Solutions To A Powerless Power Play

By JD Lagrange – Ah the power play, also called the man-advantage. For many years now, with different coaches, different players, it’s been an Achilles heel for the Canadiens. Just recently, fans wanted Kirk Muller fired because of it. Today, they want Alex Burrows fired for the same reasons.

After the game against the Minnesota Wild, the Canadiens find themselves 31st in the NHL on the power play. They have scored one goal in 21 opportunity with the man advantage this season after seven games, a shameful 4.8% success rate. Comparatively speaking, the Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers are clicking at an astonishing 50% rate so far.

Teams that should be competing with the Canadiens in the standings are doing excellent on their power play. How do you explain that the Chicago Blackhawks are third in the NHL at 35%, the Arizona Coyotes at 29.6% (6th) and the Seattle Kraken at 29% (7th) are amongst the league’s best on the man-advantage?

Historically bad

The power play issues don’t date from yesterday. In fact, have a look at the team’s numbers and rankings since the last lockout, when the NHL cancelled the entire season:


Before some try pointing to Marc Bergevin (to pile it on), know that in the past 30 years (since 1992-93), the Canadiens have had a power play success rate of 20% or more only six (6) times, and two of those times were under Bergevin. He wasn’t part of the solution for the power play, but he wasn’t the issue either.

Also, since the Canadiens’ last Stanley Cup in 1993, only four times have players reached the one point per game ratio. The last time that happened? 2007-08!

  • 1993-94: Vincent Damphousse (91 pts)
  • 1995-96: Vincent Damphousse (94 pts) and Pierre Turgeon (96 pts).
  • 2007-08: Alex Kovalev (84 pts).

Only two more times have players reached the 80 points plateau, both the same season: Damphousse had 81 points and Mark Recchi had 80 points back in 1996-97.

The reasons

Of course, having high end offensive players helps for the man advantage. Look at Colorado and Edmonton for an example of that. But I strongly believe that the success (or lack of thereof) on the power play is as much execution as it is about X’s and O’s. Admittedly, higher end players will execute more than mid-range players for sure.

Still, you can have very good strategies but if players make the wrong decision at the wrong time, if they fail to execute a simple pass, or fold under pressure, it’s on the players on the ice and not on the coaching staff. Burrows was good on the power play as a player in Vancouver and Martin St-Louis made a living lighting the lamp in such situations. They know how. They just can’t go there and execute for those who don’t.

There are a few predominant reasons why the power play isn’t working, in my humble opinion.

  • They are stagnant (not moving enough) and fold if pressured, making bad decisions at the wrong time, and easy to anticipate passes which are often intercepted.
  • Their zone entry is too predictable, therefore too easy for opposing coaches to come up with a plan to defend against. Same defenseman dropping the puck back to Suzuki in the neutral zone…
  • They use the ring around the boards passes too much, instead of tape-to-tape. It takes a second or two to retrieve a puck from the boards and regain control, giving the penalty killers time to put more pressure.

The solutions

There are as many strategies as there are coaches out there when it comes to special teams. It’s easier to fix a penalty kill than it is fixing a power play as you can’t teach goals’ scoring skills. You can teach defensive positioning. But let me humbly give it a shot, based on my no-so-professional observations but my long experience in hockey.

  • Quicker, tape-to-tape passes and more player movement, causing to be less static and predictable, while creating confusion in coverage for penalty killers.
  • Vary your play. In the past, they were always setting up Shea Weber for the big shot. Predictable. Now, they seem to always want a one-timer for Caufield on the left or a high shot from Suzuki on the right. Using the bumper players more would help.
  • Good teams on the PP don’t pass forever without taking shots. Two, three, fourth passes and there’s a shot. The more passes, the more room for mistakes (bad pass, bad reception, pass intercepted, etc).
  • More aggressive puck retrieval (rebounds), focusing more on possession.
  • Win your faceoffs in the offensive zone. This is a very underrated tool as you don’t need to go through the whole zone-entry ordeal.
  • Don’t be predictable in all aspects, but particularly in zone entries. Like in basketball, call a play on the fly based on the defense. Sometimes pass back for speed, other times use the stretch passes, or soft dump in to the corner on the weak side with everyone in movement, etc..

When the Canadiens’ young offensive players, and their young defensemen gain in experience, the power play should improve. They do miss Mike Matheson at the point currently, that’s a no-brainer. Someone, at some point, will have to step up their game on the power play. Ideally, more than one player. The issue isn’t X’s and O’s. They’ve tried multiple things. It’s time for players to earn their power play time.

More reading…

Pivotal Decision Coming For New Defense Coach

According to what he told the media just a few weeks ago, Martin St-Louis wasn’t planning on changing his coaching staff but it seems like he will have to after all. As the Chicago Blackhawks have reportedly made Canadiens’ former assistant-coach Luke Richardson their new head coach, St-Louis will have to start looking at resumes to decide who will be coaching his defensive core.

Richardson joined the Canadiens in July 2018 and he has since been the defense coach. He did an outstanding job replacing head coach Dominique Ducharme, who was sidelined with COVID last season.

Crucial decision coming

The decision for a replacement for the position is not one to be taken lightly. With the last trade deadline sending Ben Chiarot and Brett Kulak packing, and with the apparent soon to be departure of Jeff Petry, the Canadiens are in the midst of a serious overhaul of their defensive core.

Further, the organization counts a number of high quality prospects who are getting ready to start their NHL career. In addition to 22 year-old Alexander Romanov, who continues his development at the NHL level, the Canadiens have a long list of young defensemen who will be pushing for a NHL spot in the next couple of years:

  • Kaiden Guhle
  • Jordan Harris
  • Justin Barron
  • Otto Leskinen
  • Gianni Fairbrother
  • Arber Xhekaj,
  • Mattias Norlinder
  • Logan Mailloux
  • William Trudeau
  • Jayden Struble

Required qualities

So the new assistant-coach will have to possess many qualities that perhaps, Richardson didn’t necessarily need to have. For one thing, the trio of St-Louis, Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton want to create a more mobile, puck-moving type of defense than the bruising style the Canadiens had during their playoffs’ run just a year ago. And as mentioned above, they have started that process.

Here are a few of the qualities that could be required for the position:

Fast-tempo style:

As mentioned, the organization wants the team to play a more skilled, fast pace game. This means that from the defense stand point, the puck must move out of the zone quickly. This can be achieved with good, crisp passes and/or by skating the puck out of the zone when needed. The style of coach will have to blend in well with what St-Louis wants for the forward group, obviously.

Good communicator:

As you can see, the defense could get very young in a hurry. Today’s kids need and often respond better to coaches with good communication skills. They will not only need to know why they are or are not in the line-up, but will have to develop an affinity, a complicity with the defense coach.

Good with kids, development skills:

This goes without saying. Complementary to the communications’ skills, the new coach will have to live with “rookie mistakes”, and how to use those mistakes as a teaching tool for them to continue developing and progressing in their young career. With youth comes mistakes. You can’t have a guy who will toy with the kids’ confidence and natural abilities. Most will agree that benching them after a mistake is not the way to go.

Special teams:

The Canadiens’ special teams has been awful for many years and if there is one area that has not improved since the arrival of St-Louis, it’s the man advantage and while playing short-handed. The power play and penalty kill needs new ideas so adding a new assistant-coach with a fresh outlook, with a track record of success, will be very important for the team to have any kind of success.

There is a sense of excitement about Martin St-Louis as a head coach and the names should be pouring in to fill that position. So there shouldn’t be a shortage of excellent candidates to fill the hole left by Richardson in the organization. The Canadiens need to get the right person for the job, as it will determine a lot about the future of the team’s defensive core.

More reading…