Coach Adam Oates spent the past six days throwing as much work on new systems and strategy as he could at the Washington Capitals. The first-year bench boss is instituting a new style of play, with plenty of new directives for every player on the roster.
The power play, however, is one area not being overhauled. Rather, Oates is making subtle adjustments to how the Capitals execute it.
“Seems to me the Capitals PP has been in place for a long time and I’ve always thought it was correct, so we’re not gonna change it,” said Oates, who worked with the power play during his two years as an assistant coach in New Jersey. “They’ve always had the pieces in place and it’s always kind of been the model for a lot of teams, myself included.”
Since the Capitals’ power play sat atop the NHL with a 25.2 percent success rate in 2009-10 it has steadily declined, and last year finished ranked 18th with a paltry 16.7 percent effectiveness. The core of Washington’s power play — Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green — remains the same, and with a few tweaks, Oates hopes to find consistency with the unit once again.
The most significant change Oates is introducing is a 1-3-1 alignment, where one player primarily patrols the point, with three across the middle and another around the crease.
Based on the drills the Capitals ran in practice this week, the first power-play unit will include Green at the point, Ovechkin on the left half-wall, Troy Brouwer in the high slot, Backstrom on the right half-wall and Marcus Johansson around the net. The second group has John Carlson at the point, Ovechkin, Joel Ward and Mike Ribeiro in the middle and Wojtek Wolski down low.
The setup creates plenty of options, forcing an opposing penalty kill unit to guess which way a pass might go next, and relies on the usual power-play tenet of crisp movement. In practice, Oates focused on making sure each player in the unit was aware of how to react to any possible play or bounce.
“Just them understanding what the routes are and where the puck’s gonna bounce and rebound angles,” Oates explained. “How we’re gonna play the possibilities that come from every rebound? What are we gonna do about it?”
Players said Oates wants the Capitals’ key playmakers — Backstrom, Ovechkin and Ribeiro — to have control of the puck as much as possible as well.
From Ribeiro’s perspective, it’s an important distinction because he and Backstrom are the main puck distributors and it’s part of their job description to read and react to a play.
“Nicky and me, we like to pass the puck. It’s going to be [up to] us to find who’s open at what time they’re open,” Ribeiro said. “I think it gives us a lot of leverage to choose your play. It’s not like a robot that you have to do this and this. It’s once we get it, then we can see and try to figure out who’s open and what’s the best play.”
Another usual adage of any successful man-advantage is to create traffic and mismatches in front of the net. So Oates put Ward, who saw power-play time during his three years in Nashville, on the second unit to force the opposition to contend with a 6-foot-1, 226-pound winger in the middle of their zone.
“Obviously we got a lot of good shooters from the outside, so I just got to find my little area, to try to get open in the slot area,” Ward said. “You try to create tips and a little bit of traffic in front is key. If I can create that and, I think, putting in rebounds is going to be key for myself.”
For either Ward or Brouwer, who are stationed in the high slot, the key will be knowing when to crash the net, look for a shot, tie up an opponent or act as a safety valve if the Capitals lose possession and regroup.
Oates doesn’t want stationary players on the power play, not even camped out in the crease. It’s up to the player to be mobile and aware of where he is needed at any given moment.
“I’ll be moving around the power play a little more this year, not just planted in front. I’ll have a couple more opportunities to take some shots,” Brouwer said. “There’s going to be a lot more shooting, I think, than trying to make pretty plays and backdoor passes.”
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