My life away from writing about hockey, at least at present, is as high school football coach. A major part of the job is watching film and identifying ways to improve or finding weaknesses and tendencies in your opponents. Its tedious but important work. Properly analyzed film can make the difference between winning and losing, but the real trick is to use that information in such a way that its easy to understand and provides useful information to utilize in future games.
Virtually every team in the NHL and many in the AHL employ video coaches. Legendary head coach Roger Neilson, appropriately nicknamed “Captain Video” for his pioneering use of video in hockey instruction in a day and age long before digital video files and specialized game analysis software. So having watched hundreds of hours of Wild games I think I’ve noticed more than a few things about the team’s strategy and execution, especially its approach to the power play.
The lay man’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. I think this is especially true of the Wild power play. Tell me if this sequence sounds familiar Wild fans; Mikko Koivu takes the puck along the wall near the faceoff circle and waits and waits before sliding a slow pass out to the point to Ryan Suter who waits and then passes the puck back to Koivu who has ample time and space to shoot the puck himself but after careful consideration he dishes it back to Suter who then tries to force a shot that doesn’t make it on goal and the opposing penalty kill clears the zone.
That sequence played itself out game after game the last two seasons, so despite other upgrades to the Wild roster the team continued to play ahead with the same power play combinations. Despite the above description of the futility of a portion of the Wild’s power plays it still finished 16th in the league scoring at a 17.9% rate. Still, there is some significant room for improvement. What can be done?
I will examine the personnel, the strategy and execution of the Wild power play and make some basic and achievable suggestions I’d like to see in the 2014-15 version. The team assigned former Wild winger Andrew Brunette to try to spark the team’s play on the man advantage and I think its best to say they had mixed results. Brunette has now been added to the coaching staff, we can only assume he’ll stay in charge of the power play unit. An upgrade on the power play could go a long way to improve what was the NHL‘s 24th most potent offense. So what needs to happen for this to occur?
1. Emphasize quick puck movement - I know this can be easier said then done, but when the Wild’s power play struggled it was static with very little in the way of puck or player movement. This made it extremely easy to defend and to deny passing and shooting lanes with a minimal amount of exertion by the opposing penalty kill. When the Wild were successful on the power play, the puck movement was fast, crisp and never allowed the penalty killers to get settled and quality shooting opportunities were created. A quick one-timer takes advantages of the shooting lanes created by the faster puck movement. The one-timers that are on goal are more likely to result in rebounds and thus creating secondary scoring chances. Of course, putting those one-timers on goal would also have to be major emphasis at practice so you don’t spend too much time clearing the offensive zone on missed shots.
2. More variety in strategy makes it more difficult for opposing penalty kill units to shut the power play down – It’s just like pass coverage in football; if you use the same one all of the time your opponents will take full advantage of it. The Wild have been guilty of being a one-trick pony over the years. They have typically employed the umbrella; to try to generate pressure by shots from the point. Unfortunately, slow puck movement has often made it very difficult to get many on goal and thus many a power play goes by without even registering a single shot. With players like Koivu, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter who are strong along the boards the team has the makings of a successful power play unit that could work the puck deep in the zone and taking the puck to the net. The team can vary its strategy from power play to power play; even if that means utilizing different groups of players for that specific purpose.
3. More Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, less Koivu and Suter on the power play – I think since a major goal is to move the puck quicker on the power play, a shift in what players get the majority of the power play time will go a long way to achieving more success on the man advantage. A key part of that is giving more ice time to players who demonstrate they can move the puck more quickly and efficiently; so I’d use Mikael Granlund as the pivot instead of team captain Mikko Koivu. Granlund thrives with time and space even though he may not be nearly as physically imposing I think his creativity and playmaking ability could really get the most out of shooting wingers like Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Parise. It is also for this reason why I’d try to give Nino Niederreiter more of an opportunity on the power play as well. He combines size, strength, and most importantly a willingness to shoot the puck that will not only lead to more goals but likely more rebound chances as well.
Another player who I would like to see less on the power play is Ryan Suter. Suter was the Wild’s top defenseman in points, but on the power play he often does little more than pass the puck back to Koivu and even though I see his presence as less problematic than Koivu, he could also be well served by at least having some rest. The power play should be the territory of Jonas Brodin (who also had 8 goals) and Jared Spurgeon or perhaps even Christian Folin. Brodin demonstrated considerable improvement and assertiveness in his offensive game last season, and Spurgeon and Folin both possess heavy shots. From time to time last season, the Wild started to use its 2nd power play unit; made up of mostly youngsters to spark its power play. Its time to give those young, dynamic players even more of an opportunity this season.
Last year, on my football team we had issues covering the tight end with our outside linebacker. So that forced us to re-examine how we teach the position and what we want that player to look for. I think much the same thing would be beneficial to the Wild, and sometimes you have just change personnel to be a better fit for what you want them to do. Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher often talks about “fit” and its time the team makes some adjustments to its power play to take full advantage of the talent within its roster.