Over the last decade, NHL power plays have become mostly standardized in alignment. Though motion and switches happen constantly, nearly all teams eventually settle into a 1-3-1 formation: a defenseman at the point, three forwards in line with the faceoff dots, and another in front of the net.
The umbrella setup, with two shoot-first defensemen and a forward at the top of the zone and two rebound-hunting forwards near the net, was popular for generations. But goalies have become too big, and too technically sound, to be beaten by point shots that aren’t deflected. The Kings of the early 2010s had success with the overload formation, which saw all five skaters focus on one side of the ice, but they were an outlier.
When coaching in New Jersey, former Bruins playmaker Adam Oates used a 1-3-1, with Ilya Kovalchuk as the main weapon. It took off when Oates brought it to Washington in 2012. He had Alex Ovechkin as a back-side, one-timer machine in the left circle. Nicklas Backstrom was his right-wall distributor. The Capitals created two-on-ones all over the ice, moving the puck for quick shots before the defense could set. They set the standard.
The four-forward alignment is now familiar. The rise in skill training across the league has led teams to trust puck handlers, live with the risk, and worry less about giving up shorthanded goals. Two other factors that have helped this movement: composite sticks and mobile defensemen.
Lighter, stronger sticks have allowed shooters much weaker than Ovechkin to fire missiles with increased accuracy and power. The more agile, confident defensemen there are in the league, the less teams worry about a bouncing puck or a blocked shot going the other way. Teams no longer need two blue-liners up top as a security measure.
“There’s probably more great young defensemen in the game than there’s ever been,” said Craig Hartsburg, a premier offensive D-man in the 1980s and former Chicago and Anaheim coach. “For a long period of time, kids didn’t want to play defense. It was, ‘Get it out, get it in.’ In the ‘80s, we all wanted to play like [Ray] Bourque and [Paul] Coffey, then the game went away from that — just bang it up the boards. Now you’re looking for guys who can play with the puck and support your forwards. The D are a huge part of the highlight reel.”
The point man on the power play has to move well laterally, distribute the puck with poise and deception, and be fast enough to win footraces for loose pucks. But they are no longer considered the show-runners.
The most dangerous power plays in the league — Edmonton, Tampa Bay, and Boston — run through Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, and Brad Marchand on the right boards, halfway between the goal line and the blue line.
“People think of the quarterback as the guy at the top,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, an offensive defenseman in his day. “I think the game has changed. It’s also the half-wall. You need a good facilitator at the top, a guy that’s going to get it to the right people at the right time, look people off. I think [John] Klingberg is excellent at that in Dallas, as a defenseman. Tyson Barrie in Edmonton, too. He’s got a lot of good pieces around him, but he’s pretty good at moving it around.”
Cassidy’s specialty as a coach is the man-advantage. In his view, the deadliest power-play weapon in the league — removing his own players from the discussion — resides in Tampa. As deep as they are, the Lightning will be missing Kucherov badly while he is on injured reserve.
“He’s a threat to shoot,” Cassidy said. “He’s a threat to go back-post to [Alex] Killorn. He’s a threat to put it into the bumper. He’s a threat to go through the seam to [Steven] Stamkos. All off of one touch. He’s unbelievable, how he can fake a one-timer shot, slow it down enough to get it into Brayden Point in the bumper. To me, that’s the hardest thing to kill against, that team. His one-touch ability is through the roof. To me, he’s the best.”
Hesitant to show disrespect to Tampa Bay’s captain, Cassidy stammered a bit as he continued.
“Not to give, not to sound — we try to let Stamkos run it if we can. We just feel it’s like the lesser of two evils,” Cassidy said with a shrug and a chuckle. “Then you’ve got [Victor] Hedman at the top, so good luck, anyway. That’s why I’m glad I do the power play and not the penalty kill.”
The Bruins are more egalitarian than most teams. Marchand creates much of the movement and action with his puck-on-a-string handle, and he’s a marksman with his shot, but others can make plays. Charlie McAvoy, though not as quick and deceptive with the puck as Torey Krug, covers more ground with his legs. Few players in the bumper (center) position keep defenses guessing like Patrice Bergeron, who can snap off one of the league’s quickest one-timers or make a short setup pass. The newcomer is Taylor Hall, who has been a downhill attacker from the circle with previous teams. The Bruins have him in the net-front role, hoping his strong frame and quick hands will win loose pucks and add another dimension.
“He’s such a great playmaker,” Bergeron said of Hall. “As soon as he gets the puck, he knows where he’s going. On the entries, with his speed and hockey IQ, it brings another element to our breakouts. Down low, he’s always finding ways to see the open guy, but he’s won some great battles there.”
The primary play the Bruins try to run: the seam pass to David Pastrnak, one of the league’s best bombers from the left side. To reach Ovechkin’s stratosphere in one-time efficiency, Pastrnak has to improve his consistency putting shots on goal. When goalies are in motion as they track side-to-side passes, a hard one-timer, even if it’s not headed for a corner, can squeak through.
Since the start of last season, Pastrnak ranks 14th in power-play shot attempts but 34th in shots on goal. Ovechkin is third in both categories.
“Ovechkin’s the best at hitting the net,” Cassidy said. “I think Stamkos is one of the best from low, below the dot. He seems to have that angle down. Ovi’s a little higher, top of the circle. [Colorado’s Nathan] MacKinnon is one of the best, I think, on that side, of walking off the wall and attacking and getting interior ice and using a wrist shot, maybe different than Ovi and Stamkos and Pasta with their one-timers. He attacks as well as anybody. Those are probably the three best, just off the top of my head.”
Washington will filter power-play pucks through Backstrom and Ovechkin until they retire, but Anaheim has handed the keys from Ryan Getzlaf to rookie Trevor Zegras. Cale Makar and Adam Fox have taken over leading roles with the Avalanche and Rangers. Some future coach may devise a system, with the ideal players, that will have the 1-3-1 firing blanks. Everyone will adjust again.
Boivin was a rock
along blue line
Bobby Orr made his NHL debut 55 years ago this past Tuesday, on opening night at the old Garden.
The Bruins pounded the Red Wings, 6-2, in front of 13,909. Orr, described as “the lad with the blond whiffle” by the Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, was sporting a new jersey — No. 4 — after wearing No. 27 during that 1966 training camp. The crowd was all but raptured, having heard about the Bruins’ peach-fuzz savior for the previous four years.
“Cheered almost every time he was on the ice ... [he] played the position like a veteran,” our man Fitz wrote. “[Very] tough in dislodging opponents around the net; blocked shots; and made adept plays in moving the puck from his own end.”
No one would confuse Orr for Leo Boivin, but fans were likely pleased that he did his best impersonation.
The Bruins of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s didn’t win much, didn’t score much, but they were hard to play against.
Boivin, who died Oct. 16 at age 90, was chief among them. A 5-foot-8-inch, 183-pound fire hydrant of a defenseman, he was one of the few bright spots in those pre-Orr days, when the Bruins finished fifth or sixth in a six-team league every season from 1959-67.
Boivin put up a modest 322 points in 1,150 games, but his patrolling of the defensive zone earned him a Hall of Fame nod in 1986. He and defense partner Fernie Flaman were Bruins captains, Boivin (1963-66) succeeding Flaman (1955-61).
Few, as teammate Johnny Bucyk noted this past week, could throw an old-school hip check like Boivin.
“Leo would catch guys rushing with their heads down and I’d catch them coming around the net, mostly,” Bucyk told NHL.com historian Dave Stubbs. “He was real strong, a tough guy. Good, solid legs. When he got under you with his hip, he could lift you right up.”
As an amateur in Port Arthur, Ontario, Boivin was Bruins property in the pre-draft era but was traded to Toronto and started his first three seasons with the Maple Leafs. He became a fixture in Boston until early 1966, when the Bruins shipped him to Detroit, with forward Dean Prentice, in a deal that brought future Stanley Cup winners Ron Murphy, Bill Lesuk, and Gary Doak to Causeway Street.
In the opener, Orr, widely promised to lift the Bruins from their longstanding doldrums, earned what Fitzgerald called a “truly deafening” ovation of a full minute after registering his first NHL point on a second-period power play (the memorable name of the Detroit player who took the penalty: Barton Crashley). Orr’s low drive from the right point went past goaltender Roger Crozier after Wayne Connelly tipped it.
“I actually fanned on that shot,” Orr said afterward. “I’m glad it got through there.” Gordie Howe, the Red Wings’ 38-year-old star, offered a reluctant assessment after the loss: “He’ll do.”
If you have memories of any of that, we hope you are enjoying your golden years.
to horrible start
Montreal started 0-5-0, with a league-worst 1-for-19 mark on the power play. Turning down shots, missing open nets, and looking up at the rafters for inspiration: It has not been a fun start in La Belle Province.
And of course, Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored his first goal as a Hurricane when Carolina visited on Thursday. By the end of that one, Brendan Gallagher was smashing his stick in the tunnel.
The returning Jonathan Drouin, who revealed his battle with anxiety, has been a heartening story line. But this is a team struggling with its identity. The Canadiens are figuring out how to survive without Shea Weber, who may retire, and Carey Price, who entered the player assistance program on Oct. 7 for undisclosed reasons. The earliest Price can return is the second week of November. Jake Allen was brought in as Price insurance, but it’s been tough sledding for him.
They’re also feeling the loss of Phillip Danault, who took defensive responsibility away from No. 1 center Nick Suzuki. Danault promises to do the same in Los Angeles for Anze Kopitar, whose usage has leaned defensive in recent years. The 34-year-old captain has started a greater percentage of his shifts in his own zone over the last four seasons — 54, 52, 58, and 52 percent, according to Natural Stat Trick — but is down to 37 percent in the early going. That’s shades of how the Bruins have used Patrice Bergeron, as they try to extend his career. Danault’s arrival should also help top prospect Quinton Byfield, once his ankle heals, adjust to the rigors of the league.
Yes, the Kings will pay $5.5 million times six years for a center whose career highs are 13 goals and 53 points. Ask Suzuki if Danault is worth the money.
Hughes (not that one) a top prospect
For the second time in four years, Jack Hughes got an “A” rating from NHL Central Scouting.
This time, it’s a Northeastern freshman.
Jack Hughes, a left-shot center from Westwood and no relation to brothers Quinn (Vancouver defenseman), Jack (New Jersey center), and Luke Hughes (Devils draft pick), is the only player currently playing college hockey who is rated as a first-round candidate by the league’s scouting bureau’s preliminary watch list.
No idea how the Devils would handle the situation if the younger Jack Hughes was the best player available for them at the draft next June.
Five skaters set to enroll at NCAA programs in 2022, including Boston College-committed left wing Cutter Gauthier, were rated as A-grade prospects. Aside from Hughes, the other Hockey East draft prospect is BC center Matthew Argentina, who is projected to go in the late rounds.
Hughes, who put up 8-26—34 in 38 games with the US Under-18 team last season, is the son of NHL agent Kent Hughes (Bergeron is a longtime client). Kent Hughes’s older son, Riley, was a seventh-round pick of the Rangers (216th overall) in 2018.
A major step for women’s hockey: The Premier Hockey Federation, formerly known as the NWHL, will stream all its games on ESPN+ in the United States. The first game is the Nov. 6 season opener between the Isobel Cup champion Boston Pride and the Minnesota Whitecaps … No one will be stunned if Buffalo and Detroit, off to a combined 5-0-1 start, fall off by the time the leaves settle on the ground. But good for them and their fans. Enjoy the wins, wherever they come … Speaking of power-play rocket launchers, best wishes to Hall of Famer Mike Bossy, who this past week revealed his lung cancer diagnosis. Bossy, 64, will step away from his post as an analyst with TVA Sports in Montreal. Bossy, whose lightning hands powered the Islanders’ early ‘80s dynasty, still holds the career goals per game record (0.762). “Seemed to be a real gentleman when he played,” said Bruce Cassidy, whose older brother, Steve, was an Islanders fan growing up in Ottawa, while the future coach cheered for the Bruins. “For his time he [had] the best pure snap shot.” … Jesse Puljujarvi is rewarding the Oilers’ patience. The No. 4 pick in the 2016 draft was trade bait after a slow start to his NHL career (34-34—68 in 197 games). He spent last season playing in Finland. Back in Edmonton and riding the top line with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Puljujarvi had a 2-4—6 line in three games … Strangest penalty of this past week goes to Matthew Tkachuk, who earned an interference minor from the bench. Tkachuk leaped out of his seat and jabbed his stick in the air to keep a loose puck from sailing into the Calgary stands. That’s taking one for the team … Will never get tired of Brad Marchand’s on-ice attitude. Last week, he pummeled Dallas’s Luke Glendening with a reverse hit at the offensive blue line, dishing the puck at the last second and driving his shoulder into Glendening’s gut; barked at Jakub Zboril in practice from 50 feet away after muscling past him in two successive drills; and went back at David Pastrnak twice more after Pastrnak stopped him once in a mano-a-mano rush drill (Pastrnak was 3 for 3 in stuffing his linemate). Imagine saying this even five years ago: Marchand is acting like a future captain.