The Dallas Stars Power Play: The Disease and Cure

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[Editor's Note: This was too good of a post not to put on the front page. Great stuff here.]

Hey everyone! Today, we're gonna look at everyone's favorite thing to criticize about our beloved team: our Power Play. It started off the season pretty awful, caught fire and burst into the supernova it was supposed to be for about 5 games, and then went flat again. So our objective here is to examine what the Stars do well, and then apply those same principles to fix what they don't do so well. In between, we'll have a brief break down of the general concepts power play and penalty kill, generic throughout the league.

So to start off, what do our boys do well? If you've been watching the Stars for a few years, you'll have picked up this year's change for how they enter the zone. Under both Crawford and Gulutzan , the team relied very heavily on a stretch pass to player cutting across the middle at the blue line. If it didn't hit, they often spent the rest of the time trying to chase down the puck along the walls before it got cleared and then trying the same thing all over again. Last season under Ruff was better, but not particularly deliberate. It often seemed to be something along the lines of just letting someone like Seguin try to carry the puck over and then set up if he succeeded. This year, at least at the first of the season, was something much, much more beautiful.

The graphic below shows the Stars represented by the green dots and their opponents in red. The gold dot represents the puck carrier. The arrows show where that particular player is going in the next frame with the length acting as an approximation for speed. Later graphics will show a dashed black line, which is meant to indicate passing of the puck. In this case, we're picking up at the point right after the Stars have beat the first fore checker. Generally, teams will only send one player to fore check on a PK. Even then, they aren't really expected to turn the puck over so much as delay the rush a little to kill some time, and to herd the rush towards one particular side of the ice to make defending easier. The other three defenders are generally further back to prevent a breakaway pass and to prepare to stack their own blue line. In our example, the Stars will be coming up the left side, since we know they are prone to based on our defensive handedness limitation.


What's going to happen here is that the defenders on the sides prevent any passes to Stars along the boards, while the middle defender and fore checker will combine to push the Stars puck carrier towards the left side, timing their coverage to converge right as our player gets to the offensive blue line. However, in order to do this, there must be three players on the defending squad on and moving towards one side of the ice, while two of them are slowing down to try to hold the line. The Stars will use this simultaneous convergence and loss of momentum against their opponents by dropping the puck back to the left side defenseman, who will almost immediately send it across to the right side defenseman who is skating up the ice will a good head of steam.


What this does is remove all three of those defenders from being able to make a play on the new puck carrier because two of them have essentially stopped skating to hold the line, while the former fore checker has his momentum taking him left and away from where the new puck carrier is going. This leaves the final defender on the right side no choice but to surrender the line and allow the Stars entry. If he tries to hold, he also will lose his momentum and risk being blown past, giving a free lane to the net. In order to hold that lane, he must keep his speed up and move to the middle, allowing the puck carrier to either skate it in or pass it up to the winger along the right boards.

The only way to stop this is to have that initial fore checking PKer break off the back check to cover the dump back. However, doing this frees up our initial puck carrier to move down the center of the ice with only one man to beat, and with the only objective being to get in onside. The middle defender of the three on line will likely have to back off to respect the puck carriers speed if there is no back check, or they risk being blown past for a breakaway. In the absolute worst case, the puck carrier chips the puck deep to whichever corner it is clear he can get to first and retrieves it himself. If executed right, there really is no reason why this entry shouldn't result in zone time


Either way, the Stars gain the zone without ever surrendering control of the puck, or even any immediate pressure, allowing the rest of the team to get in onside and set up.


Once in, the Stars again have a tendency to run things from the left side. This is because Seguin has the best overall combination of passing and shooting skill and is right handed. Putting him on the left side of the ice gives him the ability to take a one-timer if the opportunity arrives, and to just have a slightly better angle when shooting by having his stick towards the middle of the ice. Handedness determines a player's ideal spot to set up from, while skill set determines who acts as the QB. The addition of the right handed Spezza this offseason and recent promotion of the right handed Klingberg to the top unit only serve to increase that left side tendency.

Below, I'm showing both an overload and an umbrella power play formation with the Stars having moved the puck over to what is usually Seguin's spot after getting in and set up. The Stars typically rotate back and forth between these formations to change their passing lanes and looks at the net, but that's about the extent of the movement you'll see. Primarily, they are attempting to open lanes with their passing until they the seam through the box is open from one side of the umbrella to the other, allowing for a one-timer or quick shot.

Set Up

Now that we've broken down what the Stars can do well (entry), let's break down some general PK/PP concepts, though this will not include puck retrieval in the corners and along the walls. Today, we're just looking at how the Stars run things once they are in and have firm control of the puck. Before we do though, I highly recommend making sure you've already read Erin's articles on normal defensive zone coverage. Here you can find primers for wingers, center and defensemen, and the combination of a full play. There's also one on defending a cycle, here. The goal in reading these is to get an idea of the natural instincts a team has when defending, which they must fight against when playing the PK.

The main thing I want everyone to take away from those is that hockey is largely a man-on-man defensive game. True, the wingers play a bit of zone up high, but the moment the puck goes up to the point, they also enter man coverage. The reason this is important is because it's entirely opposite when killing a penalty: every single defensive player enters zone coverage. The goal in the movement of every power play is to pull the defenders into playing man coverage so that they end up neglecting a part of their assigned zone, leaving the power play with an open passing lane, which becomes an A-grade opportunity on the goalie.

Unfortunately, the Stars largely try to do this almost exclusively with passing and with minimal player movement. In effect, the Stars power play (and most in the league, tbh) end up playing what you could call a zone offense, which I have diagramed below including all the set spots from both Dallas PP formations. Many teams use similar formations, but the most effective are those that have the most movement by individuals within these designated zones, and the elite power plays look more like a system of interchangeable parts as plays swap zones regularly. I'll get to why a little later.

Offense Only

To understand why the Stars are largely ineffective, let's now examine typical PK defensive zone coverage. As I mentioned before, the PK is forced into a zone coverage style defensive simply by the nature of what a power play is. The lack of man power also means that defenders will be less aggressive the further away or worse the angle from the net. PKers generally will not go after a "50/50" puck like they would at even strength. The result is a zone scheme that prioritizes covering the middle of the ice and reasonable shooting lanes much more that attacking to create turn overs. Below, I show the average zone, and then also overlay it on top of the Stars offensive zone scheme to illustrate why the Stars generally cannot create PP opportunities.

Power Play Zones

As we can see, the Stars zone is pretty much covered by the defensive coverage. The only real exceptions are the wide angles along the walls, which are generally considered non-threat areas. As a side note, that's probably why players like Seguin, Ovechkin, and Stamkos are able to get shots from the same area, power play after power play, year after year. Because they are elite shooters, they are dangerous from an area that most players wouldn't be, while the defenders still have to respect the rest of the offensive players that are hanging out in the "real" scoring areas. Returning to focusing on the Stars, we need the power play scheme to add some principles to increase their effectiveness. Some of these are purely from my own observations, a couple will be me repeating established hockey legends.

1. The player on the receiving end of a pass is just as much the play maker as the player making the pass.

This is something I heard Razor say a few years ago, I believe in reference to something our old friend Ribeiro had done, and it's entirely true. A play always requires a finisher, no matter how much fancy work a play maker does to set it up. Our power play guys are usually plenty capable of recognizing when they can become dangerous, but they would be good to remember that that happens more frequently when they are moving and creating passing lanes for the passer, not just waiting for the play maker to make them all by them self. After all, it's much easier to defend a passing lane that is only changing from one point than one changing on both ends. This is why the most dangerous looking power plays always have player movement as well as puck movement.

2. The further you are away from the play, the closer you are to it.

This one, I think I heard on an old instructional shooting video by Brett Hull, and I seem to recall him crediting his father, Bobby, with it. It helps explain why he was able to "get lost" so often despite everyone knowing he was the most dangerous shooter on the ice. This point ties in with number 1, because you can create the play even when you don't have the puck. It will also tie in with some later concepts, including number 3.

3. Force the defending team to consider the player with the puck to be the most dangerous threat.

This is the first one I can take credit for, and it's especially important on the power play. This is because the penalty killers generally do not lose track of their zone responsibilities when they feel the player with the puck isn't a real threat to score. The way the puck carrier opens passing lanes is by moving in a way that forces the defenders to consider him a threat as a shooter, not just a passer. The more aggressive your puck carrier is, the more willing to abandon all other responsibilities the defenders are, setting up the play you really wanted all along. All too often, the offense is content to pass the puck around the outside, never getting the puck into a "high threat" area.

4. Cycle in one direction; pass the puck in the other.

The purpose of this principle is to use the defender's momentum against them, similar to the successful entry we first talked about. If the power play moves about the ice as a single unit, you effectively dictate how the opponent must move to defend you. This player movement counter to puck movement is how you trick or force the PK into playing man coverage instead of zone. If they fail their read, then the opportunity is obvious and you take it. But even if they don't, controlling the movement allows for a sort of real time check mate where the offense can force the PK into a set position and then execute a set play from there.

Beyond that, I'm sure you've heard it said on the broadcast that "starting and stopping is hard." And it is. A mobile power play that moves the puck in the opposite direction forces the penalty killers to first decide if their responsibility has changed, and if it has, to stop moving the direction they were going and turn around to get back into proper position. Being a man up allows the offense to keep their movement continuous, so they move just as much but without exerting as much energy. The end result is that you either tire out the defenders from the hard skating or they just make a mistake when they reassess their job after a pass. Either way, you increase the likelihood that a high grade chance can be generated.

5. Everyone must recognize the moment when the setup has succeeded and the attack should commence

Principles 3 and 4 are used to create the opportunities to use principles 1 and 2, but in order for it to be successful, all the players on the ice need to be able to recognize when opportunity has arrived. Luckily, you generally don't have to teach this to elite offensive players, and those are typically the guys out for the power play. When the chance to attack comes, it is up to the players without to puck to assess how they can become the most dangerous given how the defender responsible for them reacts to puck carrier attacking the net. If your defender holds his current responsibility to you, then stay a slight distance away from the net. There's no reason to bring the defender back to the area of the ice where you want the advantage. Covering a player away from the net increases the advantage ratio for the power play in the space that truly matters (4:3 and 5:4 are both one man advantages, but 1.33 is stronger than 1.25). Instead, prepare to retrieve the puck should it get knocked to the corner, or cover a point if that's where your rotation had you going anyway. However, if your defender concludes that they need to do something about the puck carrier now being the biggest threat on the ice, you are now free to execute principles 1 and 2, which should result in a lot of open net to shoot at if the puck gets to you.

6. View the attack as four 2-on-1s and a 1-on-0, not as a 5-on-4

This principle is for the puck carrier that initiates the attack on net, and it is used for the same ratio advantage described above. 5-on-4 becomes a 1.25 ratio advantage. 2-on-1 is a full 2.0 ratio advantage. If one of the 2-on-1 situations doesn't help the attack, ignore it. That teammate should recognize that have picked up the role of retrieval or point coverage, and their defender should also be far enough away that they don't affect the attack to the net. If a defending player panics to cover you now that you're on the way in all alone ends up leaving his guy open, that choice is now obvious. Change the angle of attack and get it on net: goal.

The 1-on-0 aspect is if the puck carrier has the time and space to rip a shot off from the slot. This is a power play, so you're expecting this to be guys like Benn, Seguin, and Spezza. They have the ability to beat a goaltender, and it's ok to let them try. Maybe there's a rebound, maybe there isn't, but it's sure as hell better than passing the puck around for two minutes hoping to get shot that might be as good as Benn walking in to the hash marks. If that's what's given, take it. And at least three, if not four guys are crashing for the rebound. Worst case, you reset and do it all again. Eventually, something will go right.

So what do these look like in action? Well, there are a number of different flight patterns that could all force a break down into man coverage and create an attack lane. One is just a simple circle path, shown below and the attack pattern that follows once you've pulled the defenders out of their zone and towards the moving offensive parts. You could also do a figure eight pattern, spread over the whole offensive zone or overloaded to just one half of the ice. A sideways figure eight would work, so long as the rotation pulls defenders up and away from the net, not down and towards. The final example I have is that you have the same circle pattern we started with, but have the puck carrier skating a different direction than the rest of the rotation. This makes passing the puck off easier, but would also mean the offense has to start and stop each time a hand off occurs.

Flight Pattern

I'm sure some of you can come up with other patterns. The main thing though, is that your pattern has offensive players constantly changing which defensive zone they are in, and ideally the movement pulls defenders away from the slot instead of leading them towards it. As long as that's done, eventually you get the puck to someone who is no longer sufficiently covered by the PK, and then the drive to the net begins.

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