Investigating the Leafs’ powerplay roles

    Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) recently released one of my favourite hockey visualization tools yet – his powerplay shot locator. Micah teased this tool earlier this year, but has finally released it for Patreon supporters of The tool allows you to look at heatmaps of shot locations for each player on a specific powerplay unit. Micah and others have used the tool to highlight a few powerplay units with clear structures. I’m going to use the tool to look at the Leafs’ powerplay approach and how they’ve become one of the top powerplays in the league. However, first I want to use it for context to show how some of the other most effective and structured units in the league set up their powerplay.  These two teams have very organized powerplay structures that the shot locator tool highlights very clearly. While the tool shows where players shoot from, rather than where they actually play, it seems like a great proxy for powerplay structure when supplemented with video analysis.

    Columbus Blue Jackets

    Columbus has leaned on a top unit of Atkinson-Foligno-Gagner-Wennberg-Werenski, which has led them to a 4th-ranked powerplay in the league. Everyone has very clear roles, starting with Werenski, who has done a fantastic job as a powerplay quarterback, despite being a 19 year old rookie. Werenski leads the team with 8 primary assists at 5v4, to go with 4 goals and 4 secondary assists for 16 points. He’s a great distributor as well as a shooter, leading the team in powerplay shot attempts. From the plot above, we can see that he clearly gets almost all of his shots off around the centre of the blue line. Atkinson, Foligno and Gagner do an excellent job of crowding the net and generating high danger chances, with Gagner manning the slot, and Aktinson and Foligno posting up on either side of the net. Wennberg hangs out around the right circle and operates mostly as a setup man, setting up Werenski for point shots or distributing in for chances near the goal. This unit demonstrated these roles in a recent game against the Leafs with great results:

    Foligno and Gagner dig the puck out from behind the net to Wennberg, who feeds an un-pressured Werenski while the four Leafs defenders crowd around the goal. While Werenski passes up a great look to a wide-open Atkinson, his shot gets through the defenders and is tipped in by Foligno.

    Philadelphia Flyers

    Philadelphia is another team with a very organized powerplay. Their top unit of Simmonds-Giroux-Schenn-Voracek-Gostisbehere handles the bulk of the team’s 5v4 time, and are responsible for 36 out of 44 of their teams powerplay goals. Their unit is set up much different than Columbus’ top unit, with more of a 1-3-1 structure. Gostisbehere (when he isn’t in the press box for unknown reasons) controls the blue line, with Giroux (league leader in powerplay points since 2014) ranging from the blue line to the left faceoff dot, Voracek taking the right circle, and Schenn taking the middle of the ice. Wayne Simmonds, of course, is parked right in front of the net, and does the job better than almost anyone in the league. His 39 PP goals since 2014 is second only to Alex Ovechkin. Philly’s structure forces the defenders to spread out in order to cover passing lanes; Philly uses their talented playmakers to distribute the puck quickly and get open shooting lanes from the middle of the ice for Voracek, Giroux and Schenn.

    This goal against Toronto earlier this year (yes, this is a running theme) shows this structure clearly in their powerplay:

    With Hyman and Komarov playing high to pressure Gostisbehere and take away the passing lanes to Voracek and through the middle, Gostisbehere uses a short pass to set up Giroux for a partially screened shot from the left circle. Rielly and Polak leave Simmonds completely unhindered in front of the net, where he redirects Giroux’s shot for a goal.

    Alex Ovechkin

    Before I get to the Leafs, I have one more plot, and it’s a personal favourite. Here’s the evolution of Ovechkin’s power play shot locations from 2007-2017. Since entering the league, Ovi has taken around one third of his team’s powerplay shots while he’s been on the ice, topping out at 43% (!!!) in 2014-15. After shooting from all around the zone in his early years, we can see Ovi start to zone in on a favourite spot on the top right circle around 2012. In 2014, he started to cross over to the left circle, where he’s finally settled into his infamous personal danger zone just above the faceoff dot.

    Looks about right:

    Toronto Maple Leafs

    Now let’s get to the Leafs’ powerplay. The Leafs have run two consistent units throughout the year:

    Matthews – Nylander – Komarov – Gardiner – someone

    Marner – JVR – Bozak – Zaitsev – someone

    Kadri has split time between both units, and the remaining space has been filled mostly by Brown, Leivo and Soshnikov. Unlike most teams, Toronto doesn’t really have a clear-cut top unit – both have been almost equally dangerous and have seen similar ice time. For the sake of getting a clear picture, I’ve only included the four main players from each unit in the following figures:

    1st unit

    Interestingly, while Matthews is the Leafs’ best volume shooter at 5v5, Nylander takes over as the trigger man when on the powerplay, generating over a third of the unit’s shots. Leo does what he does best, playing the role of a pest and screening the goalie while looking for rebounds, tip-ins and redirects. Matthews typically covers most of the left side of the ice, using his size and skill to keep puck possession and generate a lot of shots from the slot. Nylander tends to set up a bit further out in the right circle, while Gardiner controls the blue line.

    Thanks to the high skill level and playmaking ability of Matthews, Nylander and Gardiner, this unit plays very fluidly with a lot of passing to open up lanes. The creative approach of this unit was on full display in Toronto’s recent thriller against Winnipeg.

    The same unit struck twice that night, with another amazingly talented setup, this one by Nylander. Nylander controls the puck at the blue line and weaves his way back into the zone, pulling two Jets in towards him in the right circle. While Brown is tied up by Stuart in the crease, Auston Matthews drifts out towards the open space in the high slot. This draws the attention of Byfuglien, who cheats towards Matthews just enough to not notice Komarov sneak in from the point. Nylander threads a beautiful pass through the crease onto Komarov’s tape for a wide open goal.

    2nd unit

    While not exactly the same, we see a bit of the same fluid structure on the Leafs’ second powerplay unit. Marner plays a similar role to Nylander, setting up in the right circle to play as both a shooter and a distributor. Bozak tends to set up right in the middle of the defensive box or diamond. Like Gardiner, Zaitsev takes 15% of the shots while this group is on; however, he takes most of his shots from the high slot, while Gardiner tends to shoot from a bit further to the left side. We can also clearly see Van Riemsdyk doing what he does best – taking shots from impossibly close to the right side of the net. His sharp angle (sometimes between the legs) shots don’t always go in, but they often lead to high danger rebounds.

    However, sometimes things go just right for JVR, and we get a beauty like this:


    We can see Marner, JVR, and Bozak in their usual roles on this play – because they are running 3F2D, Zaitsev takes the right point, while Carrick comes in a bit lower on the weak side. Marner comes in from the circle threatening a shot, before fanning on it and quickly chipping it over to JVR. While JVR is in a high danger area, the goal is also partially a result of Nilsson not squaring the shot up properly, allowing JVR to put it right past his shoulder and under the bar.


    While the Leafs’ powerplay doesn’t have the same rigid shooting structure as teams like Columbus or Philadelpia, their powerplay has succeeded due to the high level of talent of their players, and the coaches giving them some free reign to get creative on the power play. They have excellent puck movement, which is pushed over the top by players like Nylander and Marner who can thread a pass through just about anything. By spreading their talented players out, the Leafs have been able to ice two extremely dangerous units; there’s never a safe moment against their powerplay.

    Micah’s powerplay shot locator is a really excellent tool for this work – I highly recommend checking out his site and supporting his work if you have the means.  While it is quite illuminating on its own, pairing it with some video analysis can really bring out the roles players take on the powerplay, and how teams like to establish their powerplay structure (or a lack thereof).