Why I Believe in "Structured Creativity" on the Power Play

Those who have read this site from the beginning have begun to get an idea of the qualities I like in a power play. I wrote a few weeks ago about the advantages of the 1-3-1 formation, then discussed having players play their off-wings. Last week I emphasized the potent nature of well-executed one-timers. Now I'd like to discuss a characteristic that connects all of those other features, and that is "structured creativity." It's a term I came up with -- I know it's not that original -- when trying to put into words how I would want my power play players to interact with one another.

But first, let's talk about power plays. The offensive team essentially starts with the puck, and is the team driving the length of the surface to score, trying to enter the other team's zone and then score once there. The defensive team is mostly trying to stay in position, cover the players without the puck and prevent open seams and the potential resulting offensive score. The defense, however, can score itself if one of its players reads the puck-carrier's eyes and picks off a pass, or the puck carrier isn't careful and coughs up the puck.

In its essence, that's a power play. Now change the word "puck" to "ball" and you realize how apt this description is for a game of football.

Hockey people go running any time comparisons to other sports are brought up, especially when it comes to analytics. 

“The game is more impulsive, more spontaneous, more dynamic, more inventive, more creative, more imaginative, faster. At the end of the day, there’s 10 players on the ice and a couple of goaltenders that are playing this high-paced game intuitively.”

That was Hockey Canada President and CEO Tom Ronney, former coach of the New York Rangers, on comparisons between hockey and baseball when it came to analytics. And he's right about hockey, or well, he's right about even-strength hockey, a kind of hockey where it can be tough for new fans to even find the puck on a television screen, for camera operators to keep up with the play. It has to be intuitive and dynamic and fast and physical and reactionary because, unlike in baseball or football, you have two teams with the exact same goal pushing equally in opposite directions, with 10 large men trying to destroy one another in pursuit of a tiny rubber black puck, while on the fastest brand of footwear anybody's ever created.

But that's not a description of power plays. Power plays feature stationary setups, one team pushing forward and one retreating. Power plays feature terms like the "quarterback," the "bumper," the "wedge + 1." Doesn't sound like hockey to me.

Former New York Islanders forward and current commentator Butch Goring even said the following, in discussing power plays.

“You talk about that entry there, [players] running their routes. It’s almost like they’re a wide receiver, and they’ve got to go out ten yards, turn to the left, and be there for the ball or puck.”

Power play coaches haven't been particularly "inventive or creative," besides Adam Oates' 1-3-1, in quite some time. And players shouldn't really be "impulsive," in the same way as you wouldn't want a quarterback going into a crucial huddle and telling his players, "It's 4th-and-2 guys, no play, let's just go out there and be impulsive."

Early in the season, when the Pittsburgh Penguins were struggling on the power play, I mentioned on the PDOCast about how I felt there wasn't enough structure in their game. You had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang on the same unit, and the thought seemed to be "just let them be impulsive, they'll find goals." Which is true, let good players be good players, and you will get some goals. But you'll also get a lot of missteps. Think about how often at even-strength a line of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel would have the puck leave the offensive zone if the other team was simply trying to clear it: pretty often. And that's okay at even-strength, when simply holding the puck can serve a defensive purpose as well as an offensive one. But on the power play, you want more. You have 120 seconds to generate offensive. You want as little dead puck (or non o-zone) time as possible, you want to be set up in the offensive zone with a plan.

There has been a lot of talk about how the Penguins power play has improved under Mike Sullivan because of "keeping it simple," getting shots on net and cashing in on rebounds. But I don't really buy that. It's a common refrain from coaches that doesn't really mean anything. You want power plays to be efficient, not to try and deke people out, to make the smart play (why deke somebody out 1-on-1 when you have an extra guy? Find that guy who's bound to be open).

But when you have talent like the Penguins do, I compare "keeping it simple" and just shooting from anywhere on the power play to being a football team with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, and deciding to just run the ball. Football commentators would call that "keeping it simple," and it makes just as little sense.

What I truly believe has changed on the Pittsburgh power play --  besides simply regaining confidence and profiting from some bounces and an in-form Crosby -- has been a renewed emphasis on efficiency and structure. Whereas at the beginning of the year, I would see a unit that looked like an even-strength group just trying to be impulsive, now I see a calmer, defined 1-3-1 with players on their off-sides leading to open passing lanes, quick puck movement, and shots from good angles. From there, sure, rebounds can be fought for and battles can be won. It's all a part of the program, but it comes from structure.

So where does "structured creativity" come in? Adam Oates brought power play rules with him to Washington, about where players could shoot from at what times, for example, to ensure possession wasn't wasted and seconds weren't taken off the clock without good reason. If a team's structure is to keep players on their off-sides, for example, structured creativity would mean cycling righties with righties and lefties with lefties to confuse the defense, but maintain the edge that structure brings. With "structured creativity" come the perks of unpredictability with the advantage of a structure that has been polished over a number of practices. From there, a power play can be executed like a little slot route, a deep toss, or even a flea-flicker, and the goals will come.