Last season, along with what seemed to be virtually everything the Buffalo Sabres did, the power play was abysmal for most of the season. When Jack Eichel returned from injury and Sam Reinhart’s production jumped the Sabres started to see more success and stability on the power play, but it was still bad.
If you ask anyone who watched the Sabres last season, the power play unit was completely reliant on Eichel to create everything. If the power play had success it was either due to an offensive zone face-off win or the odd chance the Sabres obvious zone entry tactic would actually work. Ristolainen would skate the puck up to the neutral zone and drop the puck to Eichel, Jack picks the puck up around his own blue line and would either play catch with O’Reilly horizontally in the neutral zone before trying to gain the zone or need to dangle through three-to-four players himself. This entry tactic does work for some teams but in the Sabres case where Eichel was the only one who could break them into the zone it was gruesome to watch. If the opposing penalty killers cleared the puck there was a good chance the Sabres wouldn’t find themselves set up in the offensive zone for very long – if at all.
When the first unit could set up, it featured Ristolainen at the top, Eichel in the “ovi spot” aka the left half wall, Okposo the right half wall, O’Reilly right above the hashmarks and Reinhart in front of the net as well as working the sides of the net.
The Sabres power play unit struggled hard when their tactic at times seemed to be “literally don’t do anything but try and find Eichel for a one-timer,” and found success when it started to utilize Reinhart down low more and O’Reilly in the slot.
The two things that I would keep from last year’s #1 unit moving forward are the positioning of Reinhart and O’Reilly once set up in the zone. I understand the weapon that Eichel has with his one-timer but I believe moving him to the right wall with the new additions to the unit will actually open up a lot more for everybody and essentially get Eichel more touches than he would on his off-wing.
In come Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt.
Adding these two to the power play is going to make a world of difference. First off, the Sabres will now have three players equally as creative and skilled as the next that are all capable of breaking the puck into the zone. This alone is just going to give Buffalo a lot more time in the offensive zone with the puck and more opportunity to score.
Here’s how I’d set up the unit
The yellow arrows signify that O’Reilly and Reinhart can switch position relative to whether the puck is on the left or right side, they won’t always have time to make the switch, but when they do it’ll open up a one-timer option for the man in the high slot. The blue arrows are just showing they can post up at the side of the net for a pass like Reinhart did in the goal above.
Eichel and Mittelstadt
The first thing I’ll address is why I’d take Eichel and Mittelstadt on their strong sides rather than their off-wings like most would suggest because of Eichel’s one-timer ability. I know some fans envision a Panarin/Kane-esque power play where they would just rip saucer passes to each other across the middle of the ice until one of them scored one a one-timer – but I don’t see that working the same way with 15 and 37.
Mittelstadt has a barrage of things in his bag of tricks but a good one-timer isn’t really one of them. His release on his wrist shot is among the elites but at times he struggled to muster up a hard accurate one-timer when he found himself on the right side. Mittelstadt mostly played the left side of the power-play with Minnesota and Team USA, eventually finding himself in that spot with the Sabres when he scored his first NHL goal.
Rather than Panarin/Kane or Stamkos/Kucherov, I think Mittelstadt and Eichel are a perfect match to execute the way Auston Matthews and William Nylander work together on their power play unit in Toronto. Between the four players the skill set comparison of Eichel to Matthews and Mittelstadt to Nylander is near identical and the combination of elite passing ability and elite shooting ability will leave opposing teams not knowing which is coming and opening up a lot of space and options for everyone on the ice.
When a player’s on their strong side it’s a lot easier to receive the pass from the defenseman at the top of the power play in-stride allowing them to attack towards the net pushing the penalty killing unit back and forcing a much quicker adjustment, which will essentially create a better scoring chance. When a player catches a pass on their off-wing, they’re going to either one-time it or need to settle the puck for a second before making a play, killing any speed or momentum going towards the net, and giving the penalty killers more time to adjust after the pass and close in on the puck. (Scroll down to the Dahlin section to see an example of this)
Once again looking at Mittelstadt’s first NHL goal, catching the pass on his forehand allows him to quickly turn and attack the net giving himself a prime scoring opportunity and a backdoor pass option.
A catch-and-shoot play set-up fits both of Mittelstadt and Eichel’s strengths more than a one-timer set up where Eichel is far superior. If either player catches the pass on their strong side it’s much easier to audible to a pass if the shot isn’t there than if you’re in a one-timer position and decide at the last second a pass is a better option than a shot.
You can argue Eichel’s shot is just as good on his strong side as it is on his off-wing anyways.
Dahlin’s going to be the quarterback on this power play, he commands the blue line with his head always up and uses deceptive stick handling, skating and no-look passes to create opportunities for the players on the half wall.
This play at the World Juniors is exactly why I think Mittelstadt and Eichel should be on their strong side rather than their off-wings.
Dahlin uses two no-look passes to completely sell that he was shooting rather than passing to left-handed Elias Pettersson who was on his off-wing. If Pettersson was right-handed, he would’ve been able to use the time Dahlin created for him to attack towards the net right away and get a good scoring opportunity. Instead, Pettersson needed to settle the puck, taking away all his time not allowing him to push the play towards the front of the net. The second pass created even more space for Pettersson, and he took a one-timer from far out with no screen in front leading to an easy save for the opposing goalie. If the player in that position is right handed, they can swing, catch the pass in stride, and have a wide open lane to the net allowing a shot from way closer that would have a chance to beat the goalie clean, rather than the easy one-timer save.
Dahlin can change his shooting angle with the best of them and should be able to use that ability to get a lot of shots through from the point that can go into the net clean, create a rebound, or be deflected by O’Reilly or Reinhart on the way to the net as they’ll be positioned in the middle.
Reinhart and O’Reilly
Like I said previously, I would keep Reinhart and O’Reilly in the same role on the power play that they had at the tail end of last season when the unit was clicking. Reinhart’s already established himself as a dynamic net front presence on the man advantage with his ability to re-direct pucks and screen the goalie. He can flank out to either side of the net or creep into the mid-to-high slot to open himself up for a one-timer opportunity from the right side. O’Reilly, like Reinhart, can clean up loose pucks in the front of the net or get his stick on shots from the point. He can flank out to the sides and work behind the net to find passing options as well as park himself in the high slot to open up a one-timer pass option from Mittelstadt on the left or Reinhart down low and use his bomb of a slap-shot to score or get the puck to the front.
The Sabres first power play unit should take a huge step next year with the addition of Mittelstadt and Dahlin and I feel that this system plays to the strengths of each player on the ice. Having a power play where every player is an option to create something is crucial and something we didn’t see last season. This is just my opinion on what I think would be the best option for the Sabres accounting for the cast of players available to them and playing to each of their strengths.
If you enjoyed this make sure to follow for more.