In part 8 of this series, I examined the penalty kill tactics of Kraken coach Dave Hakstol and his staff. In this part, I will continue to focus on Seattle’s special teams, with a look at the coaching philosophy and schemes at work when the Kraken are on the power play.
Hakstol’s philosophy: smart possession plays
A power play is an enormous, structural advantage, but only for a limited period of time. If an NHL team of average power play skill skated a full 60 minutes worth of 5-on-4 time, it would be expected to outscore the opponent almost 7-to-1, per MoneyPuck. Over a two-minute increment, however, the pressure to convert opportunity into production is intense. The natural instinct is to rush pucks to the net.
Yet Hakstol and his staff emphasize a patient, meticulous approach on the power play that prizes possession. The lesson presents as similar to that of the tortoise’s race against the hare: a humble, methodical approach will prevail in the end.
Why? The penalty killers know a power play is a race against the clock to convert. Their goal is to limit the shot quality by guarding the net front, and burning time whenever they can put possession in dispute or gain the puck outright.
An overanxious outside shot is often a win for the penalty killers because the defense has positioned itself to maximize recovery of missed or blocked shots and clear the puck 200 feet down the ice. It could be 30 seconds or longer before the power play is able to re-establish itself in the offensive zone following a successful clear.
The same is true for uncontrolled, dump-in zone entries. If the penalty killers get the opportunity to create a scrum, they can drain precious time; and worse still, the penalty killers can gain possession and clear.
The risk of losing one quarter or more of your power play reorganizing whenever the opponent touches the puck countenances taking a few extra seconds to be smart in possession plays, both at the blue line and in the OZ.
Let us take a look at how the team manages man advantage possession with its scheme and then return to the issue of the team’s patient, methodical approach when grading the team’s performance.
Power play NZ transition scheme: double late forwards
Personnel-wise, the Kraken will deploy four forwards and one defenseman on most power plays. After the puck has been cleared by opposing penalty killers, the Kraken reorganize at or behind their own net.
Typically the defenseman controls from the DZ and skates the puck up the middle of the ice with speed. Two forwards—typically the F1 and F2, who will assume positions along the boards in the OZ scheme described below—advance on each wing. This approach is designed to drive the penalty kill forecheck back at least past the center line.
While this advance is happening, F3 and F4 are looping behind the play and then turn to gain speed, sprinting forward from the Kraken DZ as the defenseman hits the center line. At or around the red line, the d-man needs to decide whether he can achieve a controlled entry himself. Ordinarily, with four set penalty killers staring straight at him, there is no such opportunity.
Thus, the D typically fires the puck back to the advancing F3 or F4, whichever is determined by the coaching staff to be the superior possession player. This player (we’ll say F3) receives the puck and attacks what should be a flat-footed defense core with as much speed as possible.
By this point F1 and F2 should have drifted near the OZ blue line at the boards, either ready to receive an entry pass or jump into OZ play or forecheck formation.
In this clip, Vince Dunn (No. 29) advances from behind the Kraken net up the middle. Jared McCann (No. 16) advances as F1 along the far-side boards at the top of the screen and Matty Beniers (No. 10) advances as F2 at the bottom of the screen. At the same time, Alex Wennberg (No. 21) and Jordan Eberle (No. 7), F3 and F4 respectively, circle behind to gather speed. Dunn fires the puck back to Eberle who attacks through the neutral zone at high speed. The Kraken achieve a controlled entry when Eberle taps the puck to McCann at the far boards. McCann cycles the puck around the boards to Beniers and Beniers sets up the OZ structure.
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After the D fires the puck back, the two late forwards (F3 and F4) cross in their advance with the player in possession slightly ahead of the other advancing forward. If the possession forward is checked in the neutral zone and does not see a path to a controlled zone entry, that player has one last option before aborting the rush. He can make a drop pass to the other late forward advancing along an almost perpendicular line so that he can carry speed attacking the opposite half of the ice.
In this clip, we see two consecutive drop pass attempts, the first unsuccessful and the second somewhat more so. At first, Carson Soucy fires the puck back and Wennberg advances. Seeing his avenue toward a controlled entry at the near-side boards closed off, Wennberg executes a further drop pass to Eberle. Unfortunately, the pass is just a little too late, and penalty killers are on Eberle just as he receives the puck.
On the second advance, Soucy fires back for Eberle, who drops for Ryan Donato (No. 9). Donato has exchanged with Wennberg as one of the “late forwards” on this second rush. Donato takes the puck and achieves an uncontrolled entry at the near-side boards.
Power play OZ scheme: 1-3-1
Once established in the offensive zone, the Kraken deploy in a 1-3-1 formation. D is at the top of the formation at the center of the blue line. F1 and F2 are aligned by the circles at the near and far half boards. F3 is positioned directly in front of the net. And F4 is aligned in the slot directly between the other four players. From this alignment, the team runs various set plays designed to manipulate the defense and generate prime scoring opportunities.
The top defenseman is the point player and quarterback of the power play. He moves subtly along the blue line to keep himself aligned with an open lane for a shot to the goaltender (through tips and screens from F3 and F4) and with an open lane for passes to F1 and F2. If a shot is not available, the point man’s role is to quickly move the puck from one half-boards player to the other.
The half-boards forwards (F1 and F2) are the most important decision makers since they initiate most shot/pass options in the 1-3-1. While facilitation is important, these players also should have a capable-or-better one-timer slap shot. Typically, you want these players on their off wing, meaning a right shot on the left side and a left shot on the right side, to allow for effective weak-side one-timer opportunities. Alex Ovechkin built his reputation as one of the greatest scorers ever in large part off of his prodigious half-wall one-timer ability on the Capitals’ power play.
The slot-positioned bumper forward (F4) is positioned to hold the top of the penalty killing defense from pressuring puck possession high. The bumper player is constantly shifting his angle to keep his stick free to receive a pass for a quick one-timer or further pass from the slot.
The net-front forward (F3) is positioned to provide screens, tips, and recover rebounds under heavy pressure from the defense. This forward will also at times leak out to the near side corner to attempt a high-to-low play with the bumper player.
In theory, the 1-3-1 alignment makes switching the puck from the near-side boards to the far-side boards easy without realigning personnel. Whichever side the puck is on, there is a triangle formation to create pass/shot options, and a weak-side half-boards player ready to receive a cross-ice pass for a one-timer shot if that passing lane opens.
Set play 1: the point shot
The first set play utilized by the Kraken in the 1-3-1 is the point shot. The puck is distributed side-to-side in an effort to get the defense and goaltender off angle, and then the point defenseman takes a one-timer or snap shot from the point through screens and potential tips from F3 and F4.
In this clip, McCann takes and wins the OZ draw after Wennberg is kicked out of the face-off circle. The two therefore exchange positions in the 1-3-1, with Wennberg staying on the near-side half wall and McCann moving to the net position. Dunn gathers possession and fires a point shot looking for the top left corner of the net or a McCann deflection at the net mouth. McCann connects and almost directs the puck in. A rebound slides out into the slot and Beniers—wisely crashing from the weak-side half boards—cleans it up for his first ever goal.
As is the case at even strength, the Kraken frequently deploy and rely on these orchestrated point shots on the power play. Per Corey Sznajder, the Kraken have set up more point shots on the power play than any other team in the league.
Set play 2: the half boards shot
The second set play is a shot from the circles by a half boards forward. D cycles down to F2, who has the option of a quick shot or a pass across the seam to F1 for a weak-side one-timer.
In this clip, Dunn sends the puck from the point down the near-side boards to Victor Rask (No. 49). When Rask sees a seam for a cross-ice pass open, he delivers the puck on target to the other half-wall player, Daniel Sprong (No. 91), who rips a one-timer into the net.
Here is another example of a shot from the half boards that created a net-front rebound and an eventual power-play goal.
Set play 3: net front release/low play
The next set play involves the net-front player moving away from the top of the crease a few strides to the strong-side of the formation, hopefully drawing out a defender with him. He makes himself available for a pass, and after a receiving the puck immediately looks for a low-to-high angle to send the puck back up to the bumper or across to the weak-side half boards for a one-timer directly on goal.
In this clip, Wennberg releases from the net front low at about :07 to maintain possession after a rebound and then cycles the puck high. Having moved out, he holds that position to create a passing opportunity from the strong-side half-wall player McCann. When Wennberg then receives the puck back, the defense collapses on the bumper player, Eberle, leaving a passing lane to the crashing weak-side half-boards player, Beniers. Wennberg connects on the pass to Beniers and Beniers gets a quick one-timer on goal, but is robbed.
Set play 4: the bumper shot
Seattle’s final commonly used set play is a bumper shot play. The half boards player holds the puck and moves to pull the penalty killer coverage off the bumper player just far enough to allow for a pass into the slot and a quick shot from the bumper.
In the first half of this clip, Eberle and Wennberg exchange to execute a variation on this net-front release play described above. Eberle, the bumper player, releases low to receive a pass, and Wennberg, who had been playing net front rotates up into the slot. Eberle attempts this centering pass at :12, but the defense breaks up the play.
In the second half of this clip, the Kraken re-form the 1-3-1 after the Senators failed to clear the zone. At :22, Beniers is at the near-side half boards. Finding the passing lane open, Beniers feeds the puck to Eberle in the bumper position. Ultimately, the one-timer attempt from Eberle was thwarted.
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Three-forward puck retrieval and centering pass
As described above, the Kraken’s NZ transition scheme on the man advantage prioritizes controlled OZ entries, but certain penalty kill schemes are specifically designed to frustrate controlled entries by stacking the penalty killers at the defensive blue line. Against such schemes, or against particularly skilled defensive penalty kill units, Seattle will more frequently dump the puck into the zone and recover possession in the corners before initiating any of the 1-3-1 set plays described above.
In these circumstances, the Kraken will commit three forwards deep to win the puck battle (typically the bumper player, the near-side half-boards player, and the net-front player).
In a typical 5-on-4 scenario, the opposing penalty killers are then faced with two options. First, commit only two skaters to retrieval, which gives the power play the numbers advantage. Or, second, commit three penalty killers, leaving only one skater in net-front coverage. The latter scenario should leave a power-play skater unchecked for an immediate centering pass off of a won puck battle. You can see an example of this in the clip above.
Scheme scorecard: Disciplined play but static sets, stagnant goal production
Through these schemes the Kraken have been successful managing the puck on the power play. Per Money Puck, the Kraken power play ranks in the top five in fewest takeaways conceded to the opposing penalty kill (40 total) and in the top 10 in fewest giveaways to opponents (26 total).
Likewise the Kraken’s NZ scheme has done well to avoid disruptions at the blue line. Per stats compiled by Corey Sznajder, the Kraken rank sixth in the league in controlled entry percentage on the power play, crossing the blue line with full possession 60.1 percent of the time. From that point, the Kraken rank 11th in the league in successfully establishing their OZ structure off an entry, doing so 39.3 percent of the time. In a situation where every second is important, these are solid numbers.
As an aside, keen observers or long-time readers here may note that this emphasis on controlled OZ entry is in stark contrast with the team’s even-strength approach. As it stands now, only approximately 50.1 percent of Seattle even-strength entries are controlled entries, per Corey Sznajder.
The Kraken’s judicious puck management has also served them well to avoid conceding a significant number of quality scoring chances to opposing penalty killers. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Kraken have generated 89 percent of the total high-danger scoring chances when on the 5-on-4 power play, which is second overall in the NHL. And when accounting for all shots taken by both teams during a power play, the Kraken rank fourth in the league in xG percentage at 90.75 percent. All of these underlying possession and defense numbers are very good.
Yet, similar to the refrain about this team at even strength, the inaugural Kraken just haven’t scored. The team is currently fourth worst (29th overall) in the league in power play conversion percentage, potting a goal in just 14.6 percent of opportunities. Per MoneyPuck, the team ranks in the bottom ten (23rd overall) in xGF per 60 minutes on the power play.
The Kraken do rank a somewhat more respectable 21st overall in expected goal differential per 60 minutes on the man advantage, with this number buoyed somewhat by the team’s responsible defensive play. But the team needs to score more power play goals.
The power play was all too often static and over-determined this season, with passes exchanged between immobile half-boards players and the point defensemen leading to a relatively low-percentage point shot. This need not be the case. The scheme is flexible and provides players with myriad options, but the team needs the talent, creativity, and practice time to decipher and drive the various set plays laid out above. The side wall facilitation, in particular, hasn’t been good enough. The Kraken didn’t move the puck side-to-side or high-to-low nearly well enough to regularly pull penalty killers or the opposing goaltender off their lines. Scoring often seemed to depend on a remarkable individual effort. This shouldn’t be the case.
Matty Beniers has shown some juice as a decision maker (and also as a shooter) on the half boards in the early going. Kraken fans should hope that this is a glimpse of a more dynamic power play to come. But, as it stands, Yanni Gourde has recapped the team’s performance on the power play well.
Next: post-season series recap
And, with that, we’ve made it through nine parts, addressing numerous core schemes, tactics, and philosophies deployed by Coach Hakstol and his staff in this inaugural Kraken season. I plan to return with a final post sometime soon after the season to recap the series, update some of the numbers we’ve looked at, and provide some overarching reflections. Thanks for following along.