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NKB’s Notebook: Power Play Tweaks, DJ Smith’s Adaptability, and Getting Aggressive

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NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

After the Sens had yet another disastrous visit to Edmonton, they returned home and put forth two solid outings against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night and the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night. Here are a couple of things that I noticed over the course of the last week’s games:

  • Ian Mendes brought it up during Sunday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and I think it’s worth repeating here: slotting Drake Batherson and Tim Stützle on their off-hand sides on the power play has the potential to be an important strategic adjustment. There are two principal reasons to have someone on their off-wing on the power-play: to set up the one-timer and to open up passing lanes by changing the angles. Neither Stützle nor Batherson have particularly good one-timers (yet), so the bigger potential gain for the Sens is giving their two most creative offensive players the opportunity to make more dangerous passes. Stützle has already threaded the needle twice for primary assists that he would not have had the angle to make were he still on his strong side: once to Brady Tkachuk against the Edmonton Oilers, and once to Drake Batherson against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The pass to Tkachuk on the backdoor was made possible by Stützle holding the puck in a shooting position in the middle of the ice, and then using that fake to wire a pass through the seams. That play just isn’t available to a right-handed shot in that same situation. A right-handed shot holding the puck on their forehand is on the outside of their body and they can’t both threaten the shot and find that exact angle to the back door.

The pass to Batherson, the beautiful backhand pass you’ve probably all watched on repeat, is possible because of the toe-drag, again off a shot fake, to get around the Leafs’ defender and the top of the box. By getting to a soft spot on the ice, he draws more attention and then it’s all-world skill to find Batherson on the back door. Stützle is obviously a special player but the small tweak to put him on his off-wing has the potential to unlock a lot of playmaking options that just weren’t there in the prior configuration

  • The second item I wanted to touch on was DJ Smith’s adaptability as a coach. There are always going to be some disputes about line-up choices, but one area where I do think Smith deserves credit is his willingness to change things up if they aren’t working. With only a couple of exceptions, Smith has demonstrated that he’ll explore other options if a line, or a player, is struggling. Some of this has been forced upon him, his initial line-up choices were so disastrous that he had to do something, but it’s to his credit that he hasn’t doubled down like some previous Sens’ bench bosses might have in similar situations. Something I’ll be monitoring as the season goes on is whether Smith is willing to keep giving Joey Daccord starts even if Murray is healthy once again; in a lot of ways, this might prove to be the ultimate test of his flexibility — and a real challenge in how best to handle a delicate situation.
  • Speaking of Smith’s deployment choices, one tactical adjustment that caught my attention is the pairing of Chabot with either Erik Brännström or Christian Wolanin for offensive zone face-offs in the third period of games where the Sens are trailing. I noticed it a few times in the last game Brännström played, but it was really obvious in Monday night’s game against the Vancouver Canucks. Smith may not be totally enamored with either Brännström or Wolanin, but by now he’s recognized that they are his two best options to go along with Chabot when the team needs a goal late. Smith’s even been willing to break his normally iron-clad belief in keeping players on their strong side in order to do it. Is this a permanent change? It’s something I’ll be watching for in the weeks to come.