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 firstname.lastname@example.org