The last time we checked in with Coach Bob Nielsen, he told us how a Diamond Penalty Kill should operate and what the Oilers could do to make their failed experiment successful. He was so informative in helping us to understand short-handed play, we went back to the well to see if he could help the Oilers out on the power play.
Bob Nielsen has been coaching hockey at some level for 28 years. He maintains one of the most knowledge-packed hockey sites on the internet, a vast coaching resource free to anyone at www.IceHockeyDrills.info. It's an enormous library of videos, explanations, techniques, tactics, tips and advice. Nielsen maintains the site for the good of the game:
I maintain that site in an attempt to help other coaches run better practices with drills that work players and keep them excited about practice. I don't charge for the information nor do I make any money from the site. I do it for the love of coaching and the hope that I can in some small way help someone else be a better coach for our game.
As a long-time proponent of running the power play from behind the net (seeing Gretzky do it with such ease tends to have an influence on a person), I wondered if the current crop of Oilers could utilize the old trick to help improve a power play ranked 22nd in the league over the last three seasons. Linus Omark is a magician behind the net and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is tabbed as the next great playmaker, so it seems like the Oilers have the personnel to make a Behind The Net Power Play successful. So I put the question to Coach Nielsen. Can a high-level team enjoy success with the Behind The Net Power Play?
Copper & Blue: What are the tactical advantages of running the power play from behind the net versus the more traditional umbrella, overload, or running it from the half-wall?
Coach Bob Nielsen: I have to be honest and say that I personally don't see any real tactical advantage to this set-up. I think that this type of set-up was used years ago because it was the "thing" to do and certain players like Gretzky were able to make it work. One advantage you may have had then is defensemen turning their backs to the players out front while they are looking behind the net, but today's players are smart enough to know they have to be looking around.
C & B: What sort of personnel grouping is best-suited to running the power play from behind the net?
Coach Nielsen: If I were to run the PP from behind the net I would want someone who is exceptionally skilled at protecting the puck and passing through tight seams. Players up high who can get off one-timers and guys down low who can fight for position in front of the net.
C & B: What is the learning curve like to learn a behind the net power play for a group of players with backgrounds in the more traditional power plays?
Coach Nielsen: I think all players who play on the PP understand how to play below the goal line and behind the net. Using the low cycle is a standard play when on the PP for most teams and it isn't unusual for a player to stop behind the net to try and draw a defenseman below the goal line to open up an area of the ice in front. So I would say there is no real learning curve if a coach would implement a PP that sets up behind the net as the standard formation.
C & B: Is a certain type of coach, or a coach from a certain background more likely to use a behind the net set up?
Coach Nielsen: This is hard to answer. I would think a coach who has his/her roots in the old fashioned game might be more inclined to believe this is a formation that would help their team. I sense that it would be unusual for a younger coach to employ this tactic because they likely wouldn't have seen it too often growing up.
C & B: Are there any significant disadvantages compared to the aforementioned traditional power plays?
Coach Nielsen: I would think the initial disadvantage is the fact that you have one player parked BEHIND the net, which will force you to go 4 on 4 in front of the net and basically take away the tactical and numerical advantage of the power play.
C & B: Do the long reaches of some of the larger NHL defensemen factor in to the disadvantages?
Coach Nielsen: I would say yes, but I think more the intelligence of todays' players is what really factors in the most. You are unlikely to get players to chase behind the net or get out of position because by the time a player reaches the NHL they are so well trained on how to play the game they don't make a lot of mistakes. I know a young man who came through our AAA system and last year played a game for the Islanders and last week I was speaking with him about the difference between playing D1 and AHL and then NHL. He said the biggest difference between D1/AHL levels and the NHL was that every player knew exactly where to be on the ice without talking about it all the time. He said it was instinctual for the NHL level player to be solid on his positioning. I also think that one of the keys to a good PP is movement and if you lock a guy behind the net it will limit some of the movement of the other players because every angle isn't available for a pass because the net gets in the way.
C & B: If you were coaching against this power play, what sort of penalty kill would you use and would it require any significant tactical changes to your system?
Coach Nielsen: I have to admit I have never faced this type of set-up so I can't be 100% sure of my tactics, but I think the first thing I would do is make sure my players didn't chase behind the net. I would then drop my high forwards a little lower to help defend the inside lanes from cutters through the slot. I would make sure the strong side defenseman takes the man coming out from behind the net and the weak side guy controls the front of the net. With good positioning we would force the puck carrier to move the puck up high and not in front.
C & B: If only one team in the league were using the behind the net set up, would it create an advantage, since each team only sees that set up once in awhile, or is it a disadvantage because each team gets video from 28 other teams trying to stop it?
Coach Nielsen: I think it could be a small advantage but as I've said above, I really don't think it would help in today's game, but.......if one team did deploy this tactic and really stuck to it, it could cause a little confusion the first time a team plays against it. As with any PK defensive tactic, if you see the PP on tape over and over and know what they are going to do, you still have to come out and execute your defensive plan against that PP.
C & B: Long-time Edmonton fans are certainly familiar with "Gretzky's Office", but in my recollection, the last team that ran the power play from behind the net was Jacques Lemaire's Minnesota Wild. Why don't more teams use it?
Coach Nielsen: I personally think it comes down to being a dated tactic, much like the wishbone offense was once popular in college football. Eventually good coaches learn how to defend against popular tactics and can make it less successful and eventually an unreliable tactic. Now, as in everything, you can never say never and maybe one day some coach will add a small wrinkle to the tactic and bring it back and once again it will become popular.
C & B: All things being equal, if you have the proper personnel grouping for each type of power play, which should be the most effective, in your mind?
Coach Nielsen: That's a good question. I don't know that any one specific PP formation is better than another. I believe what makes a power play successful is the ability of the players on the ice to move the puck quickly to open space and recognize when a good shot is available. I personally run a modified umbrella type of PP and rely on the forward on the half wall to be able to "see" the ice and make good passes. Every coach has his preferred PP formation and each has its pros and cons, but all have the same thing in common. If you have skilled players who are unselfish and can move the puck quickly you will have a successful power play no matter what formation you run.
We are indebted to Coach Nielsen for his time. Check out Coach Nielsen's instructional materials and videos at www.IceHockeyDrills.info
Follow Coach Nielsen on Twitter @CoachNielsen