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The Powerplay

Watch for it

Edmonton Oilers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I was in denial about summer ending for a very long time, but it’s getting very difficult to continue ignoring the changes. The shadows are getting long, the sun is going down early, and I’ve managed to gain 20 pounds in four months due to nothing more than beer consumption.

This happened last year too, but not to this extent — it was maybe ten pounds last year. Now comes the serious question: Do I do something about this? Or do I just embrace having a gut? There is a certain respect a man has while rocking a gut. If you’ve ever been on a construction site, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about. A man in his mid-40s with a gut, walking at you with authority, is far more intimidating than a tatted-up juice monkey. This guy is making no effort to hide it, he’s prioritizing subtly showing everyone around that losing that gut is far from his top priority, and he’s willing to use it as dominance. Gut Dominance. He’ll stand belly-to-belly with anyone as he screams and points at another guy with an identical build. If you ever want to know who’s in charge, look for the guy with the roundest, and most protruding gut. No one is questioning his experience of knowledge.

On the other hand, having a gut isn’t all that ideal. It makes getting out of a chair an issue, it’s harder to tie you shoes, and quite frankly, it’s pretty embarrassing. I’ve been on the skinnier end my whole life, so so far, I can keep sucking it in (as long as I’m standing), and no one is any the wiser. I’m definitely at the try-to-hide it phase, far from the point where it’s an asset. As a result, I’ve been limiting my beer intake to one night per week, and have already lost a few pounds. Hopefully it continues. Maybe when I’m in my 30s I’ll start embracing it, but for now, it has to go. At least until next summer.

Unlike a gut, certain things have no advantage by being unhealthy. One of those things, is a really crappy powerplay. We saw it last season as the Oilers finished dead last with a 14.8% conversion rate. Now, the conversion rate is a stat that I think leaves a ton of information on the table, it hardly accounts for trend, and it most certainly doesn’t tell you a damn thing about good process; In this case however, it was 100% accurate.

There are a lot of stats around the NHL, lots of them tell you more than you need to know, but the special teams have almost become neglected as plenty of statisticians have focused their work on various WAR/GAR regression analysis algorithms. I assume they focus there with the goal to land an NHL job making peanuts, for a team that won’t listen to them anyway. Regardless, the powerplay is an almost untapped market. Sure, there are models that show danger chances, you can cross examine those chances by looking at each individual player’s shot percentage as a measure of shooting talent, but still, that doesn’t tell you how the play happened. It does nothing more than tell you the end results. Also putting all that data together, and interpreting it with some form of certainty, takes significantly longer than just watching a two minute powerplay.

Or, read this excellent piece if you like data visualization. Thank you Conq for bringing it to my attention.

I find a much faster and simpler way to see how a powerplay looks. It’s not shots, it’s not zone time, and it’s not possession, it’s a special pass that you can easily watch for.

I’m not about to sit here and tell anyone that there is a correct way to watch a hockey game, because that would be the most arrogant and ridiculous thing I’ve ever said —and that includes what I said about gut dominance in my intro. However, I will tell you what I, personally, look for. It might not be the best, and I’m more than open to critique, but if you have some trouble with the X’s and O’s of a system, my way might help. It’s really simple.

We’ve seen Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and Patrik Laine score these tremendous powerplay goals over and over again, and they all have a few things in common. The obvious parts are the one-timers and the elite shooting talent — those aspects can be attributed to the players. The Oilers don’t exactly have one of those players at their disposal, and a lot of blame rightfully gets put on management for that, but watching powerplay highlights doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s also a possibility that Jesse Puljujarvi’s fantastic shot is capable, but we haven’t been given the opportunity to find out.

When you see highlights of these players scoring seemingly at will from the circle on the powerplay, the first question has to be: Why is no one covering them? This is where you’ll start to notice the differences beyond shooting talent that all these teams have, vs what the Oilers did last season.

The ultimate point of a good powerplay is scoring a goal, to get a good chance at scoring a goal, you have to get that pass across, to do that you need movement in order to take advantage of the extra man on the ice. What the Oilers did last year was a very sad scene. There was almost no movement going on by anyone not name Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Even what they were doing wasn’t right. In that system, once they were in the zone with possession, the two stars were running your standard half-wall cycle. Leon and Connor would switch positions between below the goal line and the half wall, while making 3-foot passes to eachother, while not a single other player was moving. It was way too easy to defend against that. The one defender would just have to watch them do that, and not over commit. While the other defenders on the ice would just cover the other three players and wait for a fumble. When all it takes is one player to defend against two on the powerplay, they’ve effectively eliminated any advantage they had with the extra man. The Oilers may as well have had Patrik Laine or Alex Ovechkin on the other side, because they would never be able to get open, and never be able to get that shot off anyway, under that terrible system.

The royal road pass.

The Royal Road is the most important pass in hockey, it’s impossible to have an effective powerplay devising a scheme to get that pass across. In order to do that, you need chaos. You need all five players on the ice moving, and preferably touching the puck on occasion. The path to doing that is to make a defender over commit, once that happens, others have to cover and turn their bodies toward the puck carrier. All it takes is one. Once that happens, the other attackers on the ice have ample opportunity to get open, take a pass, cause the defenders to scramble and have all the attackers switching ice positions frequently. Even if it’s just by a few feet, it changes the angle of the pass, and makes it very hard for a defender to know what direction the carrier is going to send the pass. It just happens to be hard to know where your man is when you have you back to them.

This is a five minute video of powerplay goals. Not all of them come with the perfect set up, but the ones that do are the once that end up being top of the league in conversion. The scoring plays almost all start the same way, a long pass from the point to the corner, defenders turning around to chase the puck, and an open royal road pass. Even when a goal doesn’t happen off of plays like this, it’s very good process and leads to high quality chances.

All it takes is small changes. The Oilers weren’t doing anything to draw in defenders, the point men would touch the puck very infrequently, and never in a position to create danger, or force defenders to make decisions. It was a very bland powerplay that could never make a defender turn away from their coverage. Very disappointing.

Now that the Oilers have a fancy new special teams coaching staff, we might see these things. I’m pretty convinced that all it takes is some movement, and a change in the just let McDavid and Draisaitl have it the whole time plan, to open up that royal road, the goals will come. At the very least, it will be a lot more exciting.

Whether you’re trying to lose weight, save money, or fix a powerplay, it’s the small changes that make all the difference. If you’re doing it right, and track things accordingly, you won’t become frustrated with any of these changes, and it won’t actually feel like you’re doing all that much differently. Not to the point of impeding your experience anyway.

So that’s what I look for: The Royal Road pass on the powerplay. Once you recognize it, it’s very easy to work backwards to understand how it happened, or why it didn’t. It’s something that I really hope the coaching staff notices (I’d also like to see one of the stats enthusiasts start tracking that instead of useless fake stats like ‘Estimated shot assists’). Also, maybe it’s time to get Jesse Puljujarvi on the other side as the trigger man. You know, just in case there’s a way to actually get the pass going, he’s got a great shot.

This piece was inspired by Sunil’s thoughts