Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Canadiens PP

Is It Luck Or Kovalev?

Slowly, but surely, the Canadiens powerplay throne has been usurped. After a year where they could do no wrong, the Canadiens currently find themselves having to think about ways to score with an extra man.

As with everything Montreal hockey, theories abound as to why this is so. Robert at Eyes on The Prize thinks all our opponents now have a system to shut down Kovalev and thus, the majority of our chances; Carbonneau (via RDS) suggests it's luck. Marc de Foy covers it also, though it's RDS in duplicate pretty much.

So who is right?

Both, I suspect.

Carbonneau is right in some ways because, after all, no one has invented a new system for the powerplay in living memory. 2 players at the point, 1 near the net and 2 floating around the boards is standard fare throughout the league. Calgary have a decent powerplay, don't tell me stone-age Mike Keenan has done any fancy planning.

If Carbonneau keeps deploying the same system (the tried and true NHL method) and keeps asking for shots on PPs – the Canadiens with the talent they have near the net will approach the average 18% or so. So, he's right, 14.6% is a bit unlucky – it pretty much reflects a bad run (which so early in the season distorts the average). It would be wrong, though, for the coach of the team, he who's job it is to think of strategies and ways to improve performance, explained it all away with luck. Hopefully sooner or later, even Carbonneau might be shamed into doing a day's work.

As for Kovalev – as Robert rightly points out some teams do use the following system against us (notably Boston and Philadelphia):
"... they position their four point box openly to form more of a rectangle, with the two closest points aimed directly at Kovalev. With limited space, Kovalev often tries to create options where there are none - flipping passes off the ice where there are no clean lanes, or skating a back and forth "S" pattern to open his end of the box and sneak a shot on goal."

But others seem to let Kovalev have free reign. And to be honest, I haven't been remarking the puck being lost from Kovalev's stick as much as Robert suggested. There is something off with Alex on the PP this year, but he's not alone in that regard. Koivu, for example has been just as bad, if not worse.

My diagnosis
My problem with the PPs of late goes beyond players for me. It is that the pattern of play has all seemed a bit frantic. Everyone has been playing a bit like Chris Higgins during a 12-shot game. Shots have not been placed as they could be, merely directed in the general direction of the net. Missed shots, saved shots and blocked shots all turn into giveaways. Frantic play plays right into the hands of the penalty killers, who thrive on frantic play themselves – battling, diving, batting, swatting, whatever.

What the PP should offer that even-strength does not is time undisturbed on the puck. Once the offensive team crosses into the opposition's zone, a patient game of keep-away is possible. The Canadiens used to be expert at this. During their recent "struggles" they have chosen to jettison patience from their arsenal. Opting instead for a more panicked and so far, unsuccessful approach. They never give the feeling of impending goal, because it's hard to tell what is impending at all from most of them. I don't think they have been too predictable for the opposition, but too unpredictable for each other.

I suspect a little more patience (which includes the quick accurate passing Robert mentioned, just not early shots) would yield better results – something in the 20% range even.


My suggestions
I have a few ideas that I would try, mainly because I don't think they could hurt. I wonder what you all think...

1) Be more patient
As I mentioned, this strategy doesn't necessarily rely on players being at any one position or another, just that the right players are on the ice – ones that are capable of holding the puck and waiting for a pass. Those include Markov, Kovalev, Koivu, Tanguay, Lang Hamrlik, Sergei K, Plekanec and Andrei K. Chris Higgins for all his proven effectiveness at even strength and on the PK is a disaster on the PP. He can't hold the puck for more than a split second without shooting or making a premature pass.

2) Kovalev at the point
Why not give Robert's solution a go – we have a forward at the point anyway:
"To do this, the Canadiens would then employ Kovalev and his passing skills on the blueline. He would only shoot on net when obvious chances presented themselves. Otherwise, he would act only as a simple wheel man in rotating the puck to both sides of the ice with defense partner Markov."

Kovalev has the best shot on the team and can be tricky at keeping the puck in. It certainly can't hurt. My only fear is that it would only rotate the play by 30 degrees or so, and no real watershed would come from this.

Alternatively, why not Andrei Kostitsyn at the point? Underused so far this year. He doesn't see the action opposite Kovalev. Why not use our second best shot on the point and leave Kovalev where he is? Why not try to get Andrei shooting more (and hopefully scoring like he can)?

3) A reliable defenceman at the point
Sure it won't be offence, but then neither is Brisebois (OK, he's contributed a bit). A reliable defenceman would free Markov to pinch more. Right now he is covering back all the time for a forward or a D who couldn't stop a short-handed breakaway with a 5-second head start. These guys are in short supply, but Bouillon and Gorges could fit the bill. Maybe even Komisarek if he remembers how to play some time soon.

4) Latendresse for Higgins
I don't mean to pick on Chris, but as we are in trouble and my diagnosis calls for more precise and less machine-gun-like shooting, I think Guillaume could be the stationary guy at the side of the net. He, after all, excels at being stationary. Higgins as I have mentioned a few times now is a bit too hyperactive to be part of a settle-it-down plan.

5) Bring up Yannick Weber
Good shot (99.2 mph). Good stride. Is a defenceman (albeit a rookie). He is doing alright down on the farm on the PP. And he did alright up here on the PP during camp.


Even if Carbonneau does nothing (as per his precedent)and the rut continues, this is not really a huge matter for concern. The Canadiens still have the 4th best goals scored per game ratio in the Eastern Conference. Second among teams who can't count on players named Ovechkin, Semin, Malkin and Crosby.

Last year at this time, there was some alarm in the press (what, in Montreal?!?, you say) about even strength scoring and being over-reliant on the powerplay for goals. I guess we'd be complaining about that if the PP was up...

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