Colorado Avalanche Must Design New Power Play Strategy

Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

The Colorado Avalanche was last in power plays last year, unsurprisingly. They need to match skill with strategy to make a more effective power play.

During the game recap after the Colorado Avalanche lost to the Calgary Flames, TV analyst Mark Rycroft got so wound up about the ineffectiveness of the team’s power play, he remarked, “Passing the puck nine times on the power play should be a crime. You should go to jail.”

In that game the team had three power play opportunities. To be fair, Avs forward Sven Andrighetto did score a power play goal in the third period. However Colorado had already blown two power play chances, including the one in which they passed the puck nine times but failed to register a single shot, and that set Rycroft off.

You can’t blame Rycroft. Over the years — stemming back to the Joe Sacco days — I’ve long remarked that the Avalanche players act like they’re guests at a tea party, passing the puck around like it’s a tray of cookies. Other fans have remarked to me that, if the team doesn’t get set up right away, the man-advantage is usually all but wasted.

For a while there, the power play actually looked fairly solid, especially in the golden Why Not Us season when Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly used to cycle around to keep opponents off balance. Interestingly, I saw Duchene doing that with different dance partners this season, but the effect wasn’t the same.

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This year the Colorado Avalanche were dead last in the NHL for the power play, getting just 30 goals for a percentage of 12.6. That’s just over half of the percentage garnered by the top team — 24.5% for the Buffalo Sabres. (I suppose we could focus on the fact that the Sabres are O’Reilly’s new team, but there’s no point in that.)

I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb in stating the Avalanche need to develop a new power play strategy.

According to, effective power plays are built on two things — structure and talent. You have to have a good plan, and you have to have players capable of executing said plan. In fact, a successful power play is built around the players’ strengths.

There are three common structures for setting up a standard 5-on-4 power play.

The one that O’Reilly and Duchene used to such great effect is the overload strategy. With this formation, the players keep cycling the puck. The point is to create defensive breakdowns. It’s popular with highly skilled teams — to give you a hint, the legendary Jaromir Jagr popularized the style in his heyday.

The down side is you don’t get a lot of shots off. You could just end up cycling for the sake of cycling. We saw that happening this year.

The more common style of power play is the umbrella. Essentially the five players create a diamond on the ice with one of the defensemen playing quarterback. In fact, the strategy of this formation is to get the puck to the point for hard shots. It’s the opposite of the overload in that it emphasizes quantity of shots over quality.

We saw the Avalanche players running this power play strategy a lot in the last couple of years, too.

The 1-3-1 is slated to become the next big power play strategy. With this strategy, the players still form a diamond, but it’s more condensed than with the umbrella:





The players can pass on the back end  or shoot from any position. However, it requires all five players to be very skilled puck handlers.

There’s a 5-on-3 power play strategy called the spread, which is aimed at getting forwards to rush the net. There’s also a hybrid overload in which teams utilize a very large player to create a screen in front of the goalie.

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We don’t know what the Colorado Avalanche are going to look like next year. We could very well have lost one or two skilled forwards. They may draft a kid with soft hands who starts with the team right away. Therefore, it’s hard to say which power play strategy will work best.

However, it’s a safe bet the team should stick with the umbrella at least sometimes. They know they have two big defensemen — Erik Johnson and Nikita Zadorov — and one skilled rover — Tyson Barrie — who can quarterback that power play. They don’t need to rely on skill so much as getting shots on goal.

If the Colorado Avalanche have five skilled puck handlers — Johnson and Barrie with Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and, say, Nolan Patrick — I’d love to see them give the 1-3-1 a shot next season. Whichever style they choose, though, they have to get the right set of players on the ice to make an effective power play.