How Erik Gustafsson is helping the Calgary power play

One of the biggest Calgary Flames adjustments to their lineup was adding defensemen Erik Gustafsson at the trade deadline. Gustafsson is a smooth skating defensemen with great puck moving skills, and he has been a stalwart in the line up ever since.

His numbers at even strength are solid but unspectacular: in 7 regular season games with Calgary, he posted a CF% of 43.2, although in the playoffs that has jumped to a more respectable 49.3%.

Where he really makes his mark, however, is on the Flames power play where he was a surprising addition to the first unit. I say surprising because captain Mark Giordano has been effective on that first unit for the past number of years, and it was a bold move to bump him down to the second unit.

But it seems now that the switch has largely worked. Not only is Calgary’s man advantage unit one of the best in the playoffs, but the second unit has been more effective than it has been all year. Part of that is better play from guys like Mikael Backlund and Dillon Dube, but having Giordano to anchor that unit has been helpful as well.

How good has the power play been? As of August 20, the Flames are ranked fifth in the entire playoffs with 28.1% power play efficiency, according to NHL.com. Looking at the rates per 60 minutes of power play time, the team ranks third in power play goals for (behind the Florida Panthers who only played in the play-in series, and the Colorado Avalanche who scored three PP goals in a 7-1 drubbing of the Coyotes).

The Flames are benefitting from high shooting percentages. They are scoring on 18.0% of their shots on the man advantage, which puts them fourth in the entire playoffs, but they are in the top ten in corsi for per 60 minutes, so they are generating their share of the chances, and getting rewarded at a high clip.

As for Gustafsson, he specifically has not contributed much in terms of points. He has two assists in 32:51 of power play ice time throughout these playoffs. And he isn’t much of a shooter either, having taken just 8 shots through the 30 minutes. He is a different player than Giordano in this sense.

Giordano was effective largely because of his ability to get shots through. When he would get the puck, he was usually looking to shoot, and it produced decent results. He also was more of a threat one timing the puck from the point, which was where he added some value.

While Gustafsson is less of a shooter than Gio, he is much better at getting the puck side to side. That is where his real value is, because the Flames operate their power play without the advantage of a truly elite one-time threat from the wing. Most teams revolve around getting the puck to one shooter, and letting him tee it up, but the Flames don’t have that luxury.

So when Gustafsson moves it quicker than Giordano, the seams in the middle of the ice open, and that lets the Flames best players do what they do best. It lets Johnny Gaudreau look through the defence, opens up Sean Monahan in the slot, and lets Elias Lindholm shoot or look for a deflection. So the result is better power play results, without Gustafsson actually getting any points.

Gaudreau’s goal from Game 4 is a good example:

When Gustafsson gets the puck, he isn’t looking to shoot, but moves the puck quickly from side to side. This opens the seams for a good look through by Lindholm, and traffic to the net. This is a good strategy for a power play. Move it from side to side quickly, then immediately get it on net.

The same thing happens on Sam Bennet’s game two tally.

It doesn’t look like much, but Gustafsson keeps the puck moving, and importantly helps it go from side to side. This opens up the defence and creates seams. These seams allow the Flames best players (Gaudreau) to do what he is actually good at – find the cross ice passes. Stick taps as well to Sam Bennett, who has made this system work for him, after finding a way to squander so many chances like this in regular seasons past.

I wrote about the Flames power play back in October, and I also spoke with Topher Scott. Topher runs a hockey website called The Hockey Think Tank, and wrote a great article on How Power Play Goals Are Scored in the NHL. One of the most interesting findings he had was that 74% of power play goals happen after the puck crosses “The Royal Road” which is an invisible line from the net to the blue line that cuts the ice in half.

That is a remarkable percentage of goals that come a certain way, and it shows how important Gustafsson’s movement is. In the above clip, the puck crosses “The Royal Road” four times. Gustafsson does it twice, then Gaudreau once, and Lindholm finds Bennett on the back post. The numbers bear out what the eye test has shown with Gustafsson. He is really good at swinging the puck side to side, and that is the most important way to score power play goals.  

Now, it is important not to overstate his role. He has been solid but not otherworldly, and many watching the games probably wished Gustafsson looked a little more intense during the games. But the power play is humming, and I think it is large part to Gustafsson’s ability and willingness to keep the puck moving without needing his own shots.

With the team still struggling at even strength, they will need to keep the power play in top shape. It was a bit of a let down in Game Five, especially when they got a chance right at the end of the game and couldn’t capitalize.

If the Flames have a chance to win Game Six and keep the season alive, they will need the unit to produce. And for Gustafsson, the formula is simple. Don’t do too much, keep the puck moving side to side, and let the best players be themselves.

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