The 2015-16 Senators finished their campaign with the 26th ranked power play in the league. Tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Vancouver Canucks for third-last in the NHL, Ottawa’s 15.8% scoring rate on the man advantage wasn’t even close to the 18.7% league average.
For a team that boasted by far the best offensive defenseman in the game in Erik Karlsson, one of the deadliest releases in the league in Mike Hoffman and a trio of creative, playmaking options in Mark Stone, Bobby Ryan and Kyle Turris, the lack of success didn’t seem to add up when strictly looking at the players on the ice.
As the season dragged on, it was the general consensus that the problem lied with the game plan - or lack thereof.
It seemed the Senators had an idea of how to enter the offensive zone and how to get in formation, but exercised minimal strategy beyond that. This resulted in the five attacking players standing still far too often and, in turn, failing to work the puck around and find scoring opportunities.
Take the short sequence of events below for example.
We saw this play many times under Dave Cameron’s Ottawa Senators.
Because he and his four other teammates are at a standstill, Hoffman only has one option: shoot the puck. Justin Abdelkader is blocking the path to Karlsson, Riley Sheahan is doing the same to that of Mika Zibanejad, and Zack Smith and Stone are really only good for screening Petr Mrazek.
So Hoffman shoots. And in all honesty, that’s never a bad choice, but from a standstill at the top of the circle near the boards, it doesn’t generate a high percentage shot.
Yes, that is just a few seconds of the 402 total minutes the Senators spent at 5-on-4 last season, but the biggest reason for their downfall on the man advantage.
Fast forward to today, and the previous lack of direction has done a drastic 180-degree turn.
From the very beginning, Guy Boucher was determined on improving the Senators power play.
“...I like an accelerated power play – that’s the way that I’ve been teaching it for 20 years. It’s been 20 years now that I’ve been doing power play. Power play is more than anything else, details. The minute details matter for power play for me. So I need to talk to the players. I need to be on the ice with them. I need to recognize what I want. Which guys are great for what I want? So it’s hard for me to look at last year’s power play and go, ‘Okay, I would do this and I would do that.’ I have an idea, definitely. I know what I want to do, but to be out here and say that I would do something different, I think it’s wrong on my part to do that. I have a plan. I’ve always had success with it and I’m planning on having success again...” - Guy Boucher. May 9, 2016. 6thsens.com
Accelerated. That’s the key word.
From what we’ve seen in preseason play, Boucher strives for a power play that has nearly every player moving their feet at all times, utilizes quick passes, and because of those two qualities, gives the puck possessor an array of options when closing in on a scoring chance.
We’re going to look at three different plays during exhibition games that perfectly display why Boucher’s strategy is going to improve the Senators’ offense this season.
On all three plays you’ll see movement from the players set up on the half wall. They are the two most important puzzle pieces in every play. Their movement up and down the length of the offensive zone is what gets the defending team out of place and opens up opportunities to make a pass across the slot or take a high percentage shot.
Derick Brassard and Bobby Ryan are the two players on the half walls in this instance.
At this point in time, the Senators formation has opened up two options for Brassard. He can either shoot the puck at a relatively good angle and range or he can lay it off to Hoffman at the point for a one-timer. But because he intends to keep his feet moving, and so does Ryan, another option presents itself.
Brassard and Ryan both converge on the net at the same time, and while Brassard gets a little lucky with his pass deflecting off a Montreal stick, Ryan has a wide open cage for his first goal of the preseason.
Now, let’s look at two plays that start from the exact same place in the offensive zone, and while using the same system and formation, turn into two completely different scoring chances.
Hoffman receives the puck at the corner of the blue line and everyone moves into position. Hoffman passes the puck over to Karlsson, who begins to skate down the half wall. Hoffman and Ryan quickly dart into their rightful spots.
Right now, Karlsson has three options. He can take a clear shot at the net, pass it over to Turris, who is converging in on the net, or he can drop it back to Hoffman at the point.
He chooses to launch the puck across the ice to Turris, who is still moving in on the net. But Karlsson doesn’t stand still. He lets his momentum take him down the half wall and glides closer and closer to the goal. Turris now has three intriguing options. He has a clear shot at the net, a wide open Hoffman for a one-timer and a creeping Karlsson for a tap-in.
Turris elects to pass to Karlsson, and though the attempt ricochets off Brassard’s foot, the Senators have created a play that, in the end, gave Turris four high percentage options. He could’ve passed to Ryan down by the net in hopes of beginning a quick tic-tac-toe passing play, taken a shot at a helpless Fredrik Andersen, passed back to Hoffman for a one-time or do what he tried to do and pass to Karlsson, who was streaking in.
On to the final play.
Hoffman picks up the puck in virtually the same spot as last time. And like last time, quickly throws the puck over to Karlsson, who is moving in from the blue line. Hoffman jolts into position at the middle of the point.
Karlsson now knows exactly what he wants to do. He keeps his feet moving and drags William Nylander out of position in order to give Hoffman a tonne of free space when he elects to drop it off to him at the point.
At just the right moment, Karlsson drops it back to Hoffman, leaving the Senators’ sniper with a large piece of open land ahead of him. Pageau keeps moving in, attempting to give Hoffman another option.
Hoffman has two choices here. He can either lay it off to Pageau for a one-timer or he can carry his momentum further towards the slot and use his crafty release to deceive a thrice-screened Andersen. He elects to shoot.
On the slow motion replay it showed Hoffman missed the top corner by mere inches.
From all the above, we can determine the shape Boucher intends to use, the routes he wants his players to run on the half walls and a couple of set plays he will utilize.
The poorly constructed visual above shows the structure we’ve seen from Boucher so far. The players form a diamond-plus-one shape, the players on the half walls move in and out to keep the defending team’s box irregular, and the pointman scales the blue line.
The other aspect of Boucher’s game plan that will help improve the Senators’ power play is simply the players he intends to put out on the ice. Cameron’s first unit was always changing personnel and trying odd combinations.
What has the Senators new coach started off the year with?
First power play unit: Stone-Brassard-Ryan with Hoffman-Karlsson on points. #Sens— Bruce Garrioch (@SunGarrioch) October 6, 2016
That’s right, the five most skilled players on the team. Exactly what a No. 1 power play unit should be made up of.