Capitals

Will the Capitals' power play rebound?

Capitals

When hockey finally returns in 2021, the Capitals will have their sights set on the Stanley Cup. Every team enters each season with questions that need to be answered. We are looking at the biggest questions facing the Capitals in 2021.

Today's question: Will the power play rebound?

Over the past 10 seasons, the Capitals overall have boasted the best power play. Last season, however, certainly dragged down the average. Overall, the unit wasn't horrendous, with a 19.4-percent power play on the season, good for 17th in the league. That average, however, was greatly helped by a hot start. From Jan. 1 through the rest of the season, Washington dropped to 24th in the league with 16.9-percent. In the postseason, the Caps were clicking at only 17.9-percent.

For a top unit that boasts Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson, it was staggering to see the team struggle that much on the man advantage and is something the team will hope to change in 2021.

What went wrong with the power play? There were a few issues that became evident over the course of the season. One is the team's transition into the offensive zone. Everyone is tired of hearing about the slingshot (which is not what it's actually called, according to Oshie). We've all seen it. Carlson takes the puck in the defensive zone, very slowly begins to skate forward, then casually drops the puck back at about the blue line to a trailing forward to take up ice.

 

This drop pass transition can be run effectively if it is done with speed, but the Caps have never run it this way. They have always run it too slowly and predictably which does not allow for the desired affect of the penalty killers scrambling to defend against a streaking forward cutting through their formation to break the puck into the offensive zone.

Washington was not as reliant on the drop pass in 2019-20 as it was the season prior when it appeared to be the only transition they had, but they still used it too much and did not run it effectively.

More glaring than the transition in 2019-20, however, was the team's slow and methodical style once set up in the offensive zone. One player would pass to another, stickhandle a few seconds, pass the puck off to someone else who would stickhandle, see there was no lane, pass it off again, etc., etc., etc. No one was thinking a step ahead. When you have the man advantage, you should already know where you are going with the puck once it gets to your stick. A shorthanded team can't defend against a power play that is quickly distributing the puck around. The Caps just weren't doing that. They were taking their time, stickhandling too much and simply allowing enough time for penalty killers to block their lanes. This would eventually lead to forced passes or shots that were intercepted and cleared.

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Peter Laviolette's teams have been up-and-down when it comes to the power play. Over the course of his tenure with the Nashville Predators from 2014 until he was fired on Jan. 6, 2020, the Predators ranked 29th in the NHL on the power play at 17.8-percent. In three seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, however, (I'm not including the three games in 2013-14), ranked third in the NHL. Before that, Carolina ranked 27th.

Blaine Forsythe returns in 2021 as an assistant coach. He has been the architect in charge of the team's power play for several years so I doubt we see a dramatic overhaul of the power play or the team's tactics on the man advantage in 2021. But really, major changes to the structure of the power play are not needed. There are a few simple solutions the team could take just in order to make the power play more effective.

First, the team has to use more speed on the transition. If they insist on using the drop pass, use it with speed or not at all. In the offensive zone, the passes need to be much quicker off the stick. They should know where they are going with the puck before it even hits the tape. Backstrom also needs to take more shots. He is the quarterback of the power play running it form the half wall and teams almost always give him an absurd amount of space to work with. It really looks as if teams are assuming he won't shoot so they give him the lane and instead look to cut off his passes instead. He needs to take advantage of this when teams give him that much room. Sometimes it's OK for the quarterback to call his own number.

 

The addition of Justin Schultz should also boost the power play, but only if they actually use him which brings us to the final point: Use the second unit.

I get it, when the top unit is as stacked as Washington's the temptation is to lean on them because you know they have the potential to scare at any moment. Ultimatley, however, it does the team no good to see five of your best offensive players skate in and out of the offensive zone for 90 seconds because they can't keep possession and then give the second unit 30 seconds of cleanup duty at the end. Players like Schultz, Jakub Vrana and Lars Eller are good offensive players. Use them.

There is too much offensive talent on Washington's roster for this team to be just average on the power play. For that reason, it should rebound, but only if they address the obvious and correctable mistakes they allowed to creep into the power play in the first place.