The Buffalo Sabres power play finished ranked 16th in the NHL last season, executing at a 19.5% rate. As expected, Ralph Krueger appears to have brought in a new approach to the Sabres strategy with the man advantage.
Improving their success rate on the man advantage this season could be one way the club exceeds expectations that have them finishing in the mid-’80s in terms of total points. Finding consistency in their special teams is a way to make up for some shortcomings in their game at 5 on 5.
Last year, the power play approach under Phil Housley and Davis Payne focused on one-timers from any of the three players at the top of the umbrella. For those of you that don’t know, the top of the umbrella are the three players that are at the top of the zone. Note the picture below for reference.
The power play essentially ran through Jack Eichel last season. According to Natural Stat Trick, he had 124 shot attempts with the man advantage last season. The next closest player (Jeff Skinner) had 89. At times they would try what I called the “pop pass” play last season. They would work the puck down low to Sam Reinhart. He would then try to pop the puck out to either Skinner or another forward in front. See the goal below from Conor Sheary as a reference to this play.
Looking through Meghan Hall’s excellent power play data, you can start to see some shortcomings in the power play last season. During 5 on 4 advantages, they didn’t have a problem getting shots off. Meghan had them ranked eighth overall in unblocked shot attempts per 60. The flip side is that their expected goals per 60 were in the bottom half of the league at 18th overall. Their “core unit” of Dahlin, Ristolainen, Skinner, Eichel, and Reinhart ranked 26th according to Meghan’s data in expected goals per 60 among the other 30 “core units”.
They wanted to utilize their one player with elite shooting talent but to a fault. While Eichel has that dangerous shot from the face off dot, it was relatively inaccurate. As I mentioned, he had 124 shot attempts, but only 68 of those shot attempts (54%) made it on goal. Overall the Sabres ranked 22nd in shooting percentage on the man advantage. A team like the Tampa Bay Lightning can overcome shooting from lower quality scoring areas because of their shooting talent on the roster. The Sabres didn’t have that last season.
In the four preseason games, you can notice a new focus on the power play. That focus is on cross-ice passes. The unit has been able to get their opponent out of position with the puck movement and going cross-ice. According to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, the Sabres only made cross-slot passes 8.7% of the time on the power play during the games he tracked.
Of course, cross-slot passing doesn’t directly lead to success, but if you can execute it properly with speed, you can get the defense off balance. A good example of this is the goal scored by Sam Reinhart against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Eichel moves along the wall with the puck. Skinner, who is by the goal line on the opposite side of the ice, skates toward the face off dot anticipating the middle lane to open.
Eichel sends the puck cross-ice to Skinner. Now, look at every players in white. They’re all looking at Skinner and you Reinhart start to creep out from below the net. Skinner quickly moves the puck back across the ice to Reinhart for the deflection at the far post and the goal.
You can see the full sequence in the GIF below:
So far this preseason, the Sabres have mostly set up in a 1-3-1. On the top unit, Dahlin is at the top and then Eichel is on the near wall. On the far wall Skinner and Victor Olofsson have rotated. Whichever one is not on the far wall, is located in the middle of the ice. Reinhart appears to be more of a rover, but he’s mostly back to being the net-front player. An area he’s succeeded at in the past and for some reason did not get put in that position last season.
The goal from Victor Olofsson gives a good look at the 1-3-1 setup and again the cross-ice passing that results in a goal.
For good measure, here’s another look on the Tage Thompson goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
At this point, I haven’t been able to figure out their zone entry strategy. It appears as though they still want to enter the zone with possession. In the last two games, 11 of their 15 entries on the power play have been controlled entries. Eichel and Dahlin have been the main puck carriers to enter the zone on the top unit. On the second unit, Colin Miller, Casey Mittelstadt, and Marcus Johansson have played that role.
Looking at some entries, the one thing I can take away is they want the puck carrier to enter with speed and carry the puck in for the setup. If the defense collapses, then they have the option to distribute the puck to either of the two wingers standing on the blue line.
We’ll see if we can get a better idea of how successful their entries are early on in the season. They may have dumped that drop pass that people didn’t like (it was effective) but the current approach looks to be simple.
Throughout the preseason, the Sabres have scored four goals on 15 opportunities with the man advantage. That’s a 26.6% success rate, which would put them near the top of the league in the regular season.
The new strategy in-zone looks promising, so far. If they continue to move the puck quickly and get the defense off guard they should have success. It’s also nice that they’ll add another elite shot in Olofsson to go along with Eichel.
Meghan’s data had the Sabres as one of the teams that utilized the 3-2 deployment (three forwards and two defenders) the most last season. That’s primarily because they deployed Ristolainen and Dahlin on the top unit for a lot of last season.
Most teams have at the very least transitioned to the 4-1 deployment (four forwards and one defender). It’ll be interesting to see if that continues with the second unit this season. In the last few games, we’ve seen both Miller and Ristolainen on the ice together after the core unit has their opportunity.
Again, an improved power play gives the Sabres a chance to make up for areas they lack at 5 on 5 from game to game. A top 10 power play, along with a handful of other things, could allow them to surprise some with a higher point total in the standings.