Why Jeff Petry Should Play Point on the Habs' First PP Unit

I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago about the Montreal Canadiens' misuse of P.K. Subban on the power play, which I felt was a big reason for the team's lackluster rank of 19th in PP goals for per 60 minutes. Since then, the power play has been slightly better -- 15th in the last two weeks -- using Subban more often on the left half-wall and looking to get him into position for dangerous one-timers. 

That said, there is still a potpourri of issues the team's man advantage has to resolve. It all begins with entries. Let's take a look at one particular entry during the team's last contest.

Following a series of unnecessary short passes, Tomas Plekanec chips the puck in. The other four Canadiens skaters are standing practically still because they don't know what's coming, so Colorado Avalanche defenseman Chris Bigras is easily first on the puck. Luckily for the Habs, he panics a little bit and then Subban does a good job of preventing a clearance on the far side using his body.

This forces Subban in deep, where he's not particularly comfortable, as evidenced by his indecision with the puck behind the net. Overall, it takes the Canadiens 31 seconds from the time the puck enters the zone to get into their preferred setup with Subban at the left half-wall and Gallagher in the slot as the bumper. That's a quarter of the power play that is essentially wasted. Considering teams like the Capitals and Flyers can be set up in two or three seconds, that's far too much. 

So how to fix this? Well let's work under the premise that the team can't for whatever reason develop a consistently effective controlled entry scheme and insists on dumping the puck into the zone. We can still develop a system whereby the team can be set up in under 10 seconds and maximize effectiveness.

It starts, of course, with where Michel Therrien deploys P.K. Subban. Let's take a look at a pre-faceoff formation from that same game.

Lars Eller is in to take the faceoff. Andrei Markov is in a good position, on his off-wing at the point, ready to shoot or pass into one-timers immediately following the draw. Max Pacioretty and Sven Andrighetto should be switched so that they too can immediately be in formation, but that's less important and we're talking about point men here. Anyway, Eller gets tossed and Pacioretty comes in to take the draw.

Suddenly, Markov and Subban switch places, back to their strong sides. The thinking, I would assume, is as follows. With Eller, a natural center, the chances of winning the faceoff were high enough that it was worth starting with the defensemen on the appropriate sides, so that they were ready to generate offense when the puck came back to them. With Pacioretty, though, the odds of losing the draw are higher, and if the draw is lost you would rather have a righty in Subban on the right side to prevent any clearance attempt on his forehand, and take the puck off the boards more easily. 

But here's the problem with that thinking. The Canadiens did win the draw -- and it's important to note that the Canadiens have won 58 percent of power play faceoffs this year because of having an extra winger to dig up the puck -- and it took them 19 seconds to get Subban to the left half-wall. For reference, it has taken the Canadiens on average just under 17 seconds to re-enter the zone following a clearance against them at 5-on-4. So with players entering the zone in the right places, the Canadiens could have lost that faceoff, had the puck cleared, re-entered the zone, and got set up with players in dangerous positions in just barely more than the time the team wasted after WINNING the faceoff on that play because of the conservative attitude of Therrien/Daigneault (or maybe, to be fair, Subban/Markov).

For a team that Marc Bergevin has said has played too often "not to lose" over the course of the season, Therrien has deployed his defensemen on the power play in positions to not have the puck leave the offensive zone, rather than minimizing the seconds it takes to enter and to get set up, and maximizing the dangerous shooting opportunities while there. The numbers simply don't work out in his favor. I wrote last week about the Capitals' zone entry scheme. The Canadiens may not have a Backstrom or Carlson or Kuznetsov, but they could still copy or adopt the structured single swing entry with Galchenyuk as the swinging player and Plekanec streaking into the zone on the right. With enough practice, it would work. This needed to be thought about in training camp..

But as I said earlier, I'm writing in a world in which the Canadiens feel dump-ins are the best course of action. And without that practice time, we may well live in a world where they're right. Here's what I would do.

Jeff Petry -- once he returns from injury -- the team's only right-handed defensive power play option besides Subban, becomes the point man and primary breakout player on the first unit every time. Out of 34 players on the six teams I have tracked this season who have been the primary puck handler on at least 20 5-on-4 entry attempts, Petry ranks second in terms of success rate, behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning's Valtteri Filppula, with 24 successes and only 3 failures. He may not be flashy, but Petry has got the job done leading the breakout, with crisp passes. He is a good poor man's John Carlson.

Craft a dump-in scheme in which players know that the puck will be dumped into the zone from the left side by Subban, who takes an easy but crisp pass from Petry. Forwards Tomas Plekanec, Alex Galchenyuk and Dale Weise -- my choices for the first unit with Weise in over Gallagher just because of his shot and in the interest of maximizing the latter's goalie screening abilities on the second unit -- would speed into the zone on the right side immediately as the puck was dumped to outnumber the penalty killers and recover the puck. From there, all five players -- Plekanec at goal line, Galchenyuk at right half-wall, Petry at point, Subban at left half-wall and Weise in the slot -- would be in position right when the puck was recovered.

So why Petry and not Markov, besides the fact that Markov is 26th out of those 34 players with 49 successful entries orchestrated primarily by him, 13 fails, and 8 misses (failed controlled entries that still resulted in the puck getting deep)?

Despite the fact I have championed having players on their off-wings, on the 1-3-1 it is in the team's best interest to have the point man be of the same handedness as the primary shooter on the off-wing, even if that means spending some time on his strong side. This is so that a) When the passer/QB has the puck on the half-wall, he has three one-timer options available, something very difficult for penalty killers to cover, and b) the passing lane to the primary shooter from the point man is maximized. Allow me to explain.

Here, in a recent game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Markov is the point man. When he collects the puck, he has to turn his hips and open up in order to shoot or even to pass on his forehand to Subban. Mark Streit (top right of the screen) doesn't have to respect the shot too much therefore unless he sees that movement, and can cheat over the Subban. Here, Markov tries to cheat himself by backhanding a pass without having to open up, but he can't get much on the pass that way giving Streit and goaltender Steve Mason more time to react.

Now look at John Carlson, a righty, passing the puck over to Alex Ovechkin in his office.

It's easy for Carlson, a righty, to disguise his intentions, as he can wind up for a one-timer, draw the defender, and still slip the puck over to his captain. Even in the second gif above, where Nick Schultz is guarding Ovechkin closely, he still can't get over in time to prevent a shot on goal.

Having the point man as a righty here means that Therrien's original objective, having a righty on the right blue line to prevent clearances, still comes to fruition, but without the serious downsides I described above. With the puck spending most of the time on the sticks of Galchenyuk and Plekanec, a turnover would most likely occur on the right side, and thus a clearance attempt on that side. Getting the puck past Subban on the left, despite the fact he's on his backhand along the wall, would be very difficult because of the distance the puck would have to travel along the boards on a clearance from the right. As a righty, Petry/Carlson are also more easily able to keep pucks in the zone off of hated missed one-timers from the left side by Ovechkin/Subban, which tend to ricochet around the boards and out. 

With Petry on the first unit, the Canadiens could set up their two units as follows, with the second unit being run from the left side rather than the right and Markov as the primary shooter.

One problem with the roster composition of the team is that there aren't enough righties. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan knew for his power play he needed two slot players when losing Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward, and went out and got them (improving his team vastly in the process) with T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. Bergevin needs a couple more right-handed players, especially after giving up on Alexander Semin. If the Canadiens were still in the mix, I would recommend pursuing a player like Joffrey Lupul (though his contract makes that complicated) because Lupul has done well playing the slot role in Toronto -- he is 14th in personal high danger scoring chances on the power play. The way things stand, though, it's probably best to just ride it out. With Desharnais now hurt, a youngster like Sven Andrighetto could take that spot on the second unit.

It has to be said that Petry is currently 79th out of 90 eligible power play defensemen in terms of power play success rate with him on the ice, but considering that he has most often got second unit power play time on a team that has rarely shown a good structure or even instinct in terms of how to best generate quality scoring chances, I believe he would have success as the point man on a structured first unit, even one that dumped the puck in. His zone entry passing mixed with a willingness to shoot and being of the appropriate handedness all make him the best option.

This is all assuming that Petry returns to health this season, of course. And perhaps this piece should be best used as a roadmap for player acquisitions for next year. Bringing in righties to complement the core pieces and allowing a coach to implement a structured power play (plus a healthy Carey Price) could be just what this team needs to get it back near the top of the league.