When Bill Muckalt cues up film for his power-play units to watch, he doesn’t always turn to the film bank Michigan maintains of its own games and practices. Instead, the associate head coach pulls together clips from the highest level of the sport.
As the Wolverines work with a new power-play system under Muckalt’s guidance — moving from a unit with three forwards and two defensemen to four forwards and one defenseman — Michigan’s time in the film room has been spent watching how NHL teams run their power plays.
“I think it’s no secret, people and pucks to the net, take the goalie’s eyes away,” Muckalt said. “That’s a good recipe to generate, but I think specifically, when we watch NHL teams and watch what they’re doing is — part of our job is to develop players to the National Hockey League and watching the best players, the game is still the same but it’s at a different speed and a different execution. … You watch smart offensive players and it’s kind of a copycat league and you take ideas.”
Michigan has spent the most time watching the Vancouver Canucks, who run a similar system, but Muckalt was quick to clarify that he thinks there’s something to be learned from every team in the league. While most teams run variations of a 1-3-1 formation, each team has its own spin on it and creates different looks.
And as the Wolverines try to figure out how to make the new system work for them, watching teams across the NHL is helping them see what their options are.
“We’re just trying to simplify on the power play, get pucks on net and move it quick,” said sophomore defenseman Nick Blankenburg on Oct. 25. “Film has been a big thing for us that we’ve been doing is watching how other teams are scoring goals on power plays. I think we find areas to score through film and whatnot and just seeing what’s open.”
The transition hasn’t gone perfectly. Michigan has six power-play goals on 34 opportunities though its first eight games — good for a 17.6 percent conversion rate with a man advantage, which ranks No. 28 of 60 teams in the country.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson has said he cares more about when the power-play goals come than the percentage at which the units convert, but eight games in, neither metric is reflecting the performance Pearson would like to see.
In Saturday’s game at Ohio State, the Wolverines had two power plays in the third period while trailing by a goal. Michigan notched a combined three shots across both opportunities, and only one of those shots came directly in front of the net.
“We’ve gotta find something that works, because these games are coming down to one goal and special teams are so important,” Pearson said. “We’ve lost the special teams battle in the last three games. We’ve lost every game.”
Both units have seen their personnel change depending on health and the different line combinations Pearson puts together. Freshman defenseman Cam York has solidified himself on the top unit, as has fifth-year forward Jacob Hayhurst. But everything else is in flux — including the system itself.
At the beginning of the season, both groups featured a lone defenseman and four forwards. Now, sophomore defensemen Jack Summers and Nick Blankenburg are usually sent with the second unit alongside three forwards.
On Friday, it was that second unit that produced the weekend’s lone power-play goal for the Wolverines.
“I think most teams are kinda transitioning toward (having two looks) because then you have to study two different types of film,” said senior forward Nick Pastujov. “Like for Ohio State, for instance, the way we studied them was the first and second unit, they run two different things, so your (penalty kill) always has to kinda kill differently against the two and sometimes you can get out of sorts if you get confused.
“It just gives that extra little edge where if we give them two different looks, they might not catch on as fast and we might be able to catch them.”
While Michigan works to find the successful formula for both power-play units, the systems and the personnel will be fluid. But as the Wolverines study the NHL to figure things out, they may find just the right thing to copy.