Putting power back in the power play: Potential personnel and strategies

With the addition of James van Riemsdyk on July 1, the Flyers now have the ability to boast a potent and legitimate top-6. The former second overall pick brings a shoot-first and pure scorer mentality to the team, something the Flyers have lacked since the days of Jeff Carter and Danny Briere. Where van Riemsdyk also excels is on the power play, as he is among the elite net-front players on the man advantage in the league today along with Wayne Simmonds.

So with this in mind, how could the Flyers assemble their PP units this season? Do they simply make changes to the personnel, or could they tweak their system a bit as well? I have a few ideas!

Personnel

The van Riemsdyk signing gives the Flyers a true top-6 in the sense that they now have six forwards on their roster that you can legitimately point to as top-6 talents. In addition, they will also have at least three defensemen who can provide offense from the back end, two of whom I feel are capable of quarterbacking a power play. The personnel I would choose from for the power play are:

Forwards: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier, Nolan Patrick, Wayne Simmonds, James van Riemsdyk, Travis Konecny
Defensemen: Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim

This is fairly self-explanatory, right? I don’t think I need to go into why each of these players deserves power play time. The bottom line is that your power play should consist of your most offensively talented players, and given the current roster, I think many would agree that these 10 players are their most offensively talented players. Morgan Frost would be considered if he were a lock to make this team, but he’s not. He’s also a rookie and given the talent ahead of him on the depth chart, I wouldn’t see it as a mistake to leave him off the power play if he were to make the team.

I would have time for the argument to include Oskar Lindblom. I think he could be a valuable net-front or slot player on the power play. That said, with the addition of van Riemsdyk, I think he gets knocked down the pecking order and he’s not a player I would consider needing power play time to be effective. Lindlbom’s calling card will be his two-way ability and play-driving at 5-on-5; any power play production he can provide would be gravy.

Now that we have established the personnel, let’s take a look at how they could devise a system to exploit their strengths.

Wrinkles to the 1-3-1

The Double Net-Front aka “Power I”

Since Giroux became the quarterback of the top power play unit, the Flyers have run an umbrella formation out of the 1-3-1; one player down low, one players positioned at each of the two half-walls, one player in the slot, and one player at the top of the zone. Before this, however, they ran a formation known as a double net-front, or “Power I”. In this formation, the Flyers stacked two forwards in front of one another in the slot area, with two forwards at each half wall and a defenseman at the point. You can see an example of this in the photo below; notice Hartnell and Simmonds as the net-front forwards.


This formation has been used by other organizations as well. Below is a video clip demonstrating success out of this formation by the Boston Bruins.

This formation has obvious advantages. By using a stacked net-front you provide more bodies in front of the goaltender on point shots. You also force the penalty killers to either provide more space to the net-front forwards or the half wall forwards. Collapse too far in toward the slot, and you open up the half wall forwards for one-timers; spread too far out, and you leave the slot open for one-timers or rebounds from the point.

So with this formation, how would the Flyers assemble their PP units? At this point in time, my instinct would be to set them up as such:

PP1: Giroux, Patrick, Couturier, Voracek, Gostisbehere

PP2: van Riemsdyk, Simmonds, Konecny, Provorov, Sanheim

With these groupings, I would lean toward using the double net-front as a main setup for PP2 and a wrinkle for PP1. The first unit above had great success late last year as assembled in its current system; it would essentially fall under the old “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mantra, though it couldn’t hurt to use it to mix things up from time to time. Patrick and Couturier would be great net-front players as both are big bodies with soft hands around the net who can both score and dish in tight.

The second unit is where I can see this formation being the primary setup. You’d have arguably the two best net-front players in the game on the ice together wreaking havoc in front of the goalie. Konecny could slide to the left half wall as a distributor. Provorov could man the point position with Sanheim playing the right half wall. With this personnel group, I would have either Konecny or Sanheim run the unit from the half-wall to highlight their skill set and alleviate some responsibility from Provorov, who has struggled in his first two seasons as the QB of the second unit.

Granted, the Flyers did just give JVR $7 million per year on a long term contract, so I understand why one would be hesitant to believe they would play him anywhere but the top unit on the power play. And playing a second-year player like Nolan Patrick on the top unit over a high-end power play producer like van Riemsdyk doesn’t seem like something that is likely to occur. That said, Patrick looked very comfortable on the top unit at the end of the year, and while it’s important to get production out of your new $7 million per year winger, it may be even more important to help Nolan Patrick have the breakout year we all believe he can have in his second season.

The Flyers need van Riemsdyk to score, and based on his underlying numbers, I believe he will regardless of first or second-unit PP time. In fact, JVR was actually used on the 2nd unit for the Leafs last season. I would argue it’s even more important that Patrick play and produce like a 2C next year; playing on the top power play unit would only help that cause.

2-1-2, aka Box and one

Another set up the Flyers have used in the past that worked wonderfully was the 2-1-2, or box and one formation. Something I really like about this set up is the greater potential to use the behind the net and below the goal line area of the ice. It’s one of the more underutilized areas of the ice by the Flyers in particular, both at 5-on-5 and on the power play. It opens up so many opportunities to score, with the goalie not being able to completely see the puck and the defending players not being able to face the play. This formation was used as the primary set up for their first unit during the Chris Pronger years. Below is a schematic of the formation:


crossicehockey.com

From this set-up they used Hartnell, Giroux and Briere as the forwards down low, and Timonen and Pronger manning the blue line. Below is a clip of the Flyers using this formation:

With the current roster, I could envision the following groups working well out of this formation:

PP1: Giroux, van Riemsdyk, Simmonds, Voracek, Gostisbehere

PP2: Patrick, Couturier, Konecny, Provorov, Sanheim

This formation requires players down low with great passing ability along with the ability to finish around the net. That’s a bit of a tough fit for the top unit, as van Riemsdyk and Simmonds are not really known for their passing. However, Patrick and Couturier fit that description like a glove. It also requires two point men who can both shoot from the point and sneak into the slot when necessary. Again, a bit tougher fit for Voracek, but Provorov and Sanheim would fill those roles with ease on PP2.

Maybe most importantly, this formation works best with a player in the slot who can make quick decisions, either with a quick shot, the stick-handling to beat a defender, or the ability to make a tape-to-tape pass to an open teammate. This is where it can get tricky for the top unit. Giroux would be perfect for this role given his skill set. That said, you’d be taking him out of his office, the position that has made him one of the top power play producers in the NHL for nearly a decade. For the second unit, Travis Konecny would be perfect in that role. He’s crafty, has excellent vision and possesses a quick release on his shot. Therefore, as with the double net-front formation, I would use this set up as a wrinkle to the top unit and more of a primary scheme for the second unit.

Now this does throw some water on my “Patrick playing on PP1 is good” argument from earlier, but with this formation and the talent around him I think he can still be a productive player on the man advantage. The greater difficulty with these personnel groups may fall on Couturier. With him playing on the second unit, he’s not likely to produce at the pace he produced at last season. That said, only 14 of his 76 points last season came on the power play, so he was hardly dependent upon it for his production, and as long as he has talented linemates at 5-on-5 like Giroux and Konecny, his production should remain first line-caliber. Plus, with more talent and a potentially better set up for the second unit, he may not revert all the way back to his previous power play production, which was essentially nonexistent.

Conclusion

With the addition of James van Riemsdyk, the Flyers will have plenty of options as to how they want to form their power play units and scheme. These are obviously not the only options the Flyers have at their disposal, both in terms of personnel and strategy. But I do feel as though these are intriguing options that would allow the Flyers to get all of their best players on the ice and finally have the ability to get a semblance of production out of their second power play unit.

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