Learning from the San Jose Sharks’ Power Play

Todd McLellan2

It’s easy to think of a power play a little bit like a chess game. The players gain the zone through a carefully planned entry, setup and then create scoring chances through clever puck movement and intelligent positioning.

The problem with the chess analogy is that it’s too slow, too static, too built on patiently creating the right opening. As the San Jose Sharks have shown over the last few years, successful power plays are anything but patient.

This morning I went back and watched the last 30 power play goals scored by the Sharks in 2014-15 and found some points of interest which may apply to the Oilers next season.

Load up the first unit and play the life out of them. Twenty-four of the 30 goals scored were put in by the Sharks’ first unit. San Jose wasn’t shy about running Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns into the ground five-on-four, and for the most part the results back up that decision. The names on the second unit were a lot less impressive due to the decision to load up the first power play, but the first power play scored so much that it really didn’t matter.

Attack immediately. Nine of the 30 goals were scored immediately following a faceoff or a zone entry. The Sharks don’t gain the zone, then settle in and wait for everyone to find their positions; they attack the net as soon as they gain the zone. It isn’t just the puck carrier who attacks, either; seven of those nine goals were redirects, screens or rebounds. The guy with the puck goes to the net; seemingly everyone else tries to beat him there.

Ugly goals count just as much as pretty ones and they’re easier to create. Twenty of the 30 goals in my sample were scored off redirections, off rebounds or through screens. This is a particularly valuable point when we look at the names on San Jose’s first unit; all of these guys are skilled players capable of pulling off tic-tac-toe passing plays and making ridiculous moves with the puck. The Sharks coaching staff, however, got them to buy in to doing the ugly things that make a power play successful.

A quick shot is often better than a hard shot. I didn’t count the examples, but one trend I noticed over and over again was that the Sharks made a point of getting the puck away quickly rather than getting it away at maximum velocity. Sure, there were a couple of booming point shots by Burns but for the most part the Sharks leaned hard on quick wrist shots and lots of traffic.

As an example of these things, I like this goal scored against the Oilers in February, a goal which captures all of the above points:

  • It’s a shame the replay doesn’t show it, but the time between San Jose’s faceoff win and Pavelski’s goal is all of seven seconds. The Sharks get possession, spread out to draw the defenders and then Marleau puts the puck in front of Pavelski and that’s all she wrote.
  • What a beautifully ugly goal from some very talented players. It’s a nice pass by Marleau, but Pavelski doesn’t even field it cleanly. Instead, he backstops his stick with his skate, the pucks hits his skate and banks in past Viktor Fasth.
  • As a bonus, it’s fun to slow things down and look at the possibilities created by Marleau’s hard pass. It’s hard enough that Keith Aulie isn’t likely to control it even if he manages to block it, and Marleau’s going to be steaming toward the blocked puck faster than anyone else can get there, so there’s little risk of losing the puck that way. If, on the other hand, Pavelski misses the puck it’s going to go right through to Joe Thornton’s corner, and he has time and space to retrieve it. This is a simple, ugly little play but the beauty of it is that San Jose wins no matter what. If the pass is blocked, Marleau retrieves it. If the pass misses, Thornton retrieves it. If the pass connects, Pavelski has a point-blank scoring chance.

It’s going to be very interesting to see what San Jose’s former coaches can do with the offensive talent on the Oilers’ roster. I expect we’ll see a much quicker, much more aggressive power play. 

I also wonder about that first unit. I’ve been inclined to assume that we will see Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Connor McDavid anchoring different units but watching all these goals I wonder if Todd McLellan and Jay Woodcroft don’t just decide to load the first unit with the four best scoring forwards on the team from Game 1.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • Kr55

    Traffic and shooting before the goalie is set up are definitely key, and that was something we got away from the last couple years until Nelson came along. I can’t wait until analytics can take into account things like traffic in front of the net, and puck movement before shots (numbers available to everyone I mean, teams that invest a lot in analytics and do it right likely track this themselves by having armies of people watching video). Those are things Eakins didn’t understand when he tried to just replicate SJ’s shot attempts per minute number by just telling his players to shoot regardless of the situation just for the sake of more Corsi’s. It’s not enough just to get shot attempts, you need to make the goalie move or catch them off guard, and you need to get in the goalies face and battle for those rebounds.

    • fran huckzky

      Under Eakins the Oilers let a disgusting amount of goals against during PPs. I do remember Schultz out there on many of those occasions.

      Under Nelson we only saw 1 GA during PP, if I remember correctly, and the PP was scoring way more goals, with Schultz out there during those successful PPs.

      That said, it seemed to have everything to do with coaching rather than the players that were out there.

      I’m still inclined to agree that there are better options…if the Sharks didn’t rely on a shot from the point, they probably favoured a D who made quick effective passes?

      Schultz leveraged a seeing eye shot in the AHL, but in the NHL with more aggressive PKers and more lane blocking, he wasn’t able to capitalize on that part of his game.

  • Oilya

    Call me crazy if you want, but would it be insane to put McDavid at the front of the net and try to capitalize on those elite hand eye skills via tips, rebounds, and some pass/deke scenarios? Everyone always talks putting him on the half wall but if Nuge can dish from there you may find someone with enough skill and will to attack the net to go to the dirty areas in McDavid.

  • Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"

    I have never understood the whole pass around the perimeter for the perfect shot, so often the teams never even get a shot on net. I have often wondered what would happen if you did attack a lot more. Makes total sense to me.

    • sofarsogood

      It’s not that simple. Just shooting from anywhere isn’t a good strategy either. Look at detroits PP. it is a beautiful thing to watch. Simple and effective. It’s a balance between being passive and aggressive.

      I agree he oilers should mean more towards aggressive though. Having a good hard shot from the point is a good weapon to have but one of many other options a good power play will have.

  • fran huckzky

    I agree, oilers get too fancy on the power play. I still remember hemsky wasting 20 seconds dangling only to pass it out to the point. Very frustrating to watch

  • fran huckzky

    The Sharks had Joe Thornton to get offensive zone control on the face offs. Hopefully the Oilers will develop someone who can consistently win face offs or their power play will always be starting in their own zone and it wont really matter who they have out.

    • Cowbell_Feva

      For this reason alone, I think Letestu will get some PP time….not sure about top unit, because I hope RNH can increase his % on the dot as he gets stronger/smarter.

      Letestu can be that net front presence and bang in the odd goal. As mentioned, too much skill and too much of the “looking for the perfect pass” results in time wasted on a PP. I have thought for a long time a quick shot towards the net from the half-wall into the pillows is almost better than the shot from the point.

      Unless you have a Weber or Subban with a one-time bomb that can blow it past an NHL goalie, the quick release that RNH has employed under Nelson from the half-wall resulted in many more tips/deflections and rebounds, and therefore goals, as JW mentioned SJS used to success.

      McLellan and Woodcroft will have us top 5 on the PP by years end methinks. Too many weapons.

  • fran huckzky

    A lot of teams play same way as San Jose does on power play , and are far better at possession than we currently are . Oilers have been notorious for playing the periphery , lacking possession , and few drive the net with any consistency . Draisaitl I believe will be doing more of that this season along with Pouliot . Our first line only does it occasionally . Perpetual motion offence order of the day on power play .

      • Train#97

        I take it you feel our first line can handle going to the net as well as San Jose could with their bigger size ,lot heavier on their sticks , and big enough not to get manhandled and thrown off balance ? I never seen Oilers first line even attempt that last season . Hardly anyone actually went to net in that manner solo, never mind as a group . At times it was hard to even spot one in the slot . They still did well none the less . I am not sold Oilers have that type of personnel that can run the San Jose power play in the manner you refer to , any where near as efficiently or effectively as they did/can . A second unit of Pouliot , McDavid and Draisaitl might be able to do that . You see Zetterberg and Datzuk , although not big , are great on being heavy on their sticks and balance . So can our first line players reach that level ? Would be nice if they could/would .

          • Double Dees

            I agree they can do more of that , but past practice they seldom did it in regular season . Consistency was well below what it should have been . Your also talking some pretty good centers in Crosby and Seguin . Hopkins not quite at that level yet , although trending upwards despite his 22 of 24 goals being at 5 on 5 . McDavid might play quite a roll on power play this year despite being a rookie . It’s about our ability to execute as well as San Jose which I question . We probably will get a reasonable sample size in exhibition games I suspect . What we really require is Yak and Draisaitl to have breakout years (leery they will) and Hopkins getting to next level, which I think he will . McLelland also used Eberle effectively on point on powerplay as well . We have tried/experimented with that on occasion with Yak . I feel we have the personnel and skill level to run more than just one system on powerplay .

  • sofarsogood

    Mcdavid, Rnh, hall, ebs and sekera (nurse in time) when the game is close. When we have to get a goal replace sekera with a net presence. Between mcd and rnh whoever is the least tired will stay out for the full 2 minutes

  • A thought that I don’t see explored very much… There really isn’t a very good PP defenceman on this team. Schultz is a complete liability anyway, so why not run 5 forwards? Nuge on the point is probably more responsible than Schultz anyway…

    Eberle – McDavid – Hall with Nuge on the left D and Yak on the right, as the best one-timer on the team? If we’re talking about loading up one power play unit, this is what comes to mind for me. Hall in front of the net, McDavid down low on the right side, Eberle on the left half wall for his own one-timers, Yak on the right, both being fed by the Nuge. As McDavid gets better, probably put him up top and Nuge down low.

  • Double Dees

    Shoot lights out. Yak need to get more opportunities with his one timer. One of the most underrated shots in the league imo. Every time he loads up I inch closer to the TV!!

    Look at Stamkos or ovechkin!! Just let yak rip itttttttt!!!!!!

  • Double Dees

    Running a San Jose type power play has another benefit not discussed as yet , and that is drawing penalties against the opposition . We were one of worst teams in league in getting Power Play opportunities . The type of heavy play McLellan seems to want club to play with should result in more power play opportunities .

  • Train#97

    A few years ago I took my daughter to the last game of the season against Vancouver. I was sitting second row at the right hash marks .

    During warmup someone was feeding Yak for one timers. There was no goalie in net but it was impressive to watch Yak get those shots off one after another. Very much in awe of just watching him do that.
    Btw he got a hatrick that night

    • NJ

      Yak’s problem is hitting the net. Boomers off the glass are less effective then Eberle controlling and sniping top shelf. I love Yak and I love his passion and his boomer, but he’s gotta hit the net!

    • Cowbell_Feva

      I have always been in awe of how these guys can one-T the puck as accurately as they can…especially when they have to pass it as quickly as they do in the NHL.

      Its like watching a PGA pro golf. It looks easy until you try it yourself…just one-timing the puck on a flip pass is tough….when they rip it cross ice as hard as most men can shoot it, and then have them one-time it?? Unreal.

      Yakupov does have a wicked one timer….hope he can find more tools to complement his game. He is a forgotten guy with all the other hype around the team. But so is RNH….and Draisaitl…..and Eberle….

      There is a lot of offense waiting to be tapped into on this team!!

  • NJ

    I remember watching one episode of Oil Change or some other behind the scenes footage and after practice Schultz and Yak were on the ice, and Schultz was at the point setting up Yak on the half wall for one-timers. Yak told him his preference of where he wanted it and Schultz was dishing it as requested.

    And then that same season I see Ference out there trying to set up Yak and the puck had to be caught on Yak’s right skate and he’d never get a decent one-timer off. It was like this team never really practiced the PP, it was so discombobulated. Maybe if Eakins watched that episode of Oil Change they’d had a more competent PP. 😛