Why did Carolina’s power play flicker out?
Now that may be a hard question to answer and before we dive head first into it, I’d be remiss to not say that we are talking about hockey in a certain context.
That context being that hockey was being played in a bubble, 700 miles away, after a four-month hiatus, inside empty arenas and away from families. Were we to have expected perfect play? No, but we can still analyze the performances and look to reasons why, in a normal context, the Hurricanes’ power play — which had been successful in the regular season — may have failed to ignite.
I mean, it had been good, just in stretches. The Hurricanes’ power play succeeded 46 times in 206 attempts during the regular season, a 22.3% success rate, good for the ninth best percentage in the league.
But in the playoffs, the Canes scored only four times in 29 attempts, a miserable 13.79% success rate. The team scored two goals in each series, although that Nino Niederreiter one against the Bruins should hardly count.
The Hurricanes are gifted a lifeline that they didn't deserve. Halak tried to clear the puck himself, and Nino Niederreiter was there to knock it down and put it in the open net. It's a 2-1 game in the third period of game three. pic.twitter.com/H60OBRTmxI— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) August 15, 2020
To assess where the Hurricanes’ power play went awry in the playoffs, one first has to understand what they want to accomplish with it. Score, duh? I know, but teams go about the setup to score in fairly different ways.
But, first things first — let’s talk about the units.
The Hurricanes’ first and second units were never fully solidified until well into the regular season, so their were quite a few variations.
For one, from the season opener through October, Dougie Hamilton, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel composed the team’s first unit. Carolina’s best player, Sebastian Aho, wasn’t even on the first unit until Erik Haula’s first injury in November.
Below is a list of all of the units the potted at least one goal in the regular season.
Power Play Units
|Svechnikov - Haula - Dzingel - Hamilton - Teravainen||8|
|Necas - Staal - Niederreiter - Gardiner - Aho||2|
|Svechnikov - Aho - Dzingel - Hamilton - Teravainen||4|
|Wallmark - Staal - Niederreiter - Gardiner - Necas||1|
|Svechnikov - Staal - Aho - Hamilton - Teravainen||4|
|Necas - Wallmark - Niederreiter - Gardiner - Dzingel||7|
|Svechnikov - Haula - Aho - Hamilton - Teravainen||4|
|Teravainen - Aho - Williams - Slavin - Svechnikov||5|
|Necas - Haula - Niederreiter - Gardiner - Dzingel||3|
|Niederreiter - Haula - Wallmark - Necas - Gardiner||1|
|Niederreiter - Trocheck - Geekie - Gardiner - Necas||2|
|Mixed Units (Partial Changes or 5v3 / 4v3)||5|
The two names that pop out right away are Teravainen and Svechnikov. Essentially the first power-play unit lived or died by them. They balanced the offense as the primary playmakers, typically taking up residencies in both circles.
And there contributions reflected their roles as each not only appeared on the stat sheet for nearly half of the total power play goal share — Teravainen had 21 power play points and Svechnikov had 20 — but they actually were out on the ice for 30 out of the 46 total power-play goals scored during the regular season.
The main power-play strategy then — for good reason— is essentially built around them. The Carolina power play focuses primarily on quick and precise passing to open up shooting lanes and generate tip chances.
Sebastian Aho's 9th goal of the year is a PPG and gives the Hurricanes a 2-1 lead in Buffalo. The centering feed came from Teuvo Teravainen. Andrei Svechnikov gets the other assist. pic.twitter.com/Pkt7q3bXHv— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) November 15, 2019
The power play usually runs a traditional 1-3-1 setup with players at the point, both circles, the slot and either beside or in front of the goal.
The beauty of the Hurricanes’ power play though, and which is especially evident with the elite talent on the first unit, is the fluidity of the positions. Carolina’s players are able to cycle around with each other to confuse defensive assignments and keep the puck constantly in motion.
The most common switch is for Teravainen to take the point and allow Hamilton more room to make plays in close.
Dougie Hamilton wrists one off of Rittich's glove and into the net. A 4-on-3 goal for the former Flame, who seemed pretty excited about the goal. Hamilton's 12th of the year makes it 2-0. pic.twitter.com/46ssmHPws1— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) December 14, 2019
While sometimes the Hurricanes do let Hamilton crank shots like it’s the early 2000’s, most of the power play runs off of the precise passing between the top three players to get high-danger opportunities rather than just full sending clappers from the point.
Unit 2 operates in a similar fashion, but they have their own chemistry quirks that appeal more to their composition’s styles.
The staple contributors — Jake Gardiner, Martin Necas and Niederreiter — have established a strong north-south movement on their opportunities that typically takes them around the back of the net and utilizes a lot of play along the boards.
Both units though, put a lot of emphasis on keeping bodies in and around the front of the net and slot.
Of the 46 total goals, 29 came from below the faceoff dots and 19 of those were right on top of or near the crease.
Key for the Goal Map
Colors: Black/October; Red/November; Blue/December; Orange/January; Magenta/February; Green/March; Grey/Playoffs
Shapes: Circle/Wrist; Star/Tip; Triangle/Snap; Slap/Plus; Backhand/Arrow Down; Deflection; Arrow Left
Power Play Goals by Shot Type
However, most of these were not “dirty” goals. The majority were tips in close or set up snap shots, but the net front presence provided an important element for being able to take away a goaltender’s eyes or knock in any pucks that may happen to encumber them.
A kind of player that Erik Haula found himself playing the perfect role in.
While many may turn to Hamilton’s injury as the most impactful loss to the Hurricanes’ power play — and, to be fair it probably was — another key factor to consider as just as impactful was the loss and then decline of Haula.
Haula was a huge catalyst for the Hurricanes’ power play in the first few months of the season as he was the primary center on the top unit. He not only took most of the faceoff draws, but he also played in the dirty areas in front of and behind the net and along the boards.
Without him in the lineup due to his injury, the Canes’ top unit lost that net-front presence and struggled to find the same kind of success in that area, where Haula excelled.
This eventually led to Aho playing lower in the slot and closer to the crease when he was put back on the first power-play unit. He did manage to find success for himself there, but it was still playing a different role.
Instead of banging away for rebounds, Aho primarily played as a mobile threat that opposing defenses had to keep shadowing. He was a constant available tip in close and when the puck cycled below the circles, he then could become a quick shot option.
Due to his size though, Aho struggled still to gain space in the slot against teams that play a more zone-based penalty kill system with big bodies, à la Boston.
There was a noticeable drop off in Haula’s production when he returned the second time from injury and that coupled with the rumored fallout between him and the coaching staff in Carolina more than justified his trade, but the level he had played at made it apparent what a huge boon that kind of player can be for this team.
The Boston series especially saw multiple scrambles in and around the Bruins’ crease that had the puck dancing around everywhere but past the goal line. The lack of finish plagued the Hurricanes.
Now that we’ve transitioned to problems, let’s take a look at some more of the playoff performance issues.
Another key concern at the onset of the playoffs was that Dougie Hamilton ran into another injury problem and was unable to play against the Rangers. Without him, Sami Vatanen, who was acquired at the deadline, would make his first start for the Canes’ roster playing as PP1 quarterback.
For a defenseman who was touted as a solid puck mover who specialized on the power play, the differences between him and Hamilton proved to be astronomical.
The simplicity with which Teravainen and Svechnikov completed quick and precise passes with Hamilton was really taken for granted when comparing their play with Vatanen. The power play slowed down tremendously as Vatanen proved to not only lack mobility and speed in walking the line, but also because he was slow with his stick, cradling passes and sending many lackluster passes.
His only redemption was the cannon of a slapshot he had, but its failure to reach the back of the net or even really make more than two to three appearances made it a non-factor.
Vatanen also struggled defensively, being unable to trap the zone or hold the line, giving up multiple shorthanded breaks.
Another player usage issue was Williams’ constant presence on the top unit where he looked every bit of 38. Williams was noticeably a step slower than the rest of his unit and it translated past his feet to his hands; where he couldn’t make quick enough passes, plays or shots in close.
He proved to be a much too inefficient producer, in the role that Haula had proven to excel at and that the bench still will struggle to fix.
Further usage issues arose with adding Williams to the top unit. His move not only failed to supply a solid fifth option, but also saw Svechnikov and Teravainen switching places. The bizarre move saw Svechnikov, who played the majority of the season on the left side of the ice during the power play, moved to the right and Teravainen, who played mostly on the right, to the left.
The move took each player away from their more comfortable position, as can be seen with the densities of their shot maps. The only reason for the flip it seemed was to make Svechnikov a one-time option on the right and to also accommodate more so Williams as a right-handed option as all other previous spots had been taken by lefties.
The fact is that this unit proved to be heavily hampered, both with Williams and without Hamilton, for longer than just a stint in the playoffs. Williams had been implemented into the top unit in late January and was kept there for the rest of the season before the pause.
Even while this unit failed to impress, the lack of Hamilton seemed to overshadow the other mismatches of Williams in a finisher role and the swap of Tervainen and Svechnikov. It was obvious that Jaccob Slavin was not a puck mover for the power play, but there were more issues with the unit than just at the point.
So when Hamilton did return, these areas prevented the Hurricanes from being able to really capitalize on opportunities.
While for the most part, the second unit did a good job in generating chances against both the Rangers and Bruins — especially when Dzingel was implemented back into the lineup after Svechnikov’s injury, providing some jump and speed to PP2 — the truth was that Morgan Geekie struggled mightily on it.
He not only had multiple giveaways while in the offensive zone, but he also seemed lost half of the time with his positioning and decisions on where to provide support.
And this isn’t a knock to him, but more so to the coaching staff for throwing him out there without much prior experience before, but the fact was that the second unit couldn’t generate as many chances with only four players clicking.
The ultimate issue though with the power play arose from two technical areas, one being more surprising than the other. The confounding one was that the Hurricanes, who won around 50% of the total playoff faceoff draws, had only won 41.3% of the ones during their power plays.
This lead to easier clears for their opponents and heavily delayed the Canes establishing any offensive pressure.
This coincided with the other struggle for the Hurricanes, that being offensive zone entries. Especially against the Bruins, the Canes wasted a lot of time trying to even successfully enter the Boston zone. The Bruins have always had a stingy penalty kill which blocks not only shooting lanes, but passing lanes as well
As a consequence, many of the Hurricanes’ chances were rushed, turning into poor shots or passes most of the time ending up going the other way. The Hurricanes who had before so successfully relied on patient and precise passing plays throughout the season to generate grade-A opportunities, gave into frustrations and failed to be able to run their power play successfully.
Hamilton’s frustration was especially evident as he continuously tried to force slapshots through the point to little avail.
While the Hurricanes’ fate was all but sealed already, losing Svechnikov put the final nail in the power play’s coffin.
So maybe at the end of the day, one could say injuries derailed the Hurricanes’ season. Hamilton’s long absence saw the power play out of sync on his return, Haula’s reoccurring knee injury took a major price on his game leaving his role void and Svechnikov didn’t have the chance to be the difference maker he is.
But maybe there is some blame to be had. The coaching staff saw that Williams wasn’t really playing at a high level with the top unit. They saw Vatanen’s struggles walking the line and they also decided to put a rookie with only single digits of NHL games played on the power play.
Whatever the case may be, all of these factors contributed to the Hurricanes’ inability to convert on the power play and as such lead to their eventual elimination.
Where to go?
Looking into next season, the Canes have four players solidified for their top unit — Teravainen, Svechnikov, Aho and Hamilton and so that leaves the question of who will fill in that last spot.
Vincent Trocheck has made a few appearances with the Hurricanes’ top unit in his short time with the club already. Trocheck gives that unit more flexibility in the faceoff dot and also added a second right handed shot to the unit outside of Hamilton.
Trocheck also serves as a good option in the slot with Aho, and can help provide tip and cleanup options in close.
Another option could be seeing if Nino Niderreiter can find some mojo in returning to the top unit. His play style on the second unit is akin to the role that Haula had filled with the top unit in playing down low and around the net. He also provides grit along the boards to help with winning possession if need be.
He was tied for fifth on the team in playoff points with 11 and he has all the markings of a bounce back player for next season.
But truth be told though, Niederreiter has shown great chemistry with Martin Necas and Jake Gardiner on the second unit, so it might be best just to leave him be to help create a little more scoring depth.
How about Jordan Staal? Now, hear me out. While yes, Staal has seen heavy offensive regression, there is still a viable reason for having him play on the top unit. If Brind’Amour can convince Staal to play as a net-front guy, there is a huge chance we see a bounce back in his numbers.
He has struggled with finishing for years now, but if he can work on some hand-eye and plant his huge 6’4” frame in front of netminders, he could have a ton of great looks. He would be hard to move and can work along the backboards as well.
And hey, if it doesn’t work he can just go back to killing off every single penalty.
The final at home option would be putting Ryan Dzingel back on PP1. Dzingel has seemingly found himself on Brind’Amour’s bad list as the forward — who had a tremendous start to the season — continued to struggled later into it.
He provides a good amount of speed and jump to the units, being a good option for zone entries, and should see a rebound in his shooting percentage after posting less than half of the numbers he had the previous three seasons.
And obviously if the Hurricanes target another top-six forward in the offseason, there is plenty of opportunity on one of the two units.
Something though that the Hurricanes should look to imitate or at least borrow some ideas from is the Tampa Bay Lightning’s power play. Tampa’s is a highly-efficient, pass-heavy style that focuses primarily on their snipers to score with little worry about net-front presence.
Stamkos scores on the power play to give the #TBLightning a 5-1 lead and earn his third point of the game. Kucherov's great passing gets him his fourth point of the night #GoBolts pic.twitter.com/s2H8UAslOi— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) January 4, 2019
It capitalizes on the high-end skill of their roster, allowing for fluid movement of the unit all around the zone in truly position-less hockey that gets defenders all turned around and then usually in three quick subsequent bullet passes, the puck is puffing out the back of the net.
It’s definitely a style I can see the Hurricanes adopting if they let their skill players have a bit more autonomy. There has already been glimpses of the possibilities between Svechnikov, Teravainen and Hamilton and if they can get Aho in better positioning, it has the potential to be a crazy fun unit.