Why NHL power plays are thriving once again

·9-min read

In the 1977-78 campaign, the Montreal Canadiens set the NHL record for power play percentage, clicking at 31.9% over 80 games. In that same season, the New York Islanders finished second at 31.4%, which still stands as the second highest power play percentage to this day. The following season, that same Islanders team clicked at 31.2%, which is good for third all-time.

If you look at team power play percentages over the decades, the NHL record books are filled with teams from the late 70s through the 80s. There isn’t a single team from the 90s or 2000s that finished within the top 30 single season power play percentages. Recently though, the NHL has seen an uptick in power plays clicking that we haven’t seen since that late 70s and early 80s time period.

There are only 32 teams in the history of the league (with the data we have, anyways), to convert on 26-plus percent of their power plays. Eight of those 32 teams are from the 2017-18 season to present day. The 2012-13 Washington Capitals are another.

So, the question begs the asking, what’s happening here? These are historically good power play seasons that we haven’t seen in some 40 years in this league. How are so many teams accomplishing this?

Talent, of course, plays a huge role. The Oilers account for three of those nine teams and they have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals each feature three of the best goal scorers of this generation and (arguably) league history in Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews and Steven Stamkos. We can’t have this discussion without acknowledging that players are simply getting better — their shots are better and can beat goalies from just about anywhere, they are more dynamic with the puck, and in this top group of power play teams, they often feature two, three, sometimes even four legitimate shooting options.

NHL coaches and skilled players have figured out how to best use the extra time and space given to them, and we’re seeing some dominant power plays as a result. (Getty)
NHL coaches and skilled players have figured out how to best use the extra time and space given to them, and we’re seeing some dominant power plays as a result. (Getty)

But how teams are running their power play has also evolved over time to adjust for all the talent coming into the league.

If you look at power play goal leaders by each season in the 90s, you will routinely see dedicated net-front players at the top of the list in power play goals (Dave Andreychuk, John LeClair, Ryan Smyth, Keith Tkachuk, to name a few). Throughout the 90s, only one player had more power play goals than noted net-front man Andreychuk. And to be fair, it was Brett Hull, who had 40 more power play goals, and he was certainly not a net front kind of player. Similar to Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, he made most of his money being a one-timer threat. But how teams set that up in that era was generally different.

Teams generally ran “overload” power plays with a guy on the half-wall, a guy in front, and a guy in the slot to high slot, with two defensemen manning the blue line.

Brett Hull had such a good slap shot that he would get to go on the point, but generally speaking that overload formation was in place — which effectively cuts the ice in half.

As time went on and teams had more talent, we started seeing the power play formations shift around. The ice started spreading out a bit more to give skill players more space to snap the puck around, and truthfully, when we see that none of those teams in the 90s were able to break that 26 percent threshold, it was because penalty kills were quite easy. Teams could compact a tight box and didn’t even have to worry about nearly half the zone because of how teams overloaded one side. Defensemen could take liberties on players in standing front and obstruct anyone trying to get inside the house.

So, power plays eventually adjusted, spreading the zone from a half-ice overload to a full-ice spread, but below the top of the circles, a focused umbrella formation. This was a slow, gradual transition. You can go through power play goals in the 2000s and see lots of formations starting as an overload before spreading out, incorporating a backdoor cut, or just purely shifting to an umbrella. The umbrella started to shift teams away from two defensemen at the top of the blue line (as they would play at 5v5), and even if they were both defensemen, only one would stand on the blue line. It also put two players around the front of the net (either as a screen or a down low play). Watch when the Bruins get the puck up top here how there are two forwards battling in front to cause chaos — a rare thing you would see in today’s game.

Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk tied for the most total power play goals from the 2000-01 season to 2009-10. You’ll still see a ton of overload formations, which means a guy on the half-wall, a guy in the corner/down low on the same side, and a guy in front of the net. Like this goal.

This Kovalchuk power play hat trick was him basically playing as a defenseman and scoring from the blue line — that’s notably different from where the best goal scorers stand today.

As power plays started to shift, penalty kills, of course, shifted with them to better match the formation in style. Box penalty kills turned into diamonds so that the top of the umbrella point shot could be covered and that there would be more pressure applied to the half-wall where most teams like to set up.

You can see how a diamond would be ahead of the game here — everything is being kept to the outside. If the 90s was overloads with box penalty kills and essentially clogging the slot to takeaway chances, the umbrella opened up passing outlets, but penalty kills could keep things on the perimeter (which is why a shot like Ilya Kovalchuk’s would do so well), and for two decades the league churned out power plays that never broke that 26% threshold (to say nothing of how much goaltending generally improved over this time period as well). Which takes us to formations we generally see today: the 1 – 3 – 1. Essentially a mix of overloading and an umbrella, the big difference here is that instead of two guys in front, there is one and the other is in the slot. In a traditional diamond penalty kill, that player in the slot is now open to score. Players like Brayden Point and TJ Oshie have led the league in power play goals or finished second in recent years standing right there.

The true pioneers of that middleman on the power play were really Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. They mastered using that bumper roll to redirect slap passes, be a high tip (for Nick Lidstrom point shots!) and making penalty kills do things they were uncomfortable doing. This is art:

Penalty kills did eventually adapt, though. Instead of running a diamond kill, almost every team runs a variation of a “T” now. Two defensemen down low, a forward in the slot and a forward above the top of the circle covering the point man. The forward in the slot can cover the high danger area, but also swing to the half-wall depending where the puck while the forward at the top can then push down to cover the middle. It simply adds more versatility and range for penalty kills to cover the high danger areas and also apply pressure. But there’s just so much talent in the league and so many weapons that if you’re down a man and the opponent sets things up, you are in trouble.

And that takes us to today. With penalty kills now focusing on that middleman in the slot, how have power plays adapted? They are starting their plays higher up in the offensive zone. Instead of half-wall being around the hashmarks, it’s above the top of the circle. There is too much space there for penalty kills to cover so top players are swinging high, getting speed, and going down hill with options (middleman bumper, far side one-timer, a down low slip pass or their own shot) to pick from. Leon Draisaitl was second in the league in power play goals this year and while this one wasn’t the prettiest, look at where he and Connor McDavid are standing to start this play.

Penalty kills can’t possibly cover that space.

Chris Kreider led the league in power play goals this season but how he went about it was super unique. He was simply a finisher that moved around as a net front/backdoor/high-slot option as his teammates set the table. This is a beautiful tip, but again we see the players on the flank are starting high in the zone and again we see there’s just no chance penalty killers can get to the corners of the zone while down a man so they have to make a split decision on high-end forwards skating downhill on them while they generally stand there, helpless.

Teams are working this setup now of starting up a little higher in the zone and putting the puck on a stick of a decision maker with speed and space. Similar goals here from two players that tied for third in the league in power play goals, and all they really did was shoot it.

It’s the half-wall but it’s more the top of the circle with speed now instead of standing at the hashmark and surveying your options. Down a man and with power plays icing so much talent, a lot of penalty kills have simply realized there’s very little they can do if their opponent sets up what they want to do. Moving forward I think we’ll see more of an emphasis on preventing entries, penalty kill forechecks and how teams are jamming the blue line to prevent clean entries.

It’s not automatic if you set up but if you have a high end finisher or two and are able to gain the zone, you are more than likely creating at least one really good look. Power plays versus penalty kills have always been a bit of a game of cat and mouse in the league. Right now, the upper hand is going to power plays as teams and skilled players have figured out how to best use the extra time and space available to them.

As a result, we’re seeing some historic power play units coming together. Your move, penalty killers.

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