With Thomas Vanek Down, How Will the Buffalo Sabres Run Their Power Play?

Robert FischerContributor IFebruary 16, 2009

This is the first of many articles I will write to break down different aspects of on-ice strategy that is currently playing a role in the fortunes of the Buffalo Sabres.

In this story the topic is defending a Sabres' power play that does not have the services of Thomas Vanek.

First to understand how the power play is defended it is important to break down the three basic penalty-killing formations—the passive box, the aggressive box, and the diamond.

A passive box is used to keep a power play on the perimeter and avoid the ever-dangerous cross-ice pass through the slot that produces a high-percentage scoring chance.

An aggressive box is especially effective on pressuring the point men on the  power play.  The goal is still to keep the action on the perimeter—but this system relies on the penalty killers forcing mistakes rather than bad decision-making, as in a passive box.

A diamond is used in the power-play formation referred to as the "umbrella."  In this formation, a third player comes to the top of the offensive zone to be a shooter.

So which formation is best suited to stop the Sabre power play?  Well that is all determined by the Thomas Vanek factor.

Thomas Vanek is the next evolution of the player who occupies the position of screening the goaltender on the power play—a role that has been filled exceptionally well by guys like Dino Ciccarelli, and most recently Thomas Holmstrom.

What makes Vanek's talent unique is that not only does the defense have to move Vanek's body away from the crease, but they also have to deal with his athletic ability and amazing set of hands.  This accounts for Vanek appearing perfectly defended and yet the red light still being lit.

Unfortunately last week the Sabres lost the NHL leader in power-play goals when a shot from the point broke his jaw.

This has left the Sabres with the unenviable task of trying to continue success on the power play.  Unfortunately it has not come easily.

To break down what has happened to how teams defense the power play its important to explain Vanek's impact on penalty killing strategy.

With Vanek down low on man on the kill must be solely dedicated to defending Vanek.  This automatically reduces the effectiveness of an aggressive kill and opens the ice for other players.  Even when Vanek does not score he has an immediate impact.

Now let's remove Vanek from the equation.  Without a viable threat in front of the net an aggressive penalty kill has hampered the other major weapon now in the Sabres' arsenal, Tim Connolly.

Connolly, with Vanek inside, has to be afforded the room on the half wall to operate. With a man occupied by Vanek the other defender becomes Connolly's toy with his amazing on ice vision.

With Vanek removed, Connolly struggles to lug the puck into the zone and set up.  Now the kill can eliminate his options and hem him in on the half wall, significantly diminishing his effectiveness.

As a result of this aggressive kill, the penaly-killing forwards come up higher in the defensive zone.  This is where another Sabres weapon has struggled of late—the point shot.

Need evidence of this struggle? Just review the four-minute power play the Sabres had yesterday against the Hurricanes.  Point men had numerous shots blocked due to the aggressive kill employed by the 'Canes.

The Sabres have tried to combat this by placing Drew Stafford, and more recently Matt Ellis, in Vanek's role.  This has little result, as you would expect in trying to replace an All-Star.

This article discusses the problems with the power play but one possible solution should be discussed.  There is one man who, despite yet another sub-par season, could bail out the floundering power play—Ales Kotalik.

Ales Kotalik?  I know it sounds ridiculous, but the is on element of his game that is suited to combat the aggressive penalty kill.

Kotalik has a tool that I believe no other Sabres forward really possesses—the middle-of-the-offensive zone one-timer.  It is something Jaroslav Spacek has success with when Vanek is healthy, but has seemed to be blocked with regularity since the Vanek injury.

The Buffalo logjam of talented forwards will always allow for good puck movement and Kotalik, if he can rise to the occasion, could be an asset in rescuing the power play.

Let's hear what people out there think of this analysis.  Also what player do you find most vital for the power play until Vanek returns?