Breaking down the Hurricanes Power Play

When Kirk Muller took over as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, one of the things he intended to do was improve the Canes special teams play. Muller did wonders with the Montreal Canadiens power play when he served as an assistant coach from 2006-2011. The Habs ranked in the top half of the NHL in power play efficiency in each of those years, having a top 10 power play in the last four. This success has clearly not carried over to the Hurricanes, as their power play has ranked in the bottom-10 of the NHL in all three years he has been in Raleigh, ranking 25th in the league this year with an efficiency rate of 14.6%.

You can make the case that Muller had better weapons to work with in Montreal. Those teams had Andrei Markov in his prime, Alexei Kovalev when he was a 65-point player, a great goal-scorer in Mike Cammalleri and most recently, PK Subban in his rookie season. Having solid offensive defensemen like Mark Streit and James Wisniewski also helped in their respective years, but let's not pretend that Muller's had nothing to work with in Carolina. In his first year, you can say that (when Tim Brent is your PP quarterback, something is wrong), but the Hurricanes have added better offensive players since then. A power play featuring the likes of Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, Alexander Semin and Jordan Staal should be higher than 25th in the league. Having Andrej Sekera, who is having a career year offensively, Justin Faulk and youngste Ryan Murphy should also help out but the Canes power play has remained lifeless and a big reason why the team hasn't gained much ground in the standings.

I wouldn't go as far to say that the Hurricanes would be a playoff team if they had a good power play, but it's definitely cost them a few points in the standings. A great power play can buoy a mediocre team at even strength (see the Capitals) and the Hurricanes haven't had this luxury in quite some time. This isn't just a problem with Muller, though. The last time the Canes had a power play that was even in the top half of the NHL was all the way back in 2007-08. They've gone through three coaches since then and a rotating cast of players, so the problem isn't exclusive to this year's staff. It makes it very difficult to find out what the root of the problem is but going from my observations, most of the Canes power play woes are related to poor execution.

Thomas Drance at Canucks Army wrote a fantastic post on the Canucks power play, which is also clicking at a low rate this year, showing where the Canucks players are shooting the puck from on the power play this year. He determined that the Canucks power play woes are a combination of poor shooting luck and not having a right-handed shot from the point to replace Alex Edler. Carolina's struggles to beyond just shooting luck, though. Unlike Vancouver, the Hurricanes are one of the worst teams in the league at generating shots on goal during five-on-four play and are in the bottom-half of the NHL in terms of five-on-four shot attempts. So it's not just creating chances that the Hurricanes have a problem with, they struggle to create any offense at all and after the jump, we'll dive into what some of their problems might be. 

There are a few things that I look at as drivers of power play success: faceoffs, zone entries, setup, puck movement and puck retrieval. Obviously the goal is to create scoring chances and get shots on goal, but all of these play a role in that. Faceoffs have been a heavily debated topic for the Hurricanes this year because the team was pretty bad at them up until they acquired Manny Malhotra. Since then, they are winning more than 50% of their draws as a team and 54.9% of them on the power play. Eric Staal, who takes most of the power play draws, is winning over 57% of his. So faceoffs may not be the problem. The Canes will lose a draw here and there, but they're still winning the majority of them on the power play so it's time to look elsewhere. 

That brings us to zone entries/exits. As most of you know, I've been tracking zone entries for the Hurricanes all season and have been sharing only five-on-five data here. Five-on-five is where most of the meaningful results come from, but I thought power play zone entries are worth taking a look at here for this study. Going from my view point, a lot of the Hurricanes struggles on the power play relate to them always having to chase the puck down and being unable to get any plays set up. This stems from the team being unable to enter the zone cleanly or move the puck up ice, which has been a problem at even strength. Does the same apply for the power play? Only somewhat.

  Percentage Shots/Entry
Carry-in 59.0% 0.609
Dump-in 41.0% 0.314
Failed 14.7%  

To my surprise, the Hurricanes are gaining the line with control on the power play and they are creating a healthy amount of shots off these entries. I'm not sure what the league average is for carry-ins on the power play but I would imagine that it's higher than even strength (50%) but not too much higher than the Hurricanes numbers this year.  Although, the players individual numbers reveal some interesting things in regards to dump-and-chase play.

  Entries Control% Shots/Entry
Radek Dvorak 3 66.7% 1.33
Elias LIndholm 7 71.4% 1.14
Jiri Tlusty 8 62.5% 0.75
Nathan Gerbe 24 54.2% 0.63
John-Michael Liles 5 40.0% 0.60
Jeff Skinner 27 77.8% 0.59
Jordan Staal 47 76.6% 0.55
Eric Staal 66 71.2% 0.55
Andrej Sekera 28 25.0% 0.54
Alex Semin 38 76.3% 0.53
Justin Faulk 59 44.1% 0.53
Average   59.0% 0.51
Tuomo Ruutu 16 62.5% 0.38
Jay Harrison 8 12.5% 0.38
Riley Nash 7 57.1% 0.29
Ryan Murphy 28 60.7% 0.29
Drayson Bowman 4 75.0% 0.25
Ron Hainsey 13 23.1% 0.15
Manny Malhotra 1 0.0% 0.00

With the exception of Ryan Murphy, Carolina's defensemen are dumping the puck in to gain the zone on the power play, leaving most of the work up to the forwards to retrieve the puck and set up plays. However, the Hurricanes are creating a decent amount of shots off entries by Faulk & Sekera despite them dumping the puck in more than 50% of the time. Meanwhile, they aren't creating much offense at all off Murphy's entries even though he carries the puck in more than any other blue-liner. I don't know how much this means in the big picture because the Hurricanes tend to rely on their forwards for zone entries more times than not, but it's an interesting observation.

So, zone entries aren't as much of a problem as I feared, although there is room for improvement. That brings us to the set-ups the Canes have been using on the power play. Muller's rolled out a lot of different looks for the last couple of weeks due to the addition of John-Michael Liles & the Hurricanes power play being down in the dumps for most of the year. The New Year's Eve game against Montreal gave us a good idea of what their set-ups before Liles looked like.

Carolina is running a spread set-up where the goal is to work the puck down low and create odd-man situations in front of the net. Not a bad idea, but the Canes personnel choices are a little odd, mainly the fact that they have Eric Staal playing one of the points instead of having him in one of the forward positions down low. I understand wanting Skinner in a dangerous scoring area, but Staal doesn't exactly have the best shot in the world and might be better utilized down low to score a dirty goal or set up a play in front of the net. Staal's obviously a good play-maker and can get the puck down low, but having Skinner at the point or a defenseman would make more sense. You could also put Staal in Ruutu's spot in front of the net while keeping Skinner in this spot and using a defenseman at the point, which is something the Canes have done often. 

Here's another look the first unit rolled out.

This is more of a 1-3-1 type set-up where the focus is to create scoring chances off one-timers and have someone in front screen the goalie or crash for a rebound. It's not really a true 1-3-1 since Skinner (far boards) isn't in the faceoff circle, but it's a variant of this set-up and the focus is the same. Skinner also functions as one of the shooting options when the Hurricanes run this type of set-up. Most of the time, they usually just try to force it to Semin in the left faceoff circle and he does his best to either get it on net or create a rebound.

As you can probably guess, this hasn't worked out too well for the Canes this year because the play design is a little too predictable. Most teams know the pass is coming to Semin and know to converge on him when he has the puck. Better passing from the point and better shooting accuracy from Semin can make it more effective, though.

Let's move onto the second unit…

The Canes second unit runs more of an overload set-up, where they draw the penalty killers to one side of the ice, cycle the puck down low and have someone on the other side (usually a defenseman) slip past the coverage and get an open shot on goal. In this case, we have Nathan Gerbe and Tuomo Ruutu working the cycle with Ryan Murphy jumping into the play and Jordan Staal screening the goalie. Not pictured here is Ron Hainsey who is running the other point.This set-up was actually pretty successful here as Gerbe was able to get a pass over to Murphy and the Canes got a good scoring chance on net.

Over the last week, we've seen the Canes roll out some different looks on their PP with Liles joining the team, Elias Lindholm returning from the World Juniors and Eric Staal missing time with an injury.

This is the same formation we saw earlier, only it's more of an umbrella than a true 1-3-1. They have Liles in Sekera's spot with Murphy playing the other point, Skinner in his usual spot on the half boards and Semin in the high slot with Staal screening the goaltender. Personally, I like this set-up much better than the other. It's still a little predictable and easy for opponents to key-in on Murphy at the point makes a lot more sense than having Staal there and Semin is allowed to be a little more creative in the high slot than he is at the point. He can also create chances from more dangerous areas in this position. Staal in front of the net is also much better than having him at the point.

The Canes have been running a look similar to this since they acquired Liles, although they've used Lindholm in Semin's spot with Sasha moving over the right faceoff circle and Jordan taking over Eric's spot in front of the goal while the latter was injured. They have played only one game since Staal's return, so I'm sure there's going to be some changes within the next few days.

Overall, I don't hate the Canes power play set up and having Liles quarterbacking it gives them some freedom to experiment with different plays/set-ups. They tried a 1-3-1 against Toronto and it wouldn't surprise me if they went back to it in the weekend series. That said, the team's execution on the power play has been a persistent problem all season and it's continued even after the acquisition of Liles. Far too many times, the Canes will have a nice play set up but it gets wasted due to bad passing, poor puck-handling or terrible decision making. They always struggle to regroup after that and their power play is left ineffective. There's a few examples we can dig out from the last two weeks.

Here we see the Canes trying one of their trade mark plays on the power play, which is the overload/back-door look that I mentioned earlier. They drew all the defenders to one side of the ice and now have Faulk jumping into the play and ready to tap in a centering pass. If Jeff Skinner (far side) can get the puck to him in time that is. The Caps actually have this play well covered because even though Faulk is wide open, there's enough guys in the passing lane that it's going to be hard for Skinner to get the puck to Faulk in time. He can either try to thread the needle to Faulk or use one of his other, safer, passing options.

Skinner tries to make the pass to Faulk and it, predictably gets broken up. Even though he is finding the back of the net at a higher rate than anyone right now, Skinner does a lot of things to throw off the power play and it usually results from him being very indecisive with the puck. You'd think someone with 24 goals wouldn't hesitate to fire the puck at the net, but Skinner's actually had the tendency to wait an extra second or two before he knows what to do with the puck. Having patience is good, but there are times when Skinner takes it a little too far.

We're in the dying seconds of a power play and Murphy is able to draw in in two Islanders penalty killers and quickly send the puck to the other side of the rink to Skinner, who is in good position to get a chance on goal. The Canes also have Jordan Staal in front of the net to screen Evgeni Nabokov or cash in on a rebound.

Instead of quickly getting it on goal, Skinner loads up for a big slap shot and that allows one of the Islanders penalty killers to get in a position to possibly block the shot. Nabokov also has time to react to this and is able to square up on Skinner.

Skinner then FAKES the shot and that gives the Islanders more than enough time to converge on him and break up the play. Then they clear the puck and the power play is over. This is exactly the opposite of what you should do in the dying seconds of the power play and even if Skinner didn't score, he could have generated a rebound or at worst, an offensive zone faceoff if he just got it on net. This is something that has been going on all season and Skinner isn't the only one guilty of it.

The Hurricanes are trying the back-door play yet again with Murphy sneaking in from the point this time. Much like the last time, Skinner's passing lane is blocked off by the Washington penalty kill so he'll likely have to resort from a play to the point. However, it can still be effective if the Canes move the puck swiftly to all three spots AND if Murphy can get a shot off quick enough.

The play takes about seven seconds to develop, Murphy drifts back to a non-scoring area and gets a creampuff shot on goal that is easy for Phillip Grubauer to stop. There is no screen or any traffic in front because Murphy didn't wait for anything to develop and had two Washington players converging on him. The goal of a power play is to set up difficult situations for the opposing team and the Canes created a bad situation for themselves by being way too slow with setting up this play.

Perhaps things would be simpler/more effective if they kept Murphy at the point and had him take a shot from there while Staal screened the goalie? It's worth a shot. I don't know if Liles has a threatening slapshot, but the Canes power play is often way too focused on passing plays and trying to create a "perfect" chance rather than getting pucks on net. I feel like they would be more effective if they tried the latter.

There are times when the passing plays work, though and it usually comes when they work it from the overload set-up and create chances down low instead of taking shots from the faceoff circle. They scored a goal on a play like this against Toronto.

Semin has the puck on the half-boards and he is too far away to get a dangerous chance on net. He is also covered well by the Maple Leaf defender, so he decides to work it down low to Elias Lindholm, who is sitting behind the goal line.

They play catch for a few seconds, draw in one Toronto defender and then set up a quick passing play in front of the net to Jordan Staal, who is wide open. Take note of Jeff Skinner, who is uncovered thanks to the great work down low by Semin & Lindholm. Staal gets a shot on goal, which is stopped by Reimer but Skinner swoops in and puts home the rebound. The Canes have loved using this play and it's been the root of their power play "success." Unfortunately, getting to this point has been the challenge because they often can't move the puck quick enough to create any odd-numbered situations. This is probably what they want the Canes want their power play to look like but getting the puck down low , finding open players is always a challenge. The team's poor puck-handling and indecisiveness only magnifies this problem.

So how do you correct this? Things have been improving since late-December, so hopefully that's a sign of things to come. Still, I think the Canes can benefit by simplifying their power play a little. Liles is a good enough power play quarterback that he can settle things down at the point and set up plays from there. That gives them the option to run the 1-3-1 or overload set-up if they desire. If they choose to do that, Skinner & Semin need to be less hesitant with the puck and focus on getting it on net while someone like Staal or Lindholm screening the goaltender.

The overload set-up has led to some good things for the Canes, like the goal illustrated above, but the team's passing has just been way too poor on most nights for this to work all the time. This is why I think using the spread would work better. You can work plays down low if you want, but you can also use the points if you want (which the Canes don't do enough of) and put emphasis on getting shots through with traffic in front. A set up like that with Lindholm, Staal & Skinner up front with Liles & Faulk manning the points could work out well. They could also set up something like this with Jordan, Ruutu, Gerbe, Sekera & Murphy on teh second unit, as well.

Either way, it wouldn't hurt to change things up because the Canes power play is too predictable and too slow right now.