Calgary Flames

A discussion of NHL power plays, Mikael Backlund, and the Flames’ second unit

In the 2018-19 season, the Calgary Flames scored on 19.3% of their power plays. That number was good for 18th in the league, a mediocre yet unremarkable number. This was especially insignificant given the teams first place finish in their division, and one of the best seasons in team history.

However, it’s been even worse to start this season. Currently, the Flames’ power play is tied for 23rd place , scoring on just 15.6% of their opportunities.

The first unit has actually been decent. Johnny Gaudreau led the team in power play points last year with 29, and the rest of the unit that includes Mark Giordano, Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk were successful enough to carry the Flames to their average finish of 18th place.

The problem is that over the last season and the start of the current one, the Flames’ second power play unit has been dreadful. Last season, Mark Giordano had the fewest points on the first power play unit with 21. The next highest scorer on the team was Derek Ryan, who sniped a whopping seven power play points.

Safe to say, the drop off was steep, but what is actually the problem? Let’s investigate.

1. Who has actually been on the second unit?

The second unit has changed personnel a lot over the course of the last two seasons. Last season, eight different players last season received significant playing time on the second power play unit.

PlayerPP TOI (2018-19)PP PointsPP Shots
James Neal140:07628
Derek Ryan138:15713
Mikael Backlund127:10221
Sam Bennett110:28614
Noah Hanifin90:40512
Rasmus Andersson80:55216
T.J. Brodie79:4044
Austin Czarnik70:55316

This season, the unit that has gotten the lion’s share of the ice time has involved Milan Lucic (basically getting Neal’s old minutes), Bennett, Backlund, Andersson and Brodie.

PlayerPP TOI (2019-20)PP PointsPP Shots
Rasmus Andersson22:4802
Milan Lucic21:1905
T.J Brodie20:5101
Sam Bennett18:3701
Mikael Backlund12:4301

For now, that seems to be the unit, with Ryan being the first sub from outside that group, despite the fact that none of the players on the unit have been producing. To provide some context, Sean Monahan leads the team in PP TOI this season with 32:37 minutes and four total points produced. The Flames actually play their second line a good a amount, with only a difference of roughly ten minutes so far this season.

2. How bad has it been?

Well, pretty bad. The unit has not scored this season, and contributed only 12 goals the entirety of last season. Early this season, the second unit has only produced 12 shots through ten games and roughly 20 minutes of ice time. They’ve struggled mightily to even gain entry into the offensive zone, let alone to create shots and chances. By really any metric, the second unit has been disappointing at best.

3. Why in the world is Mikael Backlund still on the second power play?

To put it politely, I have no idea.

Despite playing 127:10 minutes on the man advantage last season, Backlund produced a measly two(!) points. He has been rightly applauded as one of the better two way centers in the whole league, but it seems clear now that he is just plain not very good on the power play.

For all NHL players who played at least 100 minutes last season, Backlund was second last in points (shockingly Christian Fischer of the Arizona Coyotes scored 0 points in 118 minutes of power play time). Even lowering the threshold to 70 minutes of power play time, Backlund is tied for fifth worst in the league.

Ironically, he has been one of the mainstays on the unit despite the lack of production. Even his face-off winning percentage is mediocre on the power play, where he won just 43.3% a year ago. Many of the Flames have struggled on this unit, but Backlund’s struggles may well be the worst, and is accentuated with how much time he’s spent on it.

4. The Flames aren’t scoring, but how do you score goals?

In doing some research on power plays, I came across the work of Topher Scott and Brandon Naurato. They wrote an article called “How Power Play Goals are Scored in the NHL” in which they analyzed every power play goal of the 2017-2018 NHL season.

They looked at everything about the goal, where it came from, how it was scored, and what happened in the lead up to the goal. Some of their findings are really helpful in the discussion of the Flames power play.

Scott points out that more than 90% of NHL teams use the same power play set up; which is basically a 1-3-1 formation. This means that one player is on the point, one player is in front of the net, one player on each “half-wall” and one player in the middle, often referred to as the “bumper.” The Flames are no different, and this has been the same set up the Flames have used.

Scott’s research has some other interesting takeaways as well. The first is that 31% of goals come from the “backside” player. This essentially means one timers, or the quick wristers that players like Auston Matthews and Elias Lindholm have excelled at.

As Scott explained in the article, “it is really important to have a player on the ice at the backside position who strikes fear into the other team.” This makes sense, as a powerful one time threat has long been a staple of NHL power plays, but also represents a luxury that few teams have.

In speaking to Scott over the phone, the most surprising thing to him was that 60% of power play goals came from structure vs chaos. This means that 60% of goals were scored when the defensive team was in their penalty kill setup. Scott realizes that this is vague, but represents a surprising metric.

Most simply, Scott concluded over the phone, that “talent matters.” This is the most important takeaway from the structure versus chaos, that talent really does matter, and that having players who can score in settled power play situations is the only way to sustainably score.

A third important takeaway for Scott was what he called “The Royal Road”. The term means the invisible line from the goal line to the blueline that goes right through the middle of the ice. A whopping 74% of goals scored occurred when the puck went through the Royal Road.

This goes hand in hand with the one timer threats, as the puck has to come across the ice to get to them, but it is clear that moving the goaltender and moving the puck from side to side is very important to scoring power play goals.

5. How can the second unit produce more goals?

Like most teams, the Flames choose to load their first unit with all of their best players, so it is always going to be tougher for the second unit. As Scott said, talent matters, and the Flames, to be blunt, don’t have much on the second unit. The Flames may want to look at playing their first unit more, as their second group plays a lot, and does very little.

That is a cowardly answer on my part though, so what are some actual strategies? I would start with putting Rasmus Andersson permanently at the backside one-timer spot, and make it the central goal of the power play to tee it up for number four.

Andersson has only two shots on goal this year in 22:48 of power play time, which is simply not enough for the player who represents the most dangerous shooting threat on the second unit.

The second solution is to switch T.J. Brodie with Noah Hanifin. Brodie has really struggled on the power play, producing one shot this year in 20:51 of power play time. Hanifin has been solid for the Flames, and should help improve zone entries, something that Brodie has really struggled with this season.

That leaves three spots. The best skill that Milan Lucic has is that he is massive, so he seems like a decent option in front of the net, and one that is unlikely to change given his contract and the need for him to find some production. So really there are two spots left.

Andrew Mangiapane has surprisingly not gotten much playing time on the power play last season or this year, (he has played just 2:04 on the PP in eight games this season). Mangiapane has shown a nose for the net in his young career, and his quick wrist shot could make him a candidate for the bumper spot in the setup. Obviously Mangipane is hurt right now, but hopefully it isn’t serious and I would love to see him in the power play mix upon return.

That leaves the half wall spot. In my mind, it should come down to a decision between Austin Czarnik, and Ryan. Ryan lead the second unit in points last season with seven, and most importantly is the only center on this unit; someone needs to take the faceoffs and help establish early possession.

In this version of the power play, Ryan would be a conductor looking to get the puck to Andersson on the other point, or looking to center the puck to Mangiapane for tip-ins and other opportunities. Having Ryan, a right handed shot, on the half wall should make it easier to pass the puck through the Royal Road and get one time opportunities for Andersson.

Of course, these are just some thoughts on how to score based on the data, and there is no easy way to score power play goals in the NHL, especially without elite talent.

Looking forward, the Flames may want to consider either playing their first unit more, or bumping one of their first unit guys down to give the second unit a jump start, especially considering the first unit is operating at its own mediocre level right now.

Hopefully the Flames keep tinkering, and find a combo that works for them on the second unit to make it, and the team, more dangerous overall.

What do you think the best options are for the second unit? Let me know @jdonville13 or @wincolumnblog.

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