The Oilers powerplay started the season at almost the exact same success rate as last season — 17 of 82 (20.7%) in the first 25 games — but they’ve struggled mightily during the last 35 games, scoring 18 goals on 123 chances (14.6%.)
What has changed? Is it coaching or is it the players?
I’d say it is a combination of both, but I caught up with former NHLer Garry Gallery to get his thoughts on what makes a powerplay successful. Galley played on six different teams, but he was always a regular fixture on the PP — some very good, some that struggled.
Galley shared some excellent insight about being too predictable, the need for players to ad-lib and the role of the two players who act as D-men on the PP.
How much success of the powerplay is coaching and how much is it up to the
players to ad-lib or just execute plays?
Garry Galley: It sounds like a bit of a cop out, but it’s a bit of a mixture due to the fact that penalty killing is reliant
on systems and hard work.
There’s a system to penalty killing, where
to be because you’ve got to cover larger portion of the ice, you try to over
block the shooting lanes, keep the pucks to poor shooting angles. So there is a
bit of a method to the madness of penalty killing and you’ve got to have guys
that are willing to be stops and starts guys, guys who like to block shots,
guys that are dogged types of players that will fight for loose pucks at a
split second and understand how to do that. And those guys are really important
to a team.
Powerplay guys have to be able to ad-lib.
They have to be able to take what the penalty killers give them, especially if
they give them a bit on the run where the seams can open up, where you can look
for certain seams.
If a team habitually looks for the same
seams all of the time, and I think that’s what eventually caught up to the
Montreal Canadiens because their power play was so good at the start of the
year. In December, I think it was ranked third, but it has been dreadful in the
New Year and lately I think that that is one of the reasons why they are not
scoring a lot of goals is because they started to get predictable. That is the
one thing that a power play can’t do.
So yes it needs some coaching, it needs to
get a systematic start to things, a base product and then you’ve got to get the
right players on it that can ad-lib and pick the available plays that are open
to give you best chance to get a good quality scoring chance and hopefully you
can accumulate enough points on it to help you win hockey games, because a
power play can do that for you.
You talked about the systematic stuff from a coach as the base, is zone entry the base of that?
Galley: I think that the one area where you
can have a systematic approach is coming up the ice. Your breakout so to speak,
how you enter the zone and what basically that will look like. I coach a minor
bantam team and I give the kids the same kind of philosophy; we are going to
break the puck out in these situations. These five guys are going to go through
this systematic pattern, scheme, schematic and this is what we are going to do.
The centreman is going to swing; I want the defenceman to post for our blue
line, I want my right winger to start at the red line backup, cuddle along the
far blue line, I want my left winger to slash through. Here’s my five guys,
here’s the design of my schematic breakout, here are the options that will be
available to you as the defenceman who steps out from behind the net. OK, hit
the post guy, hit the centre. Post guy to the slashing left winger. All of the
players have to understand the options that are available to them.
When you know your options from where you
are, then you have to act like a quarterback when he drops back in the pocket.
He doesn’t just have one play, he has four plays and he has to systematically
go through them quickly and then pick the right one. And that’s what the
breakout is all about, pick the right one.
A lot of teams right now are going to
drive hard to the line because teams line up and then drop it back and that
late guy, that guy who comes in and that’s usually a guy who’s good at cutting
through traffic and whatever with the puck. So that’s an option too, but it’s a
little more schematic.
Once you get into the zone there’s a
starting place to start up in, and you call them quiet zones to get the penalty
killers to stop, which allows you to get some control of the puck and then the
rotations come off of that.
There’s still a matter of making the
choices, the right choices, and picking the open plays and that comes to
patience, it comes to players who are able to hang onto the puck a bit longer,
good puck handling skills, and guys who have the ability to get open and understand
that they can’t stand still.
The powerplay has to be a moving product.
Maybe one guy in front of the net for
screening because goaltenders are so good now. They are usually the best
penalty killers on the ice. So you have to get into his vision, and the other
four guys have got to find a way to move around and find open seams and it’s
hard to do because the penalty killers watch extensive video sessions on how to
counter your power play.
Garry, you were on the backend on a lot of successful powerplays. What’s the key ingredient a successful defenceman has to have to be able
to run a powerplay?
Galley: You know, I started out in college, I was on a powerplay with Dave
Ellett and it was a real successful PP at Bowling Green.
I moved on and I’ve been on powerplays
with Rob Blake and Ray Bourque and guys along that nature, and I really think
that it’s imperative that both of your defencemen can shoot the puck. They need
to have fairly good shots because what the shot does, or if you are using a
forward and a defenceman, whatever the combination of the guys at your back end
is, is they have to be feared from the blue line.
If the shooter is not feared from the blue
line, often times penalty killers will leave them alone, they won’t acknowledge
them, or if he’s wired to pass too often, then they know that he’s not going to
shoot. So it’s important that you have a guy back there who is wired to shoot
puck. You look at Ray Bourque and Rob Blake and Dave Ellett and all of those guys
that I played with; they were wired to shoot the puck. So my job as their
partner was to have a decent enough shot that if it was there I had to take it
because you’ve got to make sure that the opponent knows that you will shoot. And
then once you have that established try to get as many shots into their
pinwheel as you can and let them hammer away.
You’ve got to get traffic in front and the
other key for a D-man is the selection process.
Are you playing an umbrella where you have
one straight shooter in the middle of the ice and four guys operating off to
the sides and down low? Are you playing an overload with your centremen on the
half-wall, two D on the backside, down low winger, guy in front, or are you
playing a 1-3-1 where you have one guy in front, one guy in the middle at the
blue line and three guys lined through the slot where you are looking for those
tick- tack-toe one timers all over the ice and into those shooting areas?
So it depends on the system, but one D-man
has to be a wired shooter and that’s the guy that everyone focuses on, but if
they take him away, the other guys have got to have the ability to understand
that that plays gone, they are leaning towards taking the shot away. Let’s go
down low now, let’s hit a guy down low, let’s attack the net but there has to
be an attack the net.
This is where the player’s adlib skills
come in. You can’t really coach it.
Too many power plays get into trouble when
they start to become happy on the perimeter and their end zone time looks extremely
sexy; they spent the whole two minutes in the zone. Well that’s great. If I’m a
penalty killer you can spend five minutes in the zone. If you don’t get any
good quality scoring chances, it’s not really a good looking power play. So
it’s not the sexiness of the puck movement and the perimeter play, it’s when
the power player makes his decision it goes from a perimeter to an attack mode,
and when they attack do they get it into the quality areas? You’re looking to
get good quality chances. It’s not necessarily goals, you want to get good
quality chances and feel good about the power play when you finish it so that
your team feels something positive about it.
***The biggest weakness on the Oilers PP is that they don’t have one guy who teams fear. J.Schultz will never possess that type of shot, but he can be like Galley and be an excellent secondary option. The Oilers need to find a D-man who has a heavy shot standing still, not just a one-timer. They are hard to find, but until they find one I think PK guys will be able to cheat down low because they aren’t afraid of Schultz’s point shot.***
If you go to the 1-3-1, which the Oilers have done recently, what is the best way to attack the PK?
Galley: The high slot guy would be best.
When you took at the 1-3-1 it’s like you’re looking at a plus sign right? So
you’ve got your guy in front, your guy in the slot, your guy at the point all
in a straight line and then from the top of the circle, right through the
middle you’re going to re-use that guy in the slot with your two half-wall
guys. So you’re creating a plus sign, and that is creating minor triangles all
over the ice. You’ve got a triangle from your point man to your half-wall to
your slot shot. You’ve got a triangle between your point man to your half-wall
to your front net guy and all of these triangles hopefully set up opportunity
to make a quick passes and catch the penalty killers not able to cover all of
those guys in a shooting position. If they stay too low, to cover the guys in
front, then you have that high slot guy. If they cover the front net slot guy,
now you have your point guy.
So it’s about the forcing the penalty
killers to make choices. Where do they want to lean, where do they want their
stick positions in, and then choosing the appropriate one.
And again, you can go back to the most
basic of powerplays, the Calgary
days with Gary Suter and Al MacInnis where they just had two great shooters.
They worked the puck to one of them and they were so talented, and it is a
talent getting the puck from the blue line through to the net. It is even more
of a talent now because back when those guys were shooting there was only a
handful of guys who blocked shots in the whole league. Now it has to be a part
of your repertoire, you have to be in the shooting lanes all of the time,
everybody blocks shots.
So it’s a real talent to be able to take
the puck from the point and move it that six inches, that foot, that foot and a
half, two feet, whatever distance you need to laterally move the puck until a
lane opens where you can get the puck into a good shooting area. Again, they’re
all good strategies to use, but boy those penalty killers have really improved
and the coaching now is so good that it really makes powerplays tough to get
to that 20% mark.. If you can get a powerplay to 20-22%,
that’s absolutely excellent.
The anomaly is when you see Washington at almost 30%
or whatever, that’s just crazy stuff where they have some guys with
unbelievable chemistry. Look at guys like [Mike] Ribeiro last year and [Niklas]
Backstrom this year, who are great passers. They have a shooter in [Alex] Ovechkin, they have a shooter [Mike] Green,
they have a lot of nice little pieces in the one-timer positions and when it
all clicks together it can do some damage.
Gregor: You talked about the one timer and
Ovechkin is obviously the best in the league right now. Oiler fans look at Nail
Yakupov and see his one timer and wonder why it isn’t used more. Is it up to the player to learn how to find the
holes, or should the powerplay focus on getting him the puck more?
Galley: They player needs to learn to find the
quiet spots on the ice…players like Brett Hull were great at losing
himself. He would come into a zone and then he would back out and then come
into another spot. When you got guys like Adam Oates and Craig Janney, those
guys are wired passers. They have great peripheral vision; they have great
senses of where their players are and especially a particular player. [Cam] Neely and Janney in Boston, and now Backstrom and Ovechkin are very,
very good at it.
When you look at those kinds of things,
those are special attributes between two players, and they can find each other,
they know where to go and the passer has to have another option to be able to
use and be willing to use that other option if need be.
But getting set up for a one timer and then
being able to score with it, is solely on the player. I was told this a long
time ago, that these guys that score like this — and of course I wasn’t one of
the them — was that when I was going to receive a pass or I was going to one
time a puck, I had to take a look at where I’m putting it.
These guys with the great one-timers, they don’t have to look.
They have a sense of the net in their minds. They know where it is on the ice,
they know where the puck is going. So when they onetime it, when they shoot it,
they know where that 4×6 place is and they know where their puck is going so
there is no need to look. They position themselves like a field goal kicker. He
backs up, he takes four steps back, he takes two steps sideways and when that
ball gets snapped, he’s taking the same pattern in and he’s kicking it. That is
very similar to the one timer. Body chemistry, everything, but when they shoot
it, they know where it’s going. They may overshoot the net the odd time, I mean
it’s (one-timer) an extremely difficult thing to do, especially if the pass is
firm. But guys like [Steven] Stamkos and Ovechkin, man, they are good at it.
Any young player like Yakupov will need to master the art of finding the open
space, but it also isn’t just about having a good one-timer, the best scorers
have an accurate one-timer.
I thought Galley did a great job of explaining how the PP should work, but also recognizing that the PKs are better today than ever. I’ll be watching how the Oilers attack on the 1-3-1 once they are set up. Using small triangles and quick passes to get the box to open up is likely the best strategy for the Oilers because they don’t possess a threat from the point.
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RECENTLY BY JASON GREGOR