ARLINGTON, Va. -- There were many times last season when, on a power play, Capitals defenseman John Carlson would take the puck in the defensive zone and skate it out, then abruptly turn around and pass the puck behind him to a trailing Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov. Each time they did it, you could almost hear the audible groan from the Caps’ faithful.
This technique for breaking the puck out of the defensive zone and up the ice is commonly referred to as the slingshot...at least it is by media and fans. Evidently that’s incorrect.
When I asked T.J. Oshie about the slingshot, he had no idea what I was talking about until I described it to him and how much fans had expressed their dislike for it.
“The drop?” he said. “That's definitely not the slingshot so hopefully they can stop saying that. The slingshot's like an actual play.”
No one I spoke to would reveal exactly what the slingshot was, but they all agreed it did not refer to the power play drop-pass breakout. Regardless of what the drop pass may be called, people hate it and love talking about how much they hate it.
It also isn’t going anywhere.
“I think we get in pretty well with it so I don't know what everyone's frustrated about,” Oshie said.
The 2018-19 season was the first time since the 2011-12 season that Washington did not finish the season with a top 10 power play. The team’s success rate with the extra man was 20.8-percent, good for 12th in the league. With the amount of offensive star power the team boasts, Caps fans are not accustomed to seeing the power play struggle. Frustration grew among fans and analysts over the team's struggles and most of that ire was directed towards the drop-pass breakout.
Hockey is a very fast game and that often makes it difficult to recognize plays as they develop. To the untrained eye, offensive hockey can just look like five players skating around without any play or order rather than the organized, coordinated attack that it truly is. The “slingshot,” however, as it was incorrectly referred to, was easily recognizable as was the fact that the power play began to struggle after this new breakout method was introduced.
But for the players and coaches, the drop pass was not the problem.
“Our numbers are pretty similar to where they were the year before,” said assistant coach Blaine Forsythe referring to the team’s breakout success. “I know you guys went hard after that. They can be better -- I think in the playoffs was probably not as good as we have been in the past -- but there's some [other] areas that we need to improve on. We know it.”
Forsythe runs the team’s power play and, though he admitted the team used the drop pass too much last year, he also emphasized the importance of keeping it a part of the power play.
“We probably used it a little bit too much last year, but you still need it in your arsenal because there's times when we have to use it depending on how the PK forecheck is playing it,” Forsythe said.
The Caps are hardly the only team to use this breakout method on the power play. It has become popular around the league demonstrating that clearly there must be some value to it.
The drop pass is just one of several breakout methods Washington utilizes on the power play and it is meant to be used in certain situations to combat certain penalty kill setups.
”If they take away our normal breakouts, that's when you've got to use that,” Backstrom said. “It's just for the purpose of trying to catch them standing still.”
The purpose of the drop is to give the puck to one of the team’s top puck-carriers in stride. The speed in which this is supposed to operate makes it difficult for the penalty killers to defend.
“At times you have to use it,” Forsythe said. “I mean, if teams are stacked four guys across the line, you have to change direction, you have to change speed and that's one way to utilize it.”
“The two guys on the team you want carrying the puck it's Nick and Kuzy,” Oshie said. “We tend to do pretty good on getting that back, getting the puck back when they enter the zone.”
OK, so maybe the power play is not built around the drop pass as much as we thought. But if it is only one breakout method among several and if the team believes it was not the reason for the team’s struggles with the extra man, this begs the question what was?
“I think the power play has been so good for so long and there hasn't been too many changes and some teams have found ways to take some things away on us,” Oshie said.
For Forsythe, the issue was puck possession. The Caps turned the puck over too much and could not regain the puck once they lost possession.
“Our recoveries and turnovers were something we have focused on so far in camp,” he said. “A little bit extra stuff that we have to get dialed in on, but I think the biggest thing was our second effort and some of our recovery plays. Not that the effort wasn't there, but just having a better plan to come up with those pucks and allowing us to get second waves and getting teams tired and having an extended time in the zone.”
Despite the struggles of the power play, the Caps still finished fifth in total goals for the season. The offseason, however, saw the team lose forwards Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky and replace them with Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. As general manager Brian MacLellan looked to improve the team defensively, he did so at the expense of some of the team’s scoring depth.
Getting the power play back into the top 10 of the league will go a long way towards ensuring the Caps do not take a dip offensively, but continue to be one of the league’s top-scoring teams.
Not surprisingly, improving the power play has been one of the focuses of training camp.
“Getting that puck possession back full-time is going to be something we focused on and going forward that's going to be huge because the more time we get to spend in the zone, the more dangerous it is,” Forsythe said.
And what will be part of the team's strategy for maintaining possession? The drop pass.
“I guess if [fans] don't think it works, that's too bad,” Oshie said. “We feel pretty comfortable with it when we've got the puck in our playmakers' hands.”
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