Wednesday, November 07, 2007

How the Habs keep powering their PP

A lot of people round the league wrote the Canadiens off when they lost Sheldon Souray. Even more joined in when the free agency signings were totalled up.

But now many of these "experts" are looking at the Montreal Canadiens and wondering how they got to be third (let's dispense with the actual standings for a minute) in the East. And, critics and fans alike are wondering how their powerplay could possibly be first.

Looking at it logically, you can see where the write-offs came from:

The Canadiens missed the playoffs last year.
Much of their plight was due to a lack of scoring in critical games.
Most of their scoring last year was on the PP.
Souray scored a team leading 19 PPG – NHL record to boot.

So, take away Souray and:

The Canadiens PP will lose at least 19 goals.
The Canadiens PP will be worse than last year.
The Canadiens even strength may or may not improve, but most likely stay the same.
They score even less goals.
They lose more games.

I admire the logical process, I do. But it's like a calculation when you get a bit of the early bit wrong, the end conclusion will be way off. Most of the above thinking is logically sound, but the assumptions about the Canadiens PP and how it worked were clearly not very well founded.

Michael Farber, one time Habs expert, now occasional commentator had this to say on Souray and the Habs:

"This shouldn't compute. When Sheldon Souray signed as a free agent with the Edmonton Oilers last summer, he took his Hammer of Thor slapshot and the 19 power play goals -- a record for NHL defensemen -- with him. Souray's shot, which put as much fear into the forwards who were expected to go to the front of the net for a deflection as it did into goalies, was a freak of nature. Doug Jarvis, the Montreal assistant coach in charge of the power play, put it to excellent use. The Canadiens might work the puck around a little, but everybody in the arena knew it was going to end up back at the point and the maestro would wind up and hammer it. Montreal's power play, among the top ranked in the league until it slipped late in the season, was basically The Anvil Chorus."

Sure, as Farber says, Souray could shoot hard, and sure this probably helped him score a few (let's say 8 to be generous). In my opinion, the shot from the point (or the middle of the ice) probably has the highest likelihood of actually going in the net or being deflected in. It is a great play. However, once other teams know this is the play, they will be able to take away the opportunity more times than not.

Now, even I have conceded that losing Souray cost us 8 goals. So why is the PP better?

In my assessment focusing our efforts into getting a Souray shot actually damaged our PP proficiency. There are several ways I see this being possible:

Souray misses, the goalie saves or defender blocks, and:

a) the puck was recovered by the other team
b) the puck went over the glass
c) the puck came out of the zone
d) the players recovered the puck and went about setting up for the big shot again

As we all know, a powerplay is a lot more complex than the goal that comes at the end of it. A powerplay that relies on a variety of plays, or indeed on that creates new plays on the spur of the moment, will be more successful in the long run because it better exploits the lack of defenders.

I would argue that the key to the Canadiens powerplay last year was the ability to set the stage for the Souray shot, and not the Souray shot itself. My conclusion is that the Canadiens PP this year and last were/are above the league's average because of the quality of the passers they have on the ice rather than the shooters.

So who is the one responsible for all this success?

Well, Michael Farber might have you believe that it's down to a decision to play regular lines rather than PP units. I might give this idea some credence if it weren't so banal. I might also think it benefits the PP, except that the regular lines change so much that the consistency argument goes out the window a bit. Plus, using regular lines is nothing new – PPs good and bad (and terrible) have been doing this for ages.

Farber's article also quotes an NHL scout, who like me opts for the ability to move the puck around, and he claims the key is Koivu:

"They got too dependent on Souray. Now they're throwing the puck around better, moving into spaces, getting some two-on-ones down low. The key is Koivu. I can't remember him starting a season so strong, with so much confidence. His passes are really sharp. Last year his passes were too hard sometimes, and guy's couldn't handle it. He's playing much better now."

Not to take anything away from Koivu, but he has only been on the ice for 11 of the Canadiens 22 PP goals, so he may not be the whole answer. Koivu plays a low position and is critical in puck control when he's on, but he does not orchestrate these affairs.

That job belongs to our PP conductor: Andrei Markov.

His tricks on the PP include breakout passes, gaining the zone, keeping the puck in, simple passing, cross-ice seeing eye passing, shooting from the point, and pinching when appropriate. His biggest trick is how he manages to do all this and garner hardly a mention from the critics who drooled over Souray.

If you watch him on the ice, watch his eyes. What you can see is concentration, poise and vision at the line. He passes and sets himself up for the next play seconds ahead of the opposition. He inherently knows where Koivu and Kovalev will be. When to pass to Streit and when to take on the defenders.

He's been on the ice for 17 of the Habs 22 PPGs. He's tied for 6th in PP scoring among defensemen. And I can't account for the number of times he's been the originator of the play that becomes a goal.

He's all we ever hoped Malakhov might be when we traded the talented Schneider and he's our top tier defenseman since Chelios.

The Russian (Cyrillic) characters PP would translate to RR in English. Luckily for us, in the town where Markov comes from, they seem to have taught their hockey players to translate PP into G.

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