The struggles of the Hurricanes power play are frustrating and it goes beyond just this season. The team's power play has ranked in the bottom half of the league for the last five years, so figuring out the root of the problem is a daunting task at this point. This year is especially frustrating because the Hurricanes have the personnel to run a power play that can at least be in the middle of the pack and not 29th in the NHL. It goes beyond just being unable to finish, too. Sure, the Hurricanes might be creating shots at a high enough rate for us to say that they are getting a tad unlucky, but anyone who has watched their power play in action will tell you otherwise.
Before the Sabres game, we looked at some of the problems Carolina had with their entries on the power play and how they had more success with carrying the puck in as opposed to playing dump-and-chase, at least when it came to creating shots. Entries are only part of the problem, though because the Hurricanes play in the offensive zone has been just as bad. Again, they are creating a decent amount of shots relative to how much time they've spent on the power play and I'm sure a few bounces would help, but the Canes power play struggles go beyond just shooting percentage.
In my breakdown of the Hurricanes power play a few months ago, I stated that the main problems behind it were that the team's execution (passing & puck movement) was too slow and the setup was way too predictable. Most of their passes were telegraphed and the entire power play's rhythm was often thrown off by something very routine. The whole point of a power play is forcing a team the team killing the penalty to make tough decisions and the Hurricanes often ruin that with slow puck movement, bad passes or being too hesitant to make a decision. That usually gives the defending team more than enough time to react to whatever they're doing and it's enough to make their power play woefully ineffective.
To make things worse, the setup is incredibly predictable and it's pretty easy to figure out what the Canes are trying to do on the power play. They've used a lot of different looks this year, but ever since they traded for John-Michael Liles, they've stuck to a 1-3-/umbrella type setup with Liles on the point, two forwards at the top of the faceoff circle and two down low with in the highs lot another on the goal line. Kind of like this:
The personnel gets changed around often (Semin was injured and is usually in Lindholm's spot) but this is the setup the Hurricanes have used on their first unit for most of the last couple of months. It's not a bad setup and is actually very hard to defend against if you run it properly. The problem is that the Hurricanes can never make any passes good enough to pull this off effectively and most of the shots they create can barely be qualified as scoring chances. This heat map from Sporting Charts sums things up well.
Almost all of the Hurricanes shots on the power play come from either the top of the faceoff circle where the two forwards are or around the net, which is likely the two forwards crashing for rebounds or driving the net. If I'm an opposing coach, scouting this power play is almost too easy when looking at this heat map. The two forwards usually pinch down low to give the impression that they might try a one-timer from the faceoff circle, but the heat map & average shooting distance is a dead giveaway of where most of the shots are coming from.
I usually buy into the idea that getting the puck on net is never a bad play, but 35-40 foot shots from the top of the faceoff circle are very low percentage shots. It's from an angle and unless you're a good passing team, the goalie can usually react to it in time to make the save. As we all know by now, the Hurricanes passing is often way too slow to pull this off. To make things worse, the Hurricanes don't work the play from down low enough and the one defenseman in this setup is rarely the shooter. I can never figure out why, though because he's playing the middle of the ice and that's where most of the traffic is. Pinching in and trying a screened-shot here may not be a bad adjustment. It's at least an improvement over the one-timers at the top of the faceoff circle that everyone in the building can see coming from a mile away. Jim Rutherford stated that the Hurricanes aren't "creating enough chaos" in front of goalies on the power play, but the system also plays a role in that. It's too predictable and just not working at all.
I don't hate the 1-3-1/umbrella set-up the Hurricanes use, I just don't think they execute it well and might be better off trying something else. The whole point of an umbrella power play is to set-up plays down low and the Canes often settle for low-percentage shots and try to pounce on the rebounds while almost all of their shots from close range come from the right side of the ice, so it's very easy to defend since Carolina is so deliberate. Can a personnel switch improve this at all? Here's what they've been working with this year:
The guys who have been the most productive on the power play are Skinner, Sekera, Eric Staal, Semin and Gerbe. Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk have also been very good on the power play without seeing as much of a reward as the players noted earlier. On paper, you can probably fit these players into a 1-3-1 setup with both Staals, playing the two low forwards, Semin & Skinner as the two high forwards and Sekera quarterbacking the power play. You could also switch around Eric Staal & Skinner's positions, using the former to set up plays on the half wall while the latter plays in the high slot. At least that's what I would do if the goal is to draw the defense to one side of the ice and have Semin finish off plays in the left faceoff circle.
The Hurricanes have tried a similar look, but it has never worked for a few reasons. First off, they have Semin & Skinner/Staal playing way too high in the faceoff circle and most of their shots either miss the net or are stoppable. This heat map of Semin's shots on the power play (courtesy of Sporting Charts) illustrates this well.
Things are a little scattered and Semin has gotten plenty of shots off from within the "home plate" area in front of the net, but you'll notice a clutter around the top of the left faceoff circle. That's generally where his office is on the power play and where Liles or Sekera have fed most of his one-timers. Moving him to the slot or a place closer to the net could help him out a little. It has with Skinner, whose position has changed a little on the power play. He's typically the guy at the top of the opposite faceoff circle the Canes use their 1-3-1 setup but he's also been used in the slot and along the half wall when the Canes use an overload power play which I illustrated in an earlier post.
Skinner has also taken a large portion of shots from the top of the faceoff circle, but he's also been around the net more and has gotten plenty of good looks from dangerous locations. It's why he's been a big part of the power play and I think Semin could have similar success with some adjustments. Semin has the most threatening shot on the team and the coaching staff might want to think about using that to their advantage by getting him into better scoring positions.
Another thing that's held the power play back is that they've had Liles quarterback the first unit ever since he was acquired and his numbers kind of speak for themselves. Compare them to Sekera's & Faulk's and it's almost maddening how long they've stuck with him on the first unit. Don't get me wrong, I Liles hasn't been all bad, but he hasn't added much of anything to the power play while Sekera has blossomed as an offensive defenseman this year. I mentioned that having the defensemen shoot more from the middle of the ice could help the power play and Sekera's been pretty good at this. He's not one to quickly bomb the puck on net, but he's excellent at getting shots through and will wait for lanes to open or traffic to develop before attempting to get a shot on net. Compare that to Liles, who is more of a pass-first player, and Sekera might be better suited to quarterback the power play.
Sekera's not the type who roams all over the ice, but he covers a lot of ground at the point and can get shots through from just about anywhere on the ice. If the Canes keep rolling two defensemen on the PP (as they've done the last couple of games), he would unquestionably be on the first unit but he should take over for Liles even after the latter gets healthy. If the Canes are going for more of a "shooting" power play, it's tempting not to pair him with Justin Faulk, who has posted decent power play numbers both in terms of shots & points relative to his ice time. Sort of like what the Montreal Canadiens run with PK Subban & Andrei Markov manning the points. You can argue that they tried this earlier in the year and it didn't work and some of it has to do with Faulk taking a lot of low-percentage shots and not pinching down enough or waiting for a better lane to open.
Compare that to Sekera and Faulk's a little more predictable. He's developed nicely as an all-around defenseman and has a good shot but his offense is kind of limited, mostly his play-making skills. Some might be an advocate for Ryan Murphy to be used on the other point instead (if the Hurricanes move away from the 1-3-1) and while the number suggest otherwise, I think it's worth a shot. Murphy's talent is there and he looks good by the eye-test, but it hasn't resulted in much yet. It was refreshing to see him shoot the puck more in Thursday's game against the Sabres because he almost never did that earlier in the year.
Murphy is more of a play-maker, but he's got a pretty good shot and can handle the puck better than almost every other defenseman on the team, so I'd like to see him get more pucks on net. My hope is that he starts playing a little more like Sekera in the offensive zone with his pinches and how he walks the blue line when he shoots the puck. They would make a pretty solid defense tandem on the first power play unit if the Hurricanes wish to go that route.
If they keep using four forwards and one defenseman, I'd like to see Jordan Staal used more. He almost never plays on the first unit and it's usually either Eric, Gerbe or Ruutu playing the net front presence role, which Jordan is actually very good at. That or they have Elias Lindholm playing in the slot while Eric plays along the goal-line. There's only so much ice-time to go around, but Jordan's actually been pretty solid on the power play when he is used and I'd like to see him be utilized more. The goals haven't exactly come to him, but he fits the mold of a big skilled player who can make plays in front of the net, screen the goalie and jump on rebounds given the chance. Carolina's second unit is usually more productive than their first in terms of chance production and Jordan's a big reason for that, so I'm in favor of moving him to the first unit full-time. It'll require bumping down Lindholm, who has really been coming along as of late, but this is one way to get the most out of Jordan.
Of course, a personnel change won't matter if the Hurricanes puck movement, decision making and overall execution on the power play stays as poor as it has been for most of the year. It's just way too easy for the opposing team's penalty kill to shut down because they know that almost all of the initial shots are coming from the top of the faceoff circle and all they have to do is block the shot, beat the Hurricanes to the rebound and make them waste 20-30 seconds playing along the boards. Then the circus known as the power play zone entries begins if they manage to get the puck out of the zone. That said, I think the Hurricanes coaching staff should mix things up a little because they aren't exactly utilizing every player to their strengths right now.