The power play has been quite unsuccessful for the New Jersey Devils this season. In addition to not drawing enough calls, they have been poor in every month. The lone exception was an eight-game power play goal streak in December, but that was a hot streak and nothing more than that.
This problem is more than just goal-scoring. Goals are crucial, yes, but a power play can be of some use if it's able to establish offensive pressure for most of the time on the man advantage. Yet, too often, we see the Devils go through entire power plays unable to do even get a shot on net. And then we groan and sigh at the wasted opportunity.
I think it's best to start at the beginning: the initial up-ice rush. It's not fancy, but it's a vital first step for a power play. Unless they score on the possession after the offensive zone faceoff that begins the power play, the other team's PK is going to clear the puck out at some point. Someone has to collect it and moves the puck up-ice to start a new attack. It is here where the Devils' inconsistency and struggles on the power play begin. It is here where overall power play improvement must begin.
In theory, with one (or two) fewer skaters on the ice, the Devils should be able to get in the other team's end and move the puck around more freely to set-up a shot. However, it's not so simple. 5-on-4 play is not at all like 5-on-5 because all the defending team has to do is get the puck and get it out of their zone (a long clearance to the other end of the rink, carrying it out, a lob to center ice, etc.).
More importantly, the defending team - the penalty killing unit - is usually comprised of the team's best defensive players going up against the Devils' top offensive players. It's not like 5-on-5 where the Devils can get a favorable match-up or catch the other team with an odd-man rush or a 2-on-2 rush. They'll concede the first two zones of the ice to protect their own end for the time they are shorthanded. They're sitting four (sometimes three) players in their own end, awaiting the Devils attack; usually on the blueline.
Therefore, the Devil moving the puck up the ice is important. Maybe he has one or two players skating with him, but usually most of the unit is waiting just at the blueline to go on the attack. That's a lot of traffic around that line and it makes just getting in difficult. Whoever is carrying it up either has to be very good at dump-ins and/or very good at making a leading pass to a Devil over the blueline. If successful, the Devils have possession and can set-up their attack. If not, the other team fires it down the length of the rink to force the Devils to start again.
So let me ask this simple question: Who is leading the Devils power play up the ice?
Based on recent power plays, I couldn't tell you who leads this charge for New Jersey. I've seen Ilya Kovalchuk, Brian Rolston, Jacob Josefson, Mattias Tedenby, Travis Zajac, and Patrik Elias all have attempted to lead the puck up ice. It hasn't been consistent across the board in terms of number of attempts; and whether the Devils get possession after breaking in That I couldn't name one or two people who solely do this show that there is not only a lack of performance (if someone could do it well, they'd be doing it over and over) but also a lack of consistency.
Rolston's not as fast or as good of a passer, so he's not really a good option. Elias is a good option, but for some reason his role has been to be a playmaker in the zone so he's usually at the boards at the blueline ready to break in. The same can be said for Travis Zajac. Josefson and Tedenby may be good options in the future, but right now, they are prone to making errors - which leads to a clearance or a stop of some kind. Kovalchuk may be the best of the bunch to do so, in my opinion. After all, he's fast, he controls the puck well, and he's a good passer.
However, Kovalchuk is usually a target for shots at the point. This means if he is successful to get it in the zone, then the other forwards need to do whatever they can to keep the puck and move it around to him. Short of a defensive lapse, Kovalchuk can't fire a quick shot or break into any space. He's left waiting, temporarily reducing the numbers in attack.
This also means the other team knows full well they can focus on the other forwards because Kovalchuk's not (usually) going to take on two or three opposing players at the blueline. That makes fighting for that puck easier for them.
This may be why some fans desire the (somewhat mythical) "Puck Moving Defenseman" to help out on the power play. Perhaps; but I think the problem here can be solved without adding a player. The Devils just need someone to consistently move the puck up ice on each unit. If it's Kovalchuk on one unit (or both, but that's a topic for a later post), then let him consistently do it. If they want to try someone different, have it be someone who's a prolific passer like Elias or Zajac or even Henrik Tallinder or Andy Greene. Again, the key here is to establish someone into a role so they can focus on what should be done.
Of course, this raises the next question: How should the Devils initially attack when moving up ice?
The Devils have a few options. They can either have one skater move it up to the blueline himself and make a pass once he gets in. They can make a pass or two in the neutral zone in the hopes of finding a seam in the opposition to get into the zone. They can dump it in and have the forward(s) along one side of the blueline chase for it. The correct answer depends on who on the other team is out there and how the Devils are succeeding at either. If they've been pounding the other team on dump-ins at 5-on-5, then it probably would work at 5-on-4. If that doesn't work, they need to be
In that sense, there has to be some flexibility. At the same time, the whole power play unit needs to be aware on what needs to be done whenever each option arises. It's not just the man - whoever it is - carrying the puck, but the other four skaters waiting to rush in and get set-up. If it's a dump and chase approach, then the guys out wide need to be ready to go in the moment the puck gets across the blueline and go in hard. If it's a first-pass-in option, then the skaters need to have the right timing to break in. If the carrier's going in alone, someone's to got be open for an eventual pass. It sounds so academic, yet recall that this is not like a break out at even strength. The opposition is sitting back waiting for the approach, they aren't usually coming into the neutral zone - which would open up some space.
The answer to this question boils down to who is on each unit. Depending on who's out there should dictate in some way how the Devils should approach the zone. For example, if the Devils have, say, Tedenby on the right side waiting to get in, having him dump and chase a puck against a defenseman with significant size on him (nearly everyone) isn't going to end up well. Tedenby probably loses that battle unless he torches the defender and makes a quick pass to someone. If it's Zubrus, then while he's not as swift as Tedenby, he's significantly better along the boards - enough to make a dump-and-chase approach viable. As for Tedenby, leading him for a pass to set-him up on the end boards is a more appropriate decision.
While the Devils need to be able to utilize different approaches for getting in, at the same time, it belies consistency for whoever is moving the puck up-ice to begin with. Having one or two players mainly in that role allows them to make the decision on what to do consistently. They can settle into the role and become familiar of what does and does not work. It also allows the rest of the unit to be familiar with what that player tends to on passes, dump-ins, and such. Once this is established, adjustments on how to approach the zone should be much easier to make. For example, if the dump-and-chase isn't working in the game, then only one or twos players have to be told to stop dumping it in. The rest of the unit will respond appropriately when they don't see a puck careening along the corner boards. There would not be any need to inform the whole unit and hope they recall it when someone different is carrying it up.