysis. Oilers need their own overarching game play. With all that talent, surely they can cobble up something that works.

    2. speeds
      February 3, 2014 at

      With that in mind, how would you feel about 2 units something like:





    3. Conrad
      February 3, 2014 at

      What a great post. As an Ottawa fan who often sees Bobby Ryan in the role of the wandering Taylor Hall, I wonder if they could adapt this model and give him some space to shoot. The other player with a similar release from that spot is Spezza (who only seems to generate points on the PP).

      However, all of Ottawa’s chips are pushed in on Erik Karlsson, who seems to both play the point and jump up into the play constantly. It doesn’t create the conditions for Ryan to predict where the pass is coming from and get set up.

      Also somehow related is that Ottawa has the second most short-handed goals against this season. Edmonton and Philly tied for the most.

    4. Benhur
      February 3, 2014 at

      Very interesting analysis Tyler! Good job! I would like to see this formation with Hall in the slot. I also think you could have Yak and Hall the shooter with Yak at times in the slot. He does have the quick hard release you need in this spot.

    5. Benhur
      February 3, 2014 at

      I think in general that NHL PPs are too static. I would like to see more setups and constantly changing formations like you have in basketball. Players cutting across the ice disrupting penalty killers, setting up picks to create clean shots, etc. I’m not sure why this is not attempted …to difficult????

      • Anon
        February 3, 2014 at

        And because picks are penalized in hockey.

    6. Brad
      February 3, 2014 at

      Really cool breakdown. For whatever it’s worth, the Backstrom spot on the Caps’ top PP unit (to my eye) changed between last season and this season. Last season Ribeiro was the QB on the boards/RW spot, with Backstrom on the goal line. This year Backstrom has taken over as the QB on the boards/RW, with Johansson (or Grabovski or Erat etc.) on the goal line. Personally I like this setup better; Backstrom is the Caps’ best guy for long passes, and the player on the goal line really only needs to be able to make short passes either to Ovi for back-door chances or to the player in the slot. Of course the two left shots on that side of the ice are free to rotate and swap as needed. Bonus points if the player on the goal line is a credible stuff-attempt threat, and when Grabovski’s been there he’s shown an ability to slide down in front of the goaltender when appropriate to screen point shots.

      How that translates to the Oilers’ potential setup I’m sure you know far better than I, though from the outside it certainly looks like Hemsky would be an excellent LW/boards QB player. Is Eberle the guy for the goal line if you need some extra passing to relieve pressure? Is it Gagner? Regardless the pieces should be there to try it all.

    7. PopLoserTwit
      February 3, 2014 at

      Very cool. I’ve been saying for years teams should be sticking a guy on Ovechkin and take their chances 4v3. This makes me think the defensive system should be every more specific – stick a forward on Oveckin, and then let a defensemen stick tight to the Caps guy in the slot. Use the other two PKers to fill in passing lanes between the remaining three Caps (basically Backstrom and the two D). If the Caps can beat you 3v2 from one side of the ice, so be it. But I bet you cut down on those quality chances a ton more than you give up.

      • Jay
        February 3, 2014 at

        It’s funny that randy Carlyle did just that when the leafs faced the capitals earlier this season. Shadowed ovechkin so all the caps had was Carlson shooting from the point. Nothing came of it.

        Anyway, great article here Tyler… The oilers really need to learn to maximize their assets – hopefully they see his article.

        • Saj
          February 3, 2014 at

          Yeah I noticed that too. The Caps seemed to have no idea what to do as the Leafs assigned one PKer to do nothing but prevent a pass to Ovechkin. Still, it’s a nice problem for the Caps to have (now that they have had time to adjust to such a defence), as a 4 on 3 is still a better scoring opp than a 5 on 4.

          • capsyoungguns
            February 3, 2014 at

            If handled correctly by the other Caps PP players shadowing Ovechkin should leave more time and space for them to convert.

            In last night’s game against Detroit on the 5 on 4 PP Detroit’s strategy was to shadow Ovechkin heavily. But Ward in the slot converted on the first one and Carlson from the blue line on the second. Although Ovechkin had a golden opportunity in one of the 5 on 4 PPs described so well Dellow’s piece. The Caps had the Detroit goalie Howard needing to slide over to defend Ovechkin’s shot but though Ovechkin had a wide open net he shanked the puck high and it hit the post. On the 4 on 3 OT PP they couldn’t cover Ovechkin and he scored. From his classic Ovi spot.

            This analysis by Dellow is fabulous. Gave me insights beyond what I already know about the PP. And Backstrom is definitely just as key to when it really works. His passing his sublime. But only Ovechkin stays out for the bulk of the PP. Johansson often subs in for Backstrom if they don’t score immediately.

            • PopsTwitTar
              February 3, 2014 at

              “shadowing Ovechkin should leave more time and space for them to convert.”

              thats why you have to pin a guy on the man in the slot. that leaves the 3 remaining caps on the outside and at the blue line, all on the same side of the ice

    8. February 3, 2014 at

      Before you even mentioned it, just from the pictures I made note of the handedness of the players being used and how perfect they were based on their position on the ice. Oates has their PP set up like a grandmaster playing chess. Great catch on your part.

      • Capsyoungguns
        February 3, 2014 at

        Great analysis and great read. Just fabulous. JP at Japers’ provided the link. I thought I knew the Caps PP very well but even knowing Oates’ fetish with handedness and how it impacts the players’ roles on the team, I didn’t realize to what extent it was key to making the PP function.

    9. D. Sullivan
      February 3, 2014 at

      Thanks for this nice analysis of what Caps fans have been watching all year, the Ovi shot from the Ovi spot, and how Oates’ coaching sets it up. I don’t think this plan is so easily replicable for other teams though – the key is Ovi’s great one-timer.

      For another example of exactly what you described – long pass to open Ovechkin, goalie has to move, watch the GIF of Ovi’s 4v3 OTGWG v Red Wings yesterday, here. (3rd GIF from the top).

    10. SJF
      February 3, 2014 at

      Outstanding read. Great insight into the Caps 5v4 dominance of the past 12 months-ish.

      Who wants to play the name game on the handful of others that can play Ovie’s role in this beauty PP setup?

      Kessel could, that RH shot is dynamite. Corey Perry. Stamkos. A few more I’m likely forgetting…

      • Owain
        February 4, 2014 at

        Great post as ever Tyler. I noticed a bit of this watching the Caps-Wings game on Sunday, but you’ve really broken down the mechanics of it well.

        I was thinking about Kessel (or Lupul for PP2) for the Leafs as well, but trying to work out how the other players would distribute themselves is a bit harder – particularly the leftie below the goal line.
        Doing a reverse of this would be more difficult, although Kulemin’s got a wicked shot (and even Phaneuf if you’re feeling brave/desperate) could do the job.

        You’re right to mention Stamkos too. I’m pretty sure TB does try to get him a lot of shots from the same areas as Ovi.
        Hope there’ll be a few of those going in in Sochi.

        • February 4, 2014 at

          Kessel isn’t really a one-timer kind of guy. The PP1 is working well with him as the set up man and occasional trigger man but Lupul could work as the isolated one-timer I think.

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    13. Curtis
      February 4, 2014 at

      How about we get rid of the coach?

      Eakins Toronto Marlies PP rankings /30 last 4 seasons:

      09/10: 28th
      10/11: 25th
      11/12: 27th
      12/13: 19th

      They were 2nd in 08/09 and 8th this year.

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    15. Ken
      February 5, 2014 at

      Great synopsis. One aspect you didn’t mention is the advantage the Caps have by having Ovechkin shooting on most goalie’s weaker stick side. As a old goalie, I know coming over from my glove to stick side is not nearly as quick or accurate as moving to my glove side. Knowing this, I believe the Oilers will definitely benefit from your suggestions, but they will still be at a bit of a disadvantage than the Caps system. But anything will help :)

    16. Dennis Laurie
      February 5, 2014 at

      Solid analysis. Problem analyzed, alternative identified, solution proposed.

      Since the Oilers probably don`t crowd source their tactics (probably a good thing, but no so good in this case), the next question would seem to be this: Why can`t or won`t the Oilers`coaching staff get this right, or at least better than present?

      That analysis might be outside the scope of this here site (prove me wrong?). I think Alan Hull on Lowetide’s show today had it right: If the Oilers’ coaching staff can’t get this right, someone (plural?) on it should lose their job.

      They have an embarrassment of offensive talent to deploy, the benefits of modern video and streaming technology, a rich owner to finance scouting and analysis outside the salary cap, and a legion of fan analysts (of varying quality, of course). But the embarrassment seems to be the powerplay (in this example; not the only embarrassment). There’s no good reason for the Oilers not to have a top 10 powerplay at the very least.

      No reason but incompetence, I think.

    17. dawgbone
      February 17, 2014 at

      I think RNH makes perfect sense as the guy in the middle of the 1-3-1. He’s got a decent shot of his own and gets it off quick, so he’s ideal to have to pick up loose pucks in that area.

      But yeah, Hall, RNH and Yak all being LH shots is a bit of an issue trying to set up a PP system where your 2 best shooters get quality looks.

    18. Cynic
      February 18, 2014 at

      I believe this is the single greatest post I’ve ever read on an Oilers-related website.
      It analyzed not-Oilers in a careful, level-headed way.
      And then took what we’ve learned and tried to apply it to the Oilers in a realistic way.
      I am seriously blown away.

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