The problem with the Capitals’ power play


(Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

There was a lot of optimism about Washington’s power play when Adam Oates was hired as head coach, especially around his idea to switch to a 1-3-1 system during the man advantage. Early results indicate it appears to be working.

Last season, the Capitals scored 41 goals on 245 power-play opportunities (16.7 percent, 18th best in league). This year they are converting at 24.5 percent, tops in the NHL.

The idea behind the 1-3-1 is to get the puck closer to the net and have greater traffic in front, forcing the penalty killers to focus on those skaters (F3, F4) while opening up the shooters on the half walls (F1, F2). A defenseman (D1) mans the point to create four triangles, which conceivably gives the unit plenty of options, forcing opposing penalty killers to guess where a pass will end up next.

But despite the success and improvement, is the Washington power play too one-dimensional?

The Capitals have averaged almost six minutes per game with the man advantage. The main unit for Washington consists of forwards Alex Ovechkin (4:50 PP TOI per game), Nicklas Backstrom (3:51), Troy Brouwer (3:35) and Mike Ribeiro (3:34). Blueliners Mike Green (4:26) or John Carlson (2:44) most frequently man the point.

As a quartet, the forwards have accounted for more than 35 percent of Washington’s power-play time on ice (per DobberHockey). Only Pittsburgh ranks among the top five power-play units with as much of a disparity.

Ovechkin is thriving in this system. He is 9 for 44 on his power-play shots so far and already has as many goals off of slappers (4) as he did last year in 49 fewer games. But aside from the Great Eight, not much else is going on.

Nicklas Backstrom, previously one of the main facilitators on power-play tallies, has one primary assist this season (during last night’s 4-0 win over Winnipeg) after seeing nearly 57.7 percent of his power-play assists as primaries. Most of that is a function of his station along the right half wall (F2), where his choices are:

  • Make a low-percentage pass across the ice to a shooter on the left half wall (F1, usually Ovechkin) for a one-timer.
  • Pass to the man in the slot (F4) or down low (F3), both of whom are in close proximity of defenders.
  • Pass to the defenseman at the point (D1), who have just 24 shots and nine assists as a group. Plus, with only one player at the blueline, the defense is completely exposed if there is a turnover (Carlson is 19th among defenseman in giveaways).
  • Take his own shot, of which he has attempted just 10 so far this season (including misses), and hope it lights the lamp or creates a rebound.

Speaking of rebounds, where are they? If we consider a rebound to be the second shot on net within two seconds of the original shot without any stoppage of play, then Washington has generated a grand total of four during the power play so far this season. Three shots (Brouwer on his own rebound, Ribeiro tip-in and a Marcus Johansson wrister) plus this goal by Mathieu Perreault:

To recap:

  • The first power-play unit, as a group, has seen a lion’s share of the time during the man advantage.
  • Backstrom, who gets the second most power-play minutes per game among the team’s forwards, is not putting many shots on goal and has limited options for low-risk passes.
  • Defensemen are largely playmakers in this setup, but the Washington blueliners have just nine points between them — all assists. Carlson and Green have four of those.
  • Four rebounds have been generated, and three of those have been as a result of Brouwer’s shots on net.
  • Ovechkin has scored 9 of the team’s 25 goals (seven of which have been a result of either a Ribeiro or Brouwer pass) and has taken more than a third of the shots. Brouwer is second highest with 16 percent of the shots on net.

You tell me: Is Washington’s power play one-dimensional?

greenberg
Neil Greenberg, when he isn’t watching the games, analyzes advanced statistics in the NHL and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd. Follow him on Twitter: @ngreenberg.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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