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Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche Power Play Woes Examined

Austin Manak Avatar
April 30, 2015


The power play — one of the more compelling facets of NHL hockey. In reality, it is a small part of the equation, yet it frequently has a large impact on the final outcome. How often does a team lament missed opportunities with the man-advantage after a loss, or applaud the power play if it helps achieve victory?

The Colorado Avalanche power play was lamented more than it was applauded this past season. To put things bluntly, it kind of stunk.

A 15.0% success rate secured the Avalanche the 2nd-to-worst power play in the NHL. Only the Buffalo (sorry about McDavid) Sabres were more futile on the PP. Those keeping tabs on shot-metrics will know that the Avs finished 2nd-to-worst in Corsi and Fenwick ratios to the Sabres as well. Not ideal company for the Avalanche to be keeping, considering the Sabres tanked harder than Brad Pitt in Fury.


Now, I know there are many examples of teams having success that defies the odds. For example, Minnesota and Anaheim have a good chance of meeting in the Western Conference Final, and they finished 27th and 28th on the power play this past season, respectively. Chicago surprisingly only iced the 20th best power play in the league, yet they have a chance to grant a sigh of relief to Avalanche nation and dispose of the Wild in the second round.

The Calgary Flames were only a hair better than the Avalanche in shot-metrics, yet they are on to the next round of the playoffs, and the Corsi-Kings of Los Angeles didn’t even make the post-season.

Each stat is only a piece of the puzzle, and puzzles are a lot easier to solve when you have all the pieces. If I see a potential advantage to be gained, or an area to be improved in, I want that to happen. For the Avalanche, these are glowing opportunities for improvement. Let’s examine the power play.


Nathan MacKinnon

For me, the key ingredient in the Avalanche power play moving forward, is Nathan MacKinnon. The prodigal youngster tabbed to provide offensive juice to the Avs lineup for the next decade-plus had an interesting sophomore season in the NHL.

Especially interesting, were stark differences in his power play shooting charts from his rookie to sophomore seasons.

MacKinnon PP shot charts

Looking at the charts above (courtesy of sportingcharts.com) you may be surprised that they represent the same player. MacKinnon generated 15.7 shots per 60 minutes on the power play, with most of those shots coming below the dots during his rookie season (on the left). Fast forward to his sophomore season (on the right), and MacKinnon saw his shot rate drop to 8.5 shots per 60 minutes, with most of those shots coming from the perimeter.

I find it amazing that MacKinnon only took 22 shots on the power play last season, and a mere handful of those shots came below the dots. What happened to the Avs’ Calder Trophy winning golden-boy?

MacKinnon abandoned the tactic of getting to the net on the power play in year-two. This is alarming, considering how many NHL goals are scored from in close. With a right-handed shot, we can expect MacKinnon’s kitchen to be above the face-off dot to the goaltender’s right. If MacKinnon wants to eat, he needs to get to the dining room in front of the net more often moving forward.

MacKinnon actually did a lot of very positive things at 5-on-5, notably his 5th best shots per 60 minute rate in the NHL for players with over 200 minutes of ice time. Unfortunately, he was victimized by a Nate Guenin-ish shooting percentage of 6.33%, which stymied his goal scoring output on the season.

The power play woes weren’t nearly as hindered by unfavorable “puck luck.” MacKinnon has room to improve, and especially to become more assertive as one of the focal points, if not the focal point, of this power play.


Team Tactics

Nathan MacKinnon’s low shot output on the power play isn’t unique among Avalanche players. In fact, it may be a symptom of a larger team-based flaw.

The Avalanche ranked 27th in the NHL, with 88.7 attempted shots (Corsi) per 60 minutes. The Avs often seemed reluctant to shoot the puck, and tried to set up the perfect play rather than taking advantage of many good plays staring them in the face.

A much bigger can of worms can be opened here, in the debate of — is it better to take the first shot you can, or be patient to set up a better shot?

Rather than opening that can of worms, I’ll say that there is more than one way to skin a cat (why is this even a phrase?). Look at the Washington Capitals. They had the league’s premiere power play, with a success rate of 25.3%. The Caps also boasted the highest rate of shot generation, with a 115.4 Corsi for per 60 minutes.

Their strategy is pretty simple — get Alex Ovechkin the puck anywhere on the side of the ice to the right of the goaltender, and let Ovi fire away. The Russian star took an astonishing 141 shots on the power play last season, which translated to 26.4 shots per 60 minutes on the ice. The Caps are the prime example of a shoot first style of power play.

On the flip side, the 2nd best power play in the league belonged to the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings utilize crisp passing, and creative away from the puck movement on their power play. Despite being 15th in the NHL with 99.1 attempted shots per 6o minutes, they converted on an impressive 23.8% of their power play opportunities. The Wings are an example of a power play that looks to set up quality scoring chances by breaking defensive structures down with the pass.

The bottom line is, you want to be able to put pressure on the opposing teams penalty kill one way or the other. In my opinion, the Avalanche did a poor job of this on their power play last season.

Too often, the Avalanche looked like a team without a plan or an agenda. Players generally were in the right places, and there were instances of good puck movement, but there wasn’t always a concrete end-goal or objective to their actions. I always felt like the Avalanche waited for something to happen on their power play, rather than making something happen.

The Avs chose not to be a shoot first team, and their passing and strategical decisions often failed them when they tried to break down the defense for better scoring chances.


Game Plan Moving Forward

For the Avalanche power play to improve, they need to improve in a few areas: have a clearer focus, shoot the puck more, and find ways to put additional pressure on the opposing penalty kill.

When it comes to focus, Nathan MacKinnon should be front-and-center. MacKinnon is arguably the most talented offensive player on the Avalanche, and the Avs need to take advantage.

Get MacKinnon the puck in situations where he is isolated, and can make a play. Set him up for shooting opportunities like the Capitals do with Alex Ovechkin. Make Nathan MacKinnon a threat. Doing so will give him an opportunity to shine, and also attract defensive attention — opening up opportunities for the rest of the team.


MacKinnon will need to become a more assertive player for this to work. It will be up to him to command the puck, and trust himself to make plays, rather than deferring. I think MacKinnon, perhaps, took a backseat to guys like Jarome Iginla, Matt Duchene, and Ryan O’Reilly a bit too often on the power play last season. Great players make everyone around them better, but they also know when to be selfish and take over.

Shooting the puck more is pretty simple. Ultimately, shots are an easy way to pressure the defense. If defenders know you aren’t a threat to shoot, it makes their job easier. The balance I mentioned earlier of shoot first vs. scoring chances is important, but getting rubber to the front of the net is rarely a bad thing.

When it comes to other ways to pressure the penalty killers, I envision doing this with creative movement away from the puck. John-Michael Liles was known for his signature backdoor pinch on the power play, often taking the defense off guard. Nick Holden showed flashes off this in his first season with the club, but seemed much less confident and aggressive last season.

Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson have both shown they are capable of providing a dynamic presence on the ice, and they need to continue finding ways to create chances from the backend. Involved and capable defenders can make the difference between a great and not-so-great power play.

Consistent movement away from the puck will continually alter passing angles that defenders need to account for. It’s important to have structure on a power play, but teams aren’t well-served to be rigid in that structure. Taking risks, being creative, and at times being where you aren’t expected to be is a great way to keep defenders on their toes.

The Avalanche have so many talented offensive weapons. In some ways, I think they need to adjust their mindset on the power play to being more aggressive and finding ways to get pucks to the net and make plays, rather than trying to fit into the structure of a power play.

This past season provided a lot of opportunity for learning and adaptation for this Avalanche team, particularly as they look to become an offensive force in the NHL. The power play is an area ripe for improvement. Hopefully Nathan MacKinnon and company took notes, and will deploy a power play to be feared next season.

*stats and chart credit to stats.hockeyanalysis.com and sportingcharts.com*


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