When formulated properly, power plays are like jigsaw puzzles. GMs and coaches must fit players of particular handedness into roles that maximize their skill sets. It's not always easy, and unless players are signed and traded for with these considerations in mind, there often won't be a perfect formula.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about why Jeff Petry should be the point man on the Canadiens' first power play unit. The argument had less to do with Petry himself -- although his basic zone entry numbers looked promising -- and more about the fact that he was a right-handed shot. With P.K. Subban, also a righty, as the team's ideal primary one-timer weapon on the left half-wall, the Habs needed a righty on the point to maximize Subban's chances of scoring.
Constructing a power play using Subban as the primary one-timer weapon, though, creates problems for the team as currently constructed. Using Alex Galchenyuk on the right half-wall as the quarterback and playmaker works fine, but to maximize the unit's ability we would need another righty in the slot and a lefty on the goal-line. The issue here is that the default righty, Brendan Gallagher, has struggled in a slot role -- he doesn't possess a particularly quick or accurate release -- and it's something of a waste not using him in a goal-line/screening/tipping position. Additionally, with this setup, Max Pacioretty, a lefty, wouldn't have a spot on the first unit. Considering he's the team's top goal scorer, that's something of a waste.
Pacioretty is a fascinating player because if you look at anything in the range of basic to complex metrics, he looks like an elite winger; he is a top scorer and he drives play. That said, my eyeball scouting report would be that he often makes questionable decisions with the puck (especially up a man), and he doesn't have great stickhandling abilities. He's also not great defensively. Pacioretty drives play largely because he shoots a lot, and has a great wrister so that like an Alex Ovechkin he's not simply wasting possession by shooting. He's also good along the walls at winning pucks, which in the mould of a Justin Williams can be critical. Overall, the Canadiens' captain reminds me of a rich man's Patrick Sharp. On a top line or unit he's a complementary player. He is best utilized away from the puck though, with other players drawing defenders to them, and then pouncing with a quick shot once the puck is on his stick to surprise the opposition. This is why a Pacioretty-Galchenyuk-Gallagher line has worked so well in the past, and even why he had some success with a crafty puck handler like David Desharnais.
All of this is to say that I don't love Pacioretty as a power play option in any role in which he has to do anything except shoot. He is last on the Canadiens in personal shot contribution-to-offensive zone giveaway ratio -- a metric I call Power Play Efficiency of Touches (PET). I prefer Galchenyuk, or even Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais as right-side options when it comes to puck distribution or shooting. Pacioretty's one-timer is nothing to write home about either.
Notice how all four of Pacioretty's power play one-timer goals this season have come from the middle area of the ice -- essentially the slot. Any attempts from the right-wall have either been missed or saved. Pacioretty is best used in the bumper role on the power play -- one that guys like Patrice Bergeron, T.J. Oshie, Brayden Schenn, Justin Williams, Duncan Keith fill very effectively. It's primarily a quick shooting role, which fits the captain perfectly. The reason why I had previously not had Pacioretty pencilled into this role was simple: With Subban as the primary shooter and Galchenyuk the quarterback, the bumper needed to be a righty. But no more.
Over the first half of the season, the Canadiens would use Galchenyuk all over the ice, but he looked most dangerous when placed on the right half-wall. The issue was that the young star's one-timers were often erratic. I remember seeing frequent complaints from fans about how the recent high draft pick couldn't hit the net, and wondering whether that would ever change. Here is the Wisconsin-born player's one-timer chart from the start of the season until January 25th. Yes I know the cut-off point is fairly random but I had to choose somewhere.
Reminder: If you are interesting in seeing power play one-timer charts for players on Montreal, Toronto, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Washington or the Islanders for the whole season or any section of games, I take requests on Twitter.
Through this first three and a half months of the season, Galchenyuk missed more than half of his power play one-timer shots, scoring on only two -- both from the familiar low right half-wall spot. Now have a look at his chart for the last seven weeks.
Galchenyuk has actually scored four one-timer power goals, not three, but one of them was at 4-on-3 which I don't track. This is obviously a small sample, and I'm not claiming that he can shoot 30 percent on such shots over the long term, but the recent stretch (he's scored a couple of these types of goals at even strength as well) suggest the early struggles weren't indicative of his overall talent either. Take a look at the poise with which he can take powerful passes and deceive goalies with shots to the low glove-side in particular, a tough area to cover for keepers. In a sense, this can make a left-handed one-timer threat even greater than the challenge Alex Ovechkin poses as a righty.
There's no doubt that goaltenders will eventually adapt, and Galchenyuk will have to improve himself by mixing up the area of the net he targets, but for now he has become a huge weapon on the power play, maybe even as big of a weapon as the star defenseman with whom he plays.
Galchenyuk's emergence is huge for the Canadiens because of how it impacts the way the coaching staff can deploy the rest of the team's personnel. With Galchenyuk as the primary shooter, Subban can become the quarterback on the left side, Andrei Markov -- a lefty -- can more effectively man the point, and Pacioretty can be used to maximal effect in the slot with Gallagher providing screens (which are hugely important) and quick low-high plays on the goal-line. Here is what that would look like.
This setup is equivalent to what the Philadelphia Flyers utilize so effectively with Giroux on the left wall, Wayne Simmonds on the goal-line and Shayne Gostisbehere firing screened one-timers from the point. It also mirrors (in terms of being the opposite of) the Washington Capitals power play which has dominated the NHL for the past four seasons.
The benefits also extend to zone entries. As I wrote in that last linked piece, a large part of the Capitals' power play success comes from them structuring their regroups more than any other team. They use an entry called the Single Swing very effectively to not only enter the zone but to do so in a way that players are immediately in a 1-3-1 formation and few seconds are wasted getting set up. Using these personnel and Subban as quarterback, here is how such an entry could work for the Canadiens.
Pacioretty is used as a decoy here to draw defenders away from the first read puck target in Gallagher. But Subban and Galchenyuk can also be used to enter the zone if Gallagher is covered. Pacioretty, as intended, isn't likely to be involved in entries with this system, though he can on occasion be sprung for a stretch pass if the penalty killers are napping -- he is one of the worst players among the six teams I've tracked in primary entry responsibility success rate at under 60 percent.
Nobody expects much from this team the rest of the season, and it's difficult to implement anything mid-season. But using a significant amount of time in training camp next season to implement this entry and zone scheme, and practicing it so much that it's as polished as a New England Patriots offensive football play, could lead to a top five power play unit next season, and maybe a huge bounce back for the NHL's most disappointing team in 2015-2016.