Canadiens’ power play could benefit from radical change

Shawn McKenzie and Eric Engels discuss how Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield may already be feeling the pressure from the fans, and if it's too early for Montreal to be concerned during this slow start, and Alexis Lafreniere's memorable night.

MONTREAL — Shortly after general manager Marc Bergevin put the finishing touches on his opening-day roster for this season, a conversation I was having with a long-time NHL executive yielded an interesting suggestion.

I’ll paraphrase, but he said to me, “Looking up and down Canadiens forwards, I’d built a screw-it line.”

“What exactly do you mean,” I asked.

“You’ve got Mike Hoffman, who is mainly an offensive guy and a guy who’s not exactly known for being too defensively reliable,” the executive started. “You’ve got Jonathan Drouin, who fits a similar description. Drouin likes to carry the puck and distribute it, Hoffman likes to find dead spots and shoot it, so put them with a shifty guy like Mathieu Perreault and tell them to go all offence.”

Of course, this flies in the face of what Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme wants at his disposal — four lines he can trust in all three zones and against any opposition — but the principle behind it was thought-provoking.

I don’t know if it’s a remedy for what’s ailing the Canadiens at even strength, where they’ve produced just three goals in three losses, but I initially thought the logic would lend well to operating a dangerous power play.

It led me to ask Ducharme, in an interview held the day before training camp started, if he’d consider putting a unit together consisting of five forwards. A screw-it unit of sorts.

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This didn’t make the piece we published on Sept. 22 — we had to cut some meat off that enormous bone — but here’s what the coach said:

“I’ve done that in the past,” Ducharme started. “Right now, we don’t see it that way.

“But we have nothing against that. If we feel that would be the best thing to do, we’ll do it.”

It won’t be what Ducharme opts for on Tuesday, with Hoffman expected to make his Canadiens debut. Even at 0-for-11 on the season, he’s not prepared to go nuclear just yet.

But I think there’s merit to the idea that while balance is wise to aim for at five-on-five, stacking one power-play unit could make the Canadiens that much more dangerous on those three or four opportunities a game.

It would be unwise if that strategy left the second unit bereft of talent, but the Canadiens have enough power-play personnel to still come up with something equitable to what they pieced together for Monday’s practice at the Bell Centre.

Here’s my vision:

Most good power plays start with a won faceoff, and Christian Dvorak (who’s won 64 per cent of the 11 faceoffs he’s taken on the power play through three games) qualifies as the man for that job. That he’s proven to be highly effective from the middle position on the power play — he scored the majority his 19 power-play goals with the Arizona Coyotes from that spot, flashing down to the net — secures him on this five-forward unit.

I’d put right-shooting Cole Caufield and his lethal one-timer on Dvorak’s left and the left-shooting Hoffman and his lethal one-timer on his right. And I’d have Jonathan Drouin and Nick Suzuki, two players who can sub into the dot for faceoffs — and into the bumper when Dvorak moves to the goal line — running the points.

Before I get to why I think it can work, I want to address this question, which always comes up about a potential five-forward power-play unit: Who’s going to defend against shorthanded chances?

Happy you asked.

The answer is: screw it. You’ve got the wrong mentality if that’s how you’re thinking about it. Good power plays put penalty killers on their heels and keep them scrambling and guessing; they don’t step on the ice worrying about potentially giving up chances the other way.

A scout I shared the idea agreed and added, “Suzuki and Drouin are both smart enough to not be teeing up one-timers into shinpads and giving up two-on-ones down the ice.”

“At the end of the day, it’s about having threats everywhere — players who make the penalty killers break their box,” he said.

Hoffman put it this way on Monday: “Look at the best power plays in the league, they don’t have one option; it’s having guys that can make multiple plays and multiple options.”

Having him across from Caufield would be fundamental to the versatility I think this five-forward unit can offer, and I’d suggest the Canadiens should opt for that regardless of whether or not they choose to go with five forwards.

When you think about the most lethal power play in the game over the last five seasons — which belongs to the Tampa Bay Lightning — having two world-class one-timers across from each other on each half wall is its most prominent feature. If that team has scored on over 24 per cent of its power plays since 2016, it has much to do with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov making it impossible for penalty killers to cheat to either side.

Of course, you can’t get those shots off without being able to enter the zone in possession of the puck, but that’s part of the reason Drouin and Suzuki are on this fictional unit.

It’s not the only reason, though. Both are gifted playmakers, so they’ll be controlling the flow of things in the offensive zone. And while neither would be considered a true scoring threat from the point, they can shoot precisely enough to get their shots deflected or generate rebounds.

Neither player would be fixed up top, either. Suzuki could still float down and shoot from his spot on the right side, where he’s scored the bulk of his 11 power play goals in the league. And both he and Drouin would not only rotate into the middle to shift Dvorak down, they could actively switch to the half walls with Hoffman and Caufield covering up top to create the type of player movement that is just as essential as puck movement on an efficient power play.

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It’s a gamble to run with these five players on a single unit, but one worth taking for a team struggling to generate chances — let alone goals — on the power play.

The hedge is a unit that includes Jeff Petry up top, Josh Anderson in the bumper, Brendan Gallagher down low, and Tyler Toffoli and Joel Armia on the walls. A unit that might not be able to enter the zone as often in possession of the puck, but one more capable of dumping and retrieving pucks than the top one; one that can really play a simple shoot and rebound game; one that could be considered to be no better or worse than what Ducharme intends to use as a second unit against San Jose on Tuesday.

Maybe the return of Hoffman and the balance the Canadiens are trying to achieve on both units finally generates the result they’re looking for. Perhaps one thing clicks and sparks a chemistry that hasn’t consistently been featured on the Montreal power play for several seasons.

But if it doesn’t, it’s time to start thinking outside the box.

I’m probably not the only one who thinks that time came long ago and that it’s time to say, “screw it,” and try something completely different.

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