As I'm sure you all know by now, the Red Wings powerplay has struggled mightily this season, operating at just 17.1%, which is 23rd in the league. This is on the heels of having the 2nd ranked powerplay last season, which clicked at 23.5%. The lack of effectiveness on the powerplay is a big reason why the Red Wings still carry a minus goal differential more than half way into the season. At 5v5, the Red Wings are tied for 7th in the NHL in goal differential, indicating that special teams has been the issue. One of the casual observations I've made is that the Red Wings are experiencing significant difficulties with their powerplay zone entries. Given this, I decided to spend a few hours watching tape of the Red Wings' powerplay to try and decipher where their zone entries are going wrong.
Powerplay Unit #1 - The Drop Pass
The Red Wings' first powerplay unit has consisted of Niklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Gustav Nyquist, and Justin Abdelkader until Kronwall's recent injury. When the Red Wings start the breakout, the puck is usually on Kronwall's stick as he starts the rush. The primary breakout play utilized by the Red Wings first unit is the drop pass.
With the drop pass, the objective of the puck carrier (in this 55) is to skate towards the one side of the ice and draw the initial penalty kill defender to that side. While he's doing that, a forward (in this case 13), will cut behind him and be prepared to receive the drop pass to take the puck up ice. The key to this play is that the forward receiving the drop pass comes through the neutral zone with speed to prevent the penalty kill from being able to reset following the drop pass.
As you can see in this example, Zetterberg hits the line with speed, the Coyotes defenders are stationary, and it's an easy zone entry. However, the Red Wings drop pass has not been as successful this season. A subtle change Pat Ferschweiler has made is removing the second forward streaking up the ice with the player receiving the drop pass.
When you compare this to the video above, what you'll notice is that when Zetterberg receives the drop pass in the animation, he does not have another player traveling with speed in the same part of the ice as him. This means that if Zetterberg himself is not traveling with speed and can make a guy miss, the penalty kill in effect is allowed to recover. Watch how this plays out:
Here Zetterberg doesn't receive the pass with speed, and doesn't have anyone traveling with speed to hit with a pass. He's forced to pass it over to Datsyuk where there are three Red Wings bunched up against one Arizona defender. Since the puck hasn't cross the blue line, the one Arizona defender is able to neutralize three Red Wings players and prevent a clean zone entry. Compare this zone entry to one from last season under previous powerplay coach Jim Hiller.
This zone entry looks like poetry in motion. Kronwall is able to draw both PK forwards, hits Zetterberg with the drop pass who then has an open Nyquist traveling with speed who is able to draw the defender to him so that he can hit Abdelkader. THIS is how you properly utilize the drop pass. I slowed it down for you in the animation so you can easily see how the skating and passing lanes open up.
The problem right now is that when Zetterberg receives the drop pass, he's not traveling with speed and he doesn't have anyone going for him. Basically, he has to force a pass or dump it in, preventing a controlled carry-in.
Powerplay Unit #1 - Play #2
With Kronwall, Datsyuk, and Zetterberg having great offensive instincts, Ferschweiler has built a 2nd play out of the drop pass for the trio to try on zone entries. The 2nd play involves Zetterberg sitting back, showing that he might cut across for the drop pass. Instead of dropping the puck to Z, Kronwall fires it up to Datsyuk. The Wings tend to look for this play if Kronwall is pressured early or the first PK forward is very high in the offensive zone.
As you can see, this zone entry didn't fool anyone as Kronwall gave up the puck without drawing either PK defender. Additionally, the pass didn't beat either defender, effectively creating a 3-on-4 offensive rush. There's nowhere for Datsyuk to go with this puck and as soon as he hits center ice, the two Flyers' forwards shade to his side to take away his options. Again, this is subtlety different from last season as the Wings don't have any support with speed for the forward receiving the puck. Compare this to the second look the Red Wings had last season.
Here, Kronwall doesn't give the puck up until he's engaged by a defender, his pass beats one forward and hits Nyquist with speed. Nyquist has two forwards going on the other side of the ice so as soon as he feels pressure from the second Edmonton forward, he sends it cross ice for a 2-on-1 zone entry. You'll notice a running theme here - the biggest difference between this season and last season is that the support after the first pass is made is lacking.
Powerplay Unit #2 - Canuck Center-Lane Option
The Red Wings second powerplay unit has primarily utilized Brad Richards, Mike Green, Dylan Larkin, Tomas Tatar, and Teemu Pulkkinen. The basic premise of this breakout is shown below.
As Richards skates the puck up ice, he has the option of hitting Pulkkinen as he cuts across the middle, Green as he streaks out wide, or Larkin as he streaks down the left side. The key to this zone breakout is making sure that the point man makes the right read and hits the correct player with speed. The onus is on the guy with the puck to make the correct read, otherwise this entry is doomed. Below is how the Red Wings have run the "Canuck Center-Lane Option" with their 2nd unit this season.
In this instance, I opted to have Richards hit Larkin streaking down the left boards as this has been a very effective zone entry for the Red Wings this season. Larkin's speed creates such a problem and the action of Tatar going from the left side to the right side clears out the left side of the ice for Larkin to go 1-on-1.
However, this unit has struggled with this play when the opposition's penalty kill has challenged Richards early and taken away the play to Larkin by having the second forward shade to his side.
As you can see, St. Louis shaded a forward over to cover Larkin's side. This forced Richards to look to Smith instead. Smith gains the line but because he's on his off-wing, he's stuck on his backhand and can't make a move to the middle. The puck is turned over and the Blues are able to clear it. Part of the issue here is that the forwards start to pick up speed before Richards actually moves the puck, meaning that Richards has to make a quicker decision and can't skate the puck up as far he normally wants.
The changes new assistant coach Pat Ferschweiler has made to the powerplay zone entries are minimal from a structural standpoint. However, the changes have had a substantial effect on the ability of the Red Wings to gain the zone consistently on the powerplay. It may be worth considering a modification to the current structure, especially for unit #1 on the drop pass. Otherwise, the Red Wings will be stuck continuing to attack without speed through the neutral zone, making them far too easy to defend.