It's not a secret that these are tough times for the Montreal Canadiens, and as is the case with most aspects of their game, something that was an area of strength early in the season, the power play, has now because a constant source of frustration. Since December 1st, the team is 29th in goals for per 60 with the man advantage, and for a team in desperate need of goals, the Canadiens need their power play to figure things out in a hurry. Few things in hockey are as simple as there being one cause for a major problem, but it's not farfetched to say there is one aspect of the team's power play that is crippling it to a large extent: P.K. Subban.
The Habs' workhorse dynamo has scored 42 of the team's 245 power play goals since he came into the league (up to the end of last year), a stunning total for a defenseman. Erik Karlsson over that span is at nine percent. Shea Weber is at 17 percent, tied with Subban. I didn't check everybody, but I assume that's tops in the league.
This year, though, Subban only has two power play goals. Power plays are so coachable, so easy to mess with, in so many ways made or broken in practice, that they should be the most appealing way to attempt to break out of a slump. But little has changed, nothing drastic has been done, and in fact most of the minor changes, like putting David Desharnais on his strong side point, has done nothing but confuse and further muck up an unpolished product. Power plays should be good slump-busters because a good power play is less reliant on variance than an even-strength squad. Creating point blank one-timers yields goals, even if it's Dominik Hasek or Patrick Roy himself back there.
So what is going so wrong, and why has P.K. Subban been so unable to catalyze a rejuvenation? Let's start by taking a look at Subban's shot charts on the power play from past years.
Subban bursted onto the scene in 2010-2011 in part thanks to a series of power play blasts. What did they all have in common? They were taken from Subban's off-wing, allowing him to catch goalies in motion off of passes from the far side, where the change in angle and speed of the pass was able to give guys like Tim Thomas fits.
Notice how low Subban went on that first one-timer; we'll come back to that later. When Randy Cunneyworth came, in, he shifted Subban over to the right-side more of the time, where he struggled to register on the power play. Michel Therrien has had Subban playing mostly near the blue-line, sometimes deploying him on the right and sometimes on the left, almost randomly. But it's not difficult to see from the chart that most of Subban's success has come from that left side, and the closer to the net, the better. Subban is built like Alex Ovechkin, and he has a one-timer shot like the Russian sniper as well. He should be posted up in Ovi's office; I'm sure the Great 8 won't mind since, you know, he plays on a different team.
Last year in particular, you can see all the goals Subban scored from sneaking in on his off-wing. A Subban one-timer from the left-most corner of the scoring chance area can be deadly. Now let's look at Subban's shot chart on the power play for this year.
The first thing I notice is an awful lot of shots from practically on the blue line, especially on the strong side, a place where a shot is more of a prayer than a realistic goal attempt, hoping for a tip or a lucky bounce. Speaking of which, the two left-most green circles you see, two of Subban's three goals marked, were actually scored on tip-ins: One by Gallagher, as mentioned above, the other by St. Louis' Vladimir Tarasenko into his own net. The only power play goal the Canadiens have scored this year directly off Subban's stick came from well inside the scoring chance area, below the top of the circle, or what is sometimes known as the Ringette Line.
Despite in past years shooting significantly better from his weak or off-side, you can see that almost half Subban's power play attempts this year have come from his strong side.
And what about one-timers, Subban's primary weapon, the shot that has won a number of games over the years and nearly sent the 2011 Bruins packing? Wednesday, I unveiled a new series of charts based on the tracking I've done this year, that diagrammed one-timer attempts. Here's Subban's chart for this year.
Unsurprisingly, it's apparent that nearly every one of Subban's one-timers this year has been taken from above the top of the faceoff circle (aka Ringette line), significantly outside any plausible danger zone.
The numbers speak for themselves. Even if one of those samples is small -- and that's basically an indictment in itself -- the other speaks volumes. The shots Subban is taking aren't goal-scoring shots, no matter how good he is.
The other noticeable aspect of Subban's one-timer chart is how many of his one-timers on the right come off passes also from the right side. The idea of the one-timer is to make the goalie move significantly, as well as to bring the shooter into a strong position from a pass of limited North/South distance because that gives the goalie more time to prepare. These perks are supposed to offset the inherent difficulty in executing a shot without taking time to settle the puck and pick a spot. But a one-timer that travels mostly vertically AWAY from the net carries the one-touch disadvantage with nearly none of the perks. Essentially, it's a shot choice that makes no sense.
To illustrate this, I looked up from my tracking this season (Note: only six teams involved) every time a player shot a PP one-timer on the right side from above the faceoff circle with the pass coming from further to the right side, also outside the scoring chance area. There were 61 such occurrences, 22 of which came from the Canadiens (all Subban).
From those 61 shot attempts, zero goals.
So how to fix this? Beyond the zone entry troubles, the lack of a stable structure, putting other players in the wrong positions, and constantly rotating personnel, the biggest single change you can make is to put Subban where he belongs, on the left side, at or below the top of the faceoff circle, permanently. Put Jeff Petry at the point, guys like Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais on the left, another righty like Brendan Gallagher in the slot, and watch the seams open for Subban, or at worst one of his teammates, to take advantage.
*All numbers up to the All-Star break, don't include the last two games.