Florida Panthers Season in Review: Evaluating the coaches (special teams)
A year after the Panthers had the worst penalty kill and the worst power play in the NHL, Gerard Gallant and his team of coaches tried to fix the dismal special teams units. How did they do?
The power play and penalty kill units that the Florida Panthers iced in 2013-2014 were absolutely dismal. The power play converted at a measly 10%, and the penalty kill only managed to kill 75% of the team's penalties. Both of those totals were 30th in the league, and a big part of the reason that the team ended up in 29th place.
The story was a little different in 2014-2015, but the special teams still hurt more than they helped. The penalty kill did slightly better, killing 80% of the opposition's power play opportunities (25th in the league), and the power play had nowhere to go but up, converting on 16.3% of their chances (26th in the league).
Despite the improvement that the special teams saw, they still could have done better. The team had several quality penalty killers, and with the options that the team had available on the power play, they should have been scoring more often.
This should the coaching staff's number one priority in the offseason, as the dismal special teams are what ultimately cost the team a playoff spot. The total goal differential of the two units was -14, while the goal differential of the team at 5-on-5 was +2.
We've looked at the power play before, and concluded that the power play quarterback had no options, which resulted in a low shot rate and an even lower conversion rate. The team did end up changing their power play half way through the season, as sniper Brandon Pirri was added to the mix and helped the team net a few goals. Looking at the team's 20-game rolling conversion rate, we can see when Pirri was introduced, and how he helped the team.
As we can see though, the conversion rate spiked with Pirri, and again when Jaromir Jagr was brought over from the New Jersey Devils.
That decline we see in between the two spikes, however, is because the team ran out of options (again) when Pirri was out of the lineup for a short span of time. Even when he came back into the lineup, the system that the players on the ice tried to run consisted of "pass to Brandon, hope for the best". That lack of creativity will torpedo the success of the unit next season, and finding ways to utilize everyone who is on the ice will be a key to getting the conversion rate up over 20%.
For those who love video evidence, here's a breakdown of what I described above.
The first version of the team's power play was stagnant, and none of the options available to the puck mover really posed a threat to score; none where in position for the more lethal one-timers. This screen shot shows this; there really isn't anyone for Huberdeau to pass to besides Brian Campbell.
When Campbell gets the puck, he has to turn and open up in order to get the shot off. As a result, Ben Bishop has time to get over and easily makes the save.
The later rendition of the power play looked better, with Pirri providing a solid one-timed slap shot from the face-off circle.
In this case, note how Campbell's other option is also open for a one-timer. This is part of what leaves Pirri so open; Campbell has options.
Where this power play went wrong, however, was when the team got too dependent on Pirri. Take the examples below, for example.
Tampa Bay knows that the pass is going to Pirri. They have two people in the shooting lane, forcing him to adjust, and the shot sails wide.
In this long GIF, there are three separate pass attempts made to Pirri. None of them resulted in an unblocked shot attempt.
The power play system worked when there were options for the power play quarterback. The addition of Reilly Smith, who played the point on Boston's power play, and the development of Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, and Brandon Pirri should give the team plenty of different options.
Finding success in 2015-2016 will hinge on getting players open and keeping the opposing penalty kills guessing. If the team needs to change up its system a couple of times, then so be it. All that matters is finding a way to get guys open, in dangerous scoring areas. If Gallant can get that to happen, the dismal power play unit could go from being a weakness, to being a strength.
The penalty kill was actually relatively successful in 2014-2015, but the final total looks poor because of one stretch of games where the opposition's puck luck was through the roof. Let's play "spot the low save percentage"; not really hard, is it?
That immense valley in the middle of the graph comes at a time where Roberto Luongo only managed a .739 SV% while shorthanded. That's not likely to repeat, and given that it only happened once in the entire season, I wouldn't put too much stock into it.
Instead, if the penalty kill was generally consistent for most of the season, I would focus on further reducing the amount of unblocked shot attempts that my goaltender has to worry about.
The best teams at restricting shot attempts while on the PK during the 2014-2015 season were the New York Rangers and the Minnesota Wild, who were both in the top-6 in the league when it came to penalty killing rates.
Last year, Justin Bourne of theScore looked at Unique Traits of each NHL team as part of a very popular series that ran on the website. When looking at the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens, he noted that the two had very successful penalty kills. Here are some excerpts from the two articles:
They (the Flames) have a tenacious short-handed forecheck, but if they think they can’t cause a real disruption, they go super passive.
They string three players across the blue line (two D and a forward), because you want to make the puck carrier make a decision there: either dump it in or try to beat guys cold, which is a turnover waiting to happen. They compliment that defensive string with a forward that skates back with - not at - the opposing team.
Looking at Minnesota and New York, you can see exactly what Bourne was talking about, almost right away. Both teams pressure when they have the chance...
After winning the face-off, Jesper Fast thinks offense and crashes the net. Then, after the puck is directed wide, he goes behind the net to fight for the puck. Sure, he loses it, but that tenacity on the forecheck is what causes precious seconds to tick off of the power play clock.
For the most part, Minnesota was more conservative than New York on the forecheck; if their opponents had the puck, they let the power play move the puck out of its defensive end. This was fine; the objective for the Wild was to force the dump, and have the defensemen ready to turn and shoot the puck out of the zone. If the opposition was allowed to set up, then they tried to stay in a box, until they smelled blood. Then they attacked, like dogs on raw meat.
If their opponents didn't have the puck, however, they forechecked like crazy, and basically said "screw positioning". That's how you end up with two penalty killers almost a full 200 feet from their own goal, which stunts the power play's breakout and wastes time.
When the two teams sat back, they had one forward swing with the opposing winger, taking away the breakout pass and herding the guy with the puck to a specific side of the ice.
After Derek Stepan misses Aleksander Barkov, he eliminates Jonathan Huberdeau from the play by skating right next to him. Barkov is forced to go to his right, and New York prevents the team from entering the zone. The resulting icing forces the Cats to start all over.
Minnesota's forwards look like they're part of Florida's breakout. Instead of pressuring, they just take away Ekblad's passing options and force him to skate the puck.
The end result was usually something like this. With literally no other option besides to skate the puck, Kulikov moves right into the heart of the defense. He gets a shot off, but it's from far out and doesn't really pose a threat to Devan Dubnyk. The puck sails wide, and a couple of whacks from the penalty killers maneuver the puck out of the zone.
One thing I also noticed was that both teams eliminated the pass to the point, and instead would give the wingers on the half boards the middle of the ice. Very rarely is a winger going to risk turning the puck over in that situation, so eliminating the pass makes more sense, especially since it screws up power plays that start at the point.
Here, Fast prevents Brad Boyes from getting the puck up to the point. Jussi Jokinen is also covered in the middle, and a pass to Brandon Pirri would never get through. The only option is to drop it down to to Dave Bolland, but Bolland really isn't in a position to score.
I think this screenshot really shows how these teams played the point pass. Kyle Brodziak is literally behind Huberdeau at this point, clearly trying to take away that pass to the point. It's different than the typical "Stay between the puck and the goal", but it worked.
A series of plays that perfectly embodies why Florida's penalty kill wasn't very effective last season is diagrammed below.
First, Jokinen tries to take away the defenseman's passing lane, but isn't swinging. He gets caught flat footed, and Detroit breaks into the zone with possession.
Here, Bolland charges directly at the defenseman despite the fact that the Red Wing is skating backwards and literally poses no threat to break the puck in. This opens passing lanes, and the Wings waltz right back into the zone.
Only one Panther pounces on the loose puck, and the Red Wings win it. The points are left wide open because of this...
And Detroit gets several quality scoring chances before banging one past Luongo.
The Cats did everything right, but in the wrong order. They were passive when they should have been aggressive and pushed the forecheck when they should have been setting up their forecheck. All of it resulted in a goal against, and it's something that can be fixed.
Gerard Gallant's special teams weren't terrible in 2014-2015, but they weren't good, either. Each finished in the bottom third of the league, and hindered the team's playoff chances.
It may take a bit of work, but there really is no reason why the power play and penalty kill shouldn't stand in the top half of the league at the end of the 2015-2016 season. The players and strategies are there. It's putting them into action that will get results.