What’s Ailing the Canucks? Not Enough Bread and Butter

At this point, the Canucks could certainly use some more bread and butter.

In case you hadn’t heard, the Vancouver Canucks were fairly proficient at winning hockey games over the past two seasons. They were a combined 105-41-18, which was good for two consecutive Presidents’ trophies. For a team to accomplish that in today’s NHL, they need to be able to do something things pretty darn well; the particulars obviously depending on the specific construction of the team. For the Canucks, those things happened to be strong special teams play combined with devastating possession of the puck (and good goaltending, of course).

So naturally, with the Canucks having come out of the gate sluggishly this season – to the tune of a 2-2-2 record, with a few questionable blown leads mixed in – questions have surfaced about what’s wrong with the team.

It’s simple – they haven’t been able to fall back on what was their bread and butter when the going was good.

Read Past the Jump for More.

Despite what some conspiracy theorists (they’re really just troublemakers, for lack of a better term) may lead you to believe, the "uncertainty" of the goaltending situation has been the least of the team’s problems. In fact, aside from the opener against Anaheim, the two ‘tenders have been the team’s two best players. We saw just what kind of luxury it is on Monday night in Los Angeles, when Roberto Luongo nearly single-handedly stole 2 points for the team in the second game of a rough back-to-back.

On Monday afternoon, Thomas Drance wrote about the four key areas where the Canucks are missing Ryan Kesler’s efforts the most. And as he’s one to do, he nailed it. Let’s dive deeper into the numbers for the two most worrisome ones, though – faceoffs, and special teams play (specifically the penalty kill).

In 2010-11, the Canucks led the league in faceoff percentage with a whopping 54.9% success rate. It was largely due to the excellence of Manny Malhotra (61.7%, 2nd in the league) and Kesler (57.4%, 7th in the league), but even Henrik Sedin and Max Lapierre were getting the job done. Last year, the Canucks took a slight step back, but still managed to finish 3rd in the NHL with a collective rate of 52.2%. Surprise, surprise – Malhotra and Kesler were absolutely killer in the circle, yet again. 

This season hasn’t been smooth sailing in that department, though, as the team has fallen all the way down to 46.3%, which is good (bad?) for 28th in the league. Here’s the breakdown:

Malhotra has once again been stellar, but has missed 2 of the 6 games thus far. Beyond that, Schroeder has been solid (pleasantly surprised), Henrik has been bad (eyebrow raised), Ebbett has been terrible (boy did I whiff), Alex Burrows has been dreadful (expected) and Max Lapierre has been disastrously terrible (what on earth?). For what it’s worth, the two teams that finished ahead of them last season – Boston and San Jose – are once again 1-2, and have combined for a 9-0-1 record. Faceoffs aren’t the end-all, be-all, but it sure is a nice luxury to be starting plays with possession of the puck.

Unfortunately, the play on special teams hasn’t exactly been all that much better; though the power play has been significantly better than the penalty kill. In 2010-11, the Canucks finished 3rd in the league at 85.6%. Last season, they fell to 6th, even though they actually improved to 86.0%. So far this year, they have only killed off 69.2% of their infractions. Only 5 teams have been worse; one of them is Calgary, and they shouldn’t even really count.

If you needed a reminder that it’s still rather early in the season to be totally freaking out, though, look at the top of the list. The Bruins have yet to give up a single power play goal. That seems only slightly unsustainable.

Which finally brings us to the power play. I’ll admit that I was actually surprised to see that the Canucks were converting at an 18.8% clip. While it places them at 19th in the league, that has more to do with the ridiculous early season percentages for teams like the Sharks, Oilers and Blues, than anything else. That sort of rate would have put them in the top 10 in 2010-11 (they actually finished 1st, with an astounding 24.3% – hello, Sedins!), and in the top 7 last season (they finished 4th, with 19.8%). 

I say that I was surprised because the power play has looked anything but smooth through the first handful of games. The top unit has a new look this year; Kassian has been just fine in his role causing havoc in front of the net, while the next time Jason Garrison gets a clean shot through will be the first time. While the conversion rate may not suggest that the Canucks have missed Kesler with the man advantage, the eyes certainly have (and so does the team’s 5on4 shot rate). Keep in mind that we’re talking about a player who has contributed 35 power play tallies over the past 3 seasons. They miss him dearly in this facet of the game, too. Just don’t tell ESPN that the numbers sometimes do lie.

Drance hit the nail on the head when he discussed how sorely the Canucks miss Kesler. So did Daniel Wagner, when he reiterated most of the same points. But the fact of the matter is that while Kesler is good enough to provide a trickle-down effect of sorts for the entire operation, the Canucks will ultimately have to be better as a whole in the meantime. Because what were key components of their success in previous years, have let them down so far this season.