Fixing the Flames Power Play

When the puck dropped to begin the 2017-18 season, the Calgary Flames had visions of contention floating in their heads. After a season of rapid improvement under head coach Glen Gulutzan, the acquisitions of Mike Smith and Travis Hamonic were supposed to strengthen some soft spots in the team’s composition. Combined with some aspects of their game improving, or even merely staying as they were, the Flames were primed for a breakout season.

Calgary Flames center Mark Jankowski
Calgary Flames center Mark Jankowski (Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports)

Unfortunately, the deterioration of the Flames’ star-laden power play has been one of a few big factors that have pushed the Flames closer to the league’s mushy middle than its upper echelon.

The Two Units

The Flames have two primary power play units, each with their own approaches as set up by assistant coach Dave Cameron.

The first unit features Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Micheal Ferland, T.J. Brodie and one of Kris Versteeg (before his injury), Troy Brouwer or more recently Mark Jankowski. This unit plays a more pass-oriented style, moving the puck around the perimeter to open up seams for cross-ice passes. The trigger-man on this unit is usually Gaudreau, with the net-front body (usually Brouwer, Versteeg or Ferland) being used as a screen on the opposing goaltender as part of the 1-3-1 scheme.

The second unit features Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, and one of Sam Bennett, Jaromir Jagr or Michael Frolik. Compared to the top unit, this group plays a more direct, shot-oriented style. Rather than trying to get really good looks or highlight-reel chances, and erring on the side of passing, this unit seems to be fine with forcing shots into the slot and then jumping into the chaos created by rebounds to get secondary chances.

Despite boasting the likes of high-end offensive talent like Gaudreau and Monahan, a blossoming Selke contender in Backlund and a couple recent Norris contenders in Giordano and Hamilton, the Flames’ power play has shown rather middling results despite some good looks. After finishing 10th in the league in conversions last season (at 20.2% efficiency), the Flames are floating near the league’s bottom third at 20th with a 17.6% conversion rate – the difference thus far from one season to the last is the equivalent of three goals, a valuable amount in the wide-open Pacific Division race.

The Problems

The Flames’ power play has had three general, but inter-related, challenges: zone entries, puck movement and turnovers.

If they can’t gain puck possession off the initial face-off, the Flames often have challenges gaining the offensive zone and setting up their power play scheme. Often, their zone entries are dependent on Gaudreau being able to accept the “bump-back” pass from Brodie and hit the blueline with speed, stick-handling around a line of defenders in the process. Quite often this strategy sees the defenders poke-checking Gaudreau at (or just inside) the blueline, or stacking bodies at the line to the point where Gaudreau has to dish off a hastily-scoped pass to his linemates. As a result of this strategy, often the Flames lose the puck at the blueline and have to retreat to their own zone. Or if they do manage to gain the zone, the opposing penalty kill is often able to use positioning to push the puck-carrier to the outside of the zone.

In terms of puck movement, much of the creativity on the top unit flows through Gaudreau. That’s been both a blessing and a curse. When the penalty kill is caught flat-footed, Gaudreau can eviscerate the opposition with quick passes and smart moves. When the penalty kill is on their game, though, they can often use positioning and active sticks to close down passing lanes and isolate Gaudreau on one side of the zone to the point where he has to settle for a sub-optimal shot. Such is the challenge when the quarterback of the power play unit is a winger rather a defenseman; it’s easier to use positioning to box him out.

The top unit’s utilization of Gaudreau as a focal point while utilizing the four forward/one defenseman scheme has led to a few white-knuckle moments due to turnovers. The Flames have allowed four short-handed goals this season; every single one has been when the top unit has been on the ice, and has been the product of a turnover. The single blueliner model has had some success league-wide, but it also carries with it the risk of a bobble at the blueline resulting in a grade-A scoring chance in a situation where they should be going in the other direction.

Some Possible Solutions

In terms of zone entry tactics, a move away from the “bump-back” entry and towards the dump-and-chase method that the second unit relies upon – usually in the form of Hamilton using a diagonal shoot-in – could be a good chance of pace. The dump-in has the benefit of forcing the defending team to abandon the blueline and scatter their alignment in an effort to retrieve the puck.

One thing the Flames coaching staff have already tried out, with some success in their recent 6-1 victory over Vancouver, is changing up the personnel and roles on each unit.

  • The first power play was status quo, with Jankowski filling the fifth spot on the first unit and Jagr, Bennett and Tkachuk taking the spots on the second unit – the man advantage was slightly after a penalty kill, which explains the absence of Backlund from the second group.
  • The next power play was status quo, except Giordano took Brodie’s spot on the blueline.
  • The third power play continued the second advantage’s grouping, with the second group seeing Backlund and Brodie slot in.
  • The final power play saw Tkachuk swap units with Ferland. It worked, as Ferland scored off a nice feed from Bennett.

This success in experimentation, moving players from the established offensive group into new roles on the power play, may turn out to be effective in freshening up the Flames’ special teams. The coaching staff seems set on maintaining the 1-3-1 structure on the power play but utilizing fresh faces in the various roles may be enough to confound the opposition and energize the Flames.

That said, it may be worth cautioning against tinkering too much and just sticking with it. Even with its warts, the Flames’ power play is top 10 in the league at the rate it generates scoring chances and high-danger chances (per Natural Stat Trick). The puck hasn’t been going in nearly as much as it did last year, but they’re generating scoring chances. It may be only a matter of time before the dam bursts and pucks go in en masse.