I wrote a piece a couple of years ago, back when the 1-3-1 was something only serious hockey fans had even heard about, regarding hockey’s newest innovation. Adam Oates, first with the New Jersey Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk, and then with the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin, had implemented a formation that placed players in constant shooting situations. Players at the half-boards played their off-wings, so they were always available for either one-time shots or one-time passes, and those in the middle were chosen meticulously to emphasize quick puck movement and shots from good angles. This was probably the coming out party for the 1-3-1:
As I alluded to in my introductory article, the formation is truly the NHL’s equivalent of Barcelona’s tiki-taka style of football. The aim is to create triangles no matter who has the puck. And the added advantage with hockey power plays is the “power” element. The attacking team has an extra player, so good luck covering each of those options now. Ultimately, power plays are about creating two-on-ones, and the best way to do that is to move the puck quickly without allowing penalty killers to adjust.
Today, the majority of NHL teams use some variety of the 1-3-1, though less have directly imitated the Caps’ structure than I would have expected. Sure, the Capitals have weapons like few other teams in the league, but their dynamic element is not just Alex Ovechkin’s shot or Nicklas Backstrom’s passing, because those things were there prior to the Capitals being such a dynamo. The key is decisiveness. The Capitals know that they are going to score in one of three or four ways prior to an offensive zone faceoff, and with conviction comes accuracy, which leads to success.
It would be great to see Adam Oates back in the NHL with a talent spectrum somewhere in between the New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals. With P.K. Subban at the Ovechkin spot, for example, I think he’d work wonders with the Montreal Canadiens power play. And when all is said and done, for bringing the structured 1-3-1 to the NHL Oates should be spoken about in the same breath as some of the game’s foremost innovators.