What would Owen Power have brought to Team Canada’s blueline?

Photo by James Coller/MGoBlog

Introduction

Owen Power, a 6’5” defenceman with a combination of raw size and smooth mobility so rare that you can already hear the Victor Hedman comparisons, already seems like a sure-bet top-five pick and possible contender for first overall– and he’s only played a handful of games this season. A headlining talent on a historically strong Chicago Steel team, Power’s long stride, aggressive offensive instincts, and terrific poise in transition drove him to one of the best draft-minus-one seasons in USHL history. Power is one of three 2021 eligibles to suit up for the University of Michigan Wolverines this season, playing alongside fellow 18-year-olds and projected top picks Kent Johnson and Matty Beniers.

The defenceman is an impressive offensive player, recording 40 points in 45 games as Chicago’s top defenceman. Power was very involved in the team’s offence, quarterbacking the team’s first powerplay unit and routinely leading the rush moving through the neutral zone. Statistically, Power might be the best defenceman to ever come out of a non-USNTDP team in the United States Hockey League, leading that group in just about every category of statistical production. In fact, he looks like one of the best when we include the USNTDP group as well. Fellow 2021 eligibles Luke Hughes and Sean Behrens compare well, having averaged at a minimally higher rate of primary points at even-strength. Power leads every USHL defender since 2008 in all-situations primary points per game and is led only Quinn Hughes in total points per game.

Skating

The thing you’re going to hear all year long with Power is how well he skates for his size. And for good reason– Power’s length, strength, and fluidness combine to give him excellent top speed and a level of mobility that we really don’t see too often from a player of his stature. For a player this big to display the comfort level and willingness to take as much space as the defence gives him, plus a little more– it’s not a common trait. 

The focus here is going to be comparing Power’s skating to NHL players of a similar archetype: large defenceman that skate well and don’t shy away from the offensive side of the game. Stanley Cup champion Victor Hedman (6’6”) is one; Dougie Hamilton (6’6”)and the fluidity of a much smaller player that he possesses will make him a very intriguing case study, and Edmonton’s Darnell Nurse (6’6”) will be a good example of a more mid-level projection for Power. All three of those players skate exceptionally well and are players Power should look at as he looks to refine his stride as he moves to higher levels.

The first thing I noticed looking at these clips is that not a single one of those three players looks *big* as they skate. If you were to show that video to someone that’s never heard of any of those three names, would they be able to tell you that those three players are at least 6’4”? I don’t think they would. Generally, the taller a player is, the more they rely on the length of their stride rather than the quickness of their feet. That makes sense– the longer the limb, the longer it should take to carry out a stride and reset to begin the next one. But take another look at those three clips above and pay particular attention to how quickly those players get their feet moving as they accelerate. Pretty damn fast, right? (I love that Dougie clip, his lower body is absolutely churning).

Now let’s compare that to Owen’s stride.

Definitely doesn’t get his feet moving nearly as fast, and he’s unable to create any space for himself. Watch that clip another time, and ask yourself: “Does he look like he might be a 6’0” player here? What’s the engine here: the length of his stride, or the quickness of his feet?”. To me, it’s the former. To be a high-level NHL skater, it needs to be the latter. You can’t be a great skater at 6’5” unless you have the stride of a smaller player. A lengthy stride might get you up to the same top speed eventually, but quick feet are undeniably better in an NHL where explosiveness is key.

Another key to Hedman, Hamilton, and Nurse’s strides is the stability of their upper bodies. Let’s look at that Hamilton clip again.

His legs are churning, but his upper body barely moves. Compare that to Power, who lifts his stick away from the puck so he can swing his stick back and forth side-to-side. Power is skating forwards– swinging his stick side-to-side isn’t creating forwards momentum, it’s just wasted movement that damages the efficiency of his stride.

One thing I like to do every time I look at a player’s stride is grab a screencap of the end of their stride– you can learn a lot about their posture from that. 

Notice the alignment between head, leg, and toe (Hamilton has a bit of a weird stride, looking like he’s way up on his toes, but it’s still there). Look at the knee as well– it’s out in front of the knee for all of these players.

Power checks both of those boxes. To refine his stride, I’d focus on nailing in that upper body stability and cranking up his foot speed (part of that will come with fixing his upper body– an efficient stride is a quick one) by adding explosive muscle.

Because of that, the defenceman is most effective as a puck-carrier when he has room to wind the puck up in transition and get up to full speed.

That means he really shines as a transition option on the powerplay– Chicago’s powerplay zone entry strategy looked to just be Owen’s name underlined a few times on the whiteboard at times, with Power effortless bringing the puck through the neutral zone and setting up the powerplay.

But what about at even strength? Power leaned far more on his passing in those 5v5 breakout scenarios than his skating last year– he just doesn’t have the foot speed to really beat more than one forechecker on a consistent basis– but he can take advantage of space offered to him by the defence. His even-strength mobility has actually translated to the college level better than I had expected. The comfort level demonstrated by Power grabbing pucks in his own zone, getting started up ice, and breaking out with his feet was very encouraging, especially for some of his first games at this level.

This clip is especially positive: this kind of poise under forechecking pressure is pretty much essential for NHL defenceman that want to actually help their teams win hockey games.

He can skate the puck, but Power’s at his best on the breakout with his eyes up ice looking for a passing option. He sees the play ahead of him exceptionally well, never rushing a play and demonstrating extraordinary poise– the forecheck just seems to slow down in front of him, with Power appearing to have more time with the puck than any other player on the ice.

We hear lots about the vision of offensive playmakers; Power deserves similar credit for his ability to quickly identify open teammates up in the neutral zone. It isn’t easy to see through a forecheck and find passing lanes way up the ice, but the blueliner managed a high success rate on a high volume of long passes into the neutral zone with the Steel. His 6’5”, 214 pound frame eases the distress that smaller defenders feel under a heavy forecheck, allowing Power to focus his attention on finding an option whereas an undersized player would have to delegate some brain power to ensure that they don’t get put through the boards. This next clip is a perfect illustration– would that defender still attack so passively and decline to finish his check if Power was five inches shorter?

And this relay-type pass demonstrates that awareness– he already knows where to move the puck before he even receives the puck.

I am yet to see Power look fazed by any kind of oncoming pressure.

The next step for Power on the breakout is connecting his mobility and passing. Rewatch those clips above– notice how most of his passes are from fairly stationary positions. Power could rely on his physical stature and quick brain to make plays without the forecheck causing problems for him at the USHL level and even against NCAA competition, but faster and bigger opposition will quickly eat away at that advantage when Power reaches the NHL. All of the NHL’s best defencemen in transition are able to create time for themselves with their feet, even if it’s just an extra half second to allow them to find a quick option. Power sees the ice well enough to find an open man in that half second, but is he elusive enough to create that time? Outside of a few plays where the forecheckers weren’t really hounding him, he hasn’t really demonstrated it yet.

There’s no steadfast blueprint to a successful NHL defenceman, but part of me feels like there’s a glass ceiling of sorts on big defencemen as elite offensive and transitional contributors and to break that ceiling, they need the fluidity and quickness of a smaller body. Essentially, you need to be a unicorn, and Power doesn’t look like one at this point in his progression.

I’d love to be able to follow that with a more positive sentiment, but the other element of transition, zone entry creation, is probably my least favourite part of Power’s game. His comfort on the puck coming out of his own zone is very high, but all of his confidence seems to dissipate as soon as his skates cross the offensive blueline. Power’s transitional impact ends as soon as he gets into enemy territory– he looks like a shell of his usual self, immediately looking to pass off to a teammate or doing nothing to attack the middle when he doesn’t. I don’t want to overwhelm anyone with clips here, but I really want to emphasize just how infrequent it is for Power to actually keep possession of the puck on an entry.

His aggressive transitional style results in far more carry entries than is typical for a defenceman, but Power defers to his teammates to make something happen afterwards almost every time. And that doesn’t appear to be a mere issue of confidence– when Power does keep the puck, he creates very little. Watch him pass the puck out of the slot into the corner (??) here:

He distributes into pressure this time:

Power’s lack of quickness makes it easy for opposing defenders to keep him to the outside of the ice. He can’t get the half step needed to use his size to drive to the net and can’t stop on a dime to try to make a play into the middle of the ice.

Power’s transition impact comes from his poise, vision, and mobility. He’s an excellent passer on the breakout, showing very little duress under forechecking pressure and slowing the game down in front of him to give his forwards time to collect speed and get moving forwards in the neutral zone. When the forecheck is slow to apply pressure, Power is eager to use the space given to him to gather speed and frequently take the puck all the way through the neutral zone himself. With his size and top speed, it’s pretty much impossible to stop him from entering the offensive zone with control of the puck– I don’t think anybody’s going to voluntarily step in front of his 6’5”, 214 frame and Power moves well enough laterally to dodge stick checks through the neutral zone. Power excels at slowing the game down, as mentioned, but struggles to accelerate the pace against forecheckers. 6’5” bodies don’t typically lend themselves to high-level quickness or explosiveness, and Power isn’t an exception like Victor Hedman or Dougie Hamilton. Smaller forwards can usually take away his skating lanes and the stronger, more aggressive forecheckers of the NHL should be able to bother him physically too. That means Power’s passing will need to become the feature of his transition game. From what we’ve seen from him so far, that shouldn’t be an issue– he’s an excellent passer– but if he can add enough quickness to create a little extra time for himself on the breakout when necessary Power’s versatility in transition would greatly benefit. Once Power crosses the offensive blueline, his involvement in the play vanishes– he usually passes the puck off to a forward immediately and it isn’t hard to see why; when Power does keep the puck on his stick, he struggles to do anything at all offensively. The controlled entries that he creates at an exceptionally high value are still valuable, but the ensuing rush attack isn’t going to be as dangerous when the initial puck carrier is more or less a phantom attacker.

Offensive Play

Without the puck, Power is eager to join the rush and make himself an option for his forwards. His shot is a threat from the high slot– watch him activate up the weak side and wire one of the post here.

He goes to the net and almost gets an easy tap-in:

He’s looking for the one-timer on the wing this time, but recognizes the lane to the net and takes the puck in for a better chance.

Defences don’t always pick up the late man on the rush (especially at the USHL level). Power scored one of his twelve goals that way.

With his team set up in the offensive zone, Power is a constant threat to activate off the blueline. He’ll gladly walk the puck forwards when the defence gives him space, creating opportunities in the high slot out of ordinary offensive situations.

This is one of my favourite plays that a defenceman can make– walking the puck off the blueline, around a defender, and into the slot. Confidence, mobility, and skill. Power did it a couple times last year.

It doesn’t even have to be off the blueline– Power can take the puck to the net from other positions as well.

He doesn’t even need the puck; Power will happily sneak in as close to the net as possible when the defence collapses around its own net.

Chicago played a modern style with lots of player movement in the offensive zone and Power thrived, sliding down into offensive positions on a frequent basis. He pretty much had free reign to roam down the right flank, hunting one-time chances and making plays off the wing. That’s especially true on the powerplay, but it’s relevant for Power’s even-strength body of work as well– he sneaks down the weak side wing and gets a great rebound chance here:

Here’s the Steel powerplay. First of all, enjoy the player movement, but also notice how Power slides down the wing to get in position for the one-timer.

Not a one-timer this time, but I found Power in that wing position on the powerplay quite often while working through video for this piece.

Back to five-on-five now. I love how Power moves down the wall as his forward moves up it and then takes the puck to the crease here.

And you can see how Chicago actually slides into an umbrella-style formation here at even-strength, with Power moving down that flank for a one-timer similar to his powerplay work.

A big part of the appeal with Power, I think, is the versatility and multidimensionality that he offers. He’s a big, smooth-skating defender– that’s appealing in itself– but he’s also an aggressive offensive player and confident puck-carrier on the breakout. But I think Power’s two years in the Steel system could also be a source of that appeal– that’s two years playing a modern style with fluid player movement and the closest thing to positionless hockey you’ll really find at this point. That’s the future of the sport; for Power to already have experience in a system like that could be valuable.

The defenceman brings the same vision that benefits him on the breakout to the offensive blueline, seeing through layers of traffic to pull off beautiful passes to the goal front.

Power has a big shot from the blueline as well.

Now, you aren’t going to consistently create offence by taking slappers from the blueline in 2020– modern defencemen make their offensive money by directly involving themselves and getting below the top of the circles. But Clarke’s shot is a rocket that should only become more powerful as he matures, a useful tool on the powerplay that further adds to his offensive versatility. One thing worth mentioning while we’re on the topic of Power’s powerplay again: Chicago’s powerplay was the best in the league with a near 25% conversion rate. Now, Power was absolutely part of that, but the man advantage was also an opportunity for him to add to his point totals. Twelve of his 26 primary points were on the man advantage and a fair share of those were uncomplicated feeds to Chicago’s high-powered forwards.

Power did an excellent job involving himself in the powerplay and I don’t doubt his offensive capabilities one bit. That’s just something to be mindful of.

Power is an aggressive offensive defenceman with far more offensive skill than you’d expect from a player his size. He has two seasons of experience in a very fluid Chicago Steel system where the blueliner had the freedom to involve himself below the circles on a very frequent basis. He joins the rush at every opportunity and can threaten as the late man, walking the puck in after receiving a pass and using his shot within the slot. From the blueline, he can score the occasional goal with a heavy slapper from the point, getting every inch and pound of his 6’5, 214 frame behind his shot. Power demonstrated flashes of shrewd playmaking from the blueline as well, feeding the puck through sticks and bodies to connect with forwards cutting to the net. But Power’s most useful offensive trait is his ability to activate off the blueline and move the puck closer to the danger zone– he’ll take as much space as the defence gives him and sometimes even more, stepping around the defender challenging him at the point and walking the puck towards the net. With Chicago, Power roamed quite freely down the entire right flank, especially on the powerplay. Ideally, his NHL team will deploy him similarly– it’d be wasteful to chain Power to the point when we’ve already seen how successful he can be with a little more freedom to go to dangerous areas. Really, it’s wasteful to deploy any defenceman in a manner where they don’t feel encouraged to get involved, but especially someone with Power’s offensive capabilities.

Defensive Play

A player’s defensive impact, I think, is the easiest part of their game to improve. We’ll still take a quick look at Power’s defensive play so far at the NCAA level for Michigan, but defensive upside is more about the tools a player has to work with than how well they defend as a teenager that has more than likely been primarily focused on their offensive skills for the extent of their career thus far. Power is 6’5”, 214 pounds, and a very good skater; those are the tools of an elite-level defender. There’s no reason why that player can’t succeed in a shutdown role: Power has the mobility and reach to smother in transition and the physical frame to play a heavy game and keep attackers to the outside of the ice. But remember– he’s an 18 year old that’s never actually needed to play defence at a high level. That’s what Power could be, but he isn’t at that level yet. Let’s take a look.

This shift from a Penn State game is a nice introduction. First, he jumps on the puck off the draw and finds an outlet. Those defence-offence transitions could be a valuable part of his NHL game: his size makes him a difficult player to check under pressure and Power is intelligent enough to quickly identify a passing option.

We also get a glimpse at his neutral zone defence towards the end of the same shift. He isn’t aggressive, conceding the blueline very easily, but Power’s reach deters attackers from attacking the inside of the ice. Limiting the rush to a poor-percentage outside shot is a pretty solid outcome (the best one, obviously, is to deny the entry altogether).

One more. Again, he only denies the middle of the ice but still gives up the entry. And again, the opposition is limited to an outside shot.

He’s doing okay right now, keeping the puck out of the middle of the ice. But good players are able to use their teammates and create a better offensive outcome out of these situations, especially high-level NHLers. There’s no reason for Power to be so passive against the rush; he has all the tools to successfully play a more aggressive style. I want him playing a tighter gap with the goal of making a play on the puck carrier by the time they reach the offensive blueline– every single time.

Let’s go back to those offence-defence transitions again. Power is still struggling to find consistency in that area of his game. We saw plenty of his intelligence and passing in transition already, but those skills aren’t apparent every time. He turns the puck over here:

And then later in the shift, he goes back to collect a puck behind his own net but loses the battle to the forward. But he eventually gets a third chance, successfully starting the breakout this time.

Michigan’s coaching staff already trusts Power in important minutes, deploying him on the powerplay and at the end of this game with Penn State’s goalie pulled. His defensive upside is exceptional and he’s already a solid defensive player. Like any 18 year old, Power has plenty of room to improve in his zone– he isn’t very aggressive and doesn’t utilize his size as much as he could. But he already uses his reach well to take away the middle of the ice, making it difficult for the opposing team to get anything going against him on offence.

Summary

I expect Owen Power to be a strong contender for the first overall pick throughout the season. He’s a member of a very rare archetype– the 6”4” or taller defender with high-level mobility– that is very valuable in today’s NHL and unquestionably attractive to front offices, where Power’s size and defensive upside should have throwback appeal. If he can harness his physicality and potential in his own end, Power could be a fascinating and effective combination of old-school and modern traits. His Chicago Steel tenure is very interesting to me because that’s precisely the type of forward-thinking strategic system that should soon make it to the NHL; in fact, Steel coach Greg Moore was hired by the Toronto Marlies mid-season to replace Sheldon Keefe after his promotion to the NHL. Power combines exceptional poise in transition with an aggressive offensive mindset, looking to routinely involve himself in the offence and functioning as a sort of fourth forward in the offensive zone, joining the rush and roaming the right flank in the offensive zone hunting one-timers and other chances.

What about outcomes?

As we discussed, I think Power’s absolute ceiling is a minute-munching, all-around, Victor Hedman type defenceman. That’s an elite #1 guy on a blueline. His poise and mobility should make him a high-level transitional player, his defensive tools give him elite upside on that side of that puck, and his aggressiveness and willingness to involve himself offensively could have him making frequent appearances on the scoresheet. But that projection would require significant growth across several areas: Power need to find that quickness and body control that we almost never see in players his size, the physicality and defensive aggressiveness to play tight neutral zone defence and knock opposing players off the puck along the boards, and the confidence and puck skills to make offensive plays with the puck as he enters the zone. That’s a lot of growth that needs to happen. I wouldn’t count on that, but it’s possible– that’s why it’s Power’s best-scenario outcome.

More realistically, I project an all-around top-four defenceman that can still play 20 minutes a night, but not as the top option eating minutes against top competition. Power’s poise and intelligence on the breakout should make him above-average in that area, even if he doesn’t develop high-level quickness and the ability to really create time for himself on the breakout. I’m more confident in his defensive play and entry creation to reach a high level than his skating, and I think the former two are enough to make him a valuable and dependable defenceman.

If things don’t work out so well, Power could bring his well-rounded talents to a less demanding third-pairing role. It’s difficult to see Power not cracking the NHL– being 6’5” and a high draft pick is pretty much a ticket to the top level, but it’s no guarantee that he works his way up to reliable results in bigger minutes. The big thing limiting him to that level would be Power’s quickness– NHL pace can be a significant jump and being able to buy time on the breakout is an important tool. If Power doesn’t have the first step to do that against NHL forecheckers, he could struggle in transition. I still think he’ll have some nice flashes of offensive talent, activating into the play and getting to dangerous areas on occasion. But if his transition game isn’t a differentiator for him and he doesn’t achieve another level of aggressiveness in the defensive zone, Power might not be a real driver of play.

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