Jason Garrison and the First Unit Power-Play

Photo Credit Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty

On Wednesday evening, the Canucks will open their first round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks are quite possibly the league’s single best special teams club, and the Canucks will be hard pressed to match them in this area. 

One adjustment that could help is changing up the first unit so that it features Jason Garrison’s ridiculously powerful slapshot. I’m convinced that the Canucks need to add some heavy artillery to the first power-play unit, and I crunched some numbers in an attempt to prove it. Check it out after the jump.

Vancouver’s power-play has been significantly better since Ryan Kesler returned from his second injury of the season. That’s not surprising since Ryan Kesler is one hell of an offensive player, and also becasue the power-play couldn’t possibly have got any worse. 

Down the stretch, though the power-play began to have more success, the Canucks continued to deploy their personnel in a bit of an odd way with the man-advantage. For example, the last time we saw the Canucks ice a full (or mostly full) lineup was against Anaheim on Thursday night. The first power-play unit that evening included four forwards (both Sedins, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows) and one defenceman in Alex Edler. The second unit included Mason Raymond, Jannik Hansen, Derek Roy, Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison. I don’t have a huge problem with Vancouver deploying their power-play personnel that way (though I might like to see Zack Kassian in a net presence role on that second unit), except for one thing: Jason Garrison needs to play with the first power-play unit in Alex Burrows’ stead.

If we crunch the numbers, that rather obvious notion becomes, well, even more obvious. What follows is a table that includes every Canucks skater who you might reasonably consider for power-play duty this postseason, with the exception of Zack Kassian and Jannik Hansen who have shallow track records at five-on-four. I’ve broken down each player’s time-on-ice in five-on-four situations over the past three seasons (five-on-three situations and four-on-three situations are exluded). The table also includes the number of goals each player has scored in five-on-four power-play situations, and each palyer’s five-on-four goal scoring rate per sixty minutes. Here are the results:

Player 5on4 TOI 2010-11 – 2013 5on4 Goals 5on4 Goals/60
Daniel Sedin 679: 06 28 2.47
Ryan Kesler 583: 32 21 2.16
Mason Raymond 255: 16 8 1.88
Alex Edler 616: 34 15 1.46
Henrik Sedin 721: 25 16 1.33
Jason Garrison 401: 51 8 1.19
Derek Roy 426: 57 8 1.12
Alex Burrows 356: 38 5 0.84
Kevin Bieksa 322: 15 4 0.74
Dan Hamhuis 354: 20 3 0.51

So there’s a couple of things worth pointing out. The first thing that jumped out to me is obviously Mason Raymond. The sample is small, but that actually works in Raymond’s favour here since the above table doesn’t even include Raymond’s 2009-10 season (when he scored eight goals at five-on-four in his "breakout" campaign).

Since then Raymond has disappointed at even-strength, but he’s still scored power-play goals at a very high rate. Raymond’s abillity to score on the power-play isn’t particularly useful for a Canucks team that loads up their first unit, but if I were a pro-scout employed by a club that struggles to manufacture offense with the man-advantage, I’m probably suggesting to my boss that he offer Raymond a contract this summer…

The second thing that should jump out at you is that Alex Burrows might not be particularly good on the power-play, at least when it comes to finding the back of the net. For a player who has scored goals at a super-elite rate at even-strength over the past five seasons, Burrows just hasn’t been productive enough with the man-advantage to warrant a regular slot on the first unit. He’s barely been more productive with the man-advantage over the past three seasons than Bieksa has.

Oh, and before you make an excuse like, "it’s the guys Burrows is playing with," remember that Mason Raymond has spent way less time with the first unit in the sample above than Burrows has…

The third thing that I notice is that Vancouver has two defenseman who, over the past three seasons, have scored at a really good clip at five-on-four. One of them is Alex Edler, and the other is Jason Garrison. Edler’s the better five-on-four scorer and is pretty much Vancouver’s power-play quarterback through the neutral-zone, so for those of you who think Garrison should take his place on the first unit, I think you should reconsider. But yeah, that leaves us with this softball question: should Jason Garrison play with the first power-play unit in the playoffs instead of Alex Burrows? Absolutely he should, and this isn’t something you need a spreadsheet to understand.

Based on the data, the Canucks have two super-elite power-play goal scorers in Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin. They have a third forward who scores at an okay rate in Henrik Sedin, but that forward is also the league’s premiere playmaker – so slot him onto the top-unit too. Then the Canucks have two defenceman who can produce goals from the back-end at five-on-four at a rate that would be considered "solid" if they were second line forwards. There’s really no excuse not to roll with that group of five as your first power-play unit…

As for Alex Burrows, three-hundred and fifty-six minutes isn’t a huge sample, so I don’t think we can definitively say that he doesn’t belong on the power-play. We can suggest from the available evidence, however, that Alex Burrows might not be as useful with the man-advantage as he is at even-strength and when killing-penalties. Until Burrows proves he’s able to be more productive in five-on-four situations, he very probably shouldn’t be on the top power-play unit considering the other options available (just my shap alert).

Down the stretch I thought perhaps the Canucks coaches were keeping Jason Garrison off of the first power-play unit because having him rip slapshots at the net in meaningless games with, say, Daniel Sedin providing the screen in is just playing with fire. But now that the games will really matter, and now that the Canucks are in tough against a polished special teams club in the Sharks, this adjustment is something of a no-brainer in my view.

  • Thanks for the post Thomas. It occurs to me that one skill which may not be reflected in the data is Burrows’ ability to screen the goalie thereby facilitating scoring chances for his teammates. By the eye test which admittedly can be deceiving, he certainly looks very strong in this area to me.

  • BrudnySeaby

    Garrison is our most important power play weapon. In the literal sense that is.

    Over a series he can severely hurt, and even injure, opponents. So get him out there as much as possible. After some of the penally killers on the opposing teams get to experience a shot from Garrison first hand, they might be just a little bit slower trying to close that lane next time…

  • BrudnySeaby

    I completely agree with you, I’m just wondering how the coaching staff sees it. Do they want Burrows’ ability to recover loose pucks? He’s certainly elite when battling with his stick, and his ability to come out of scrums with the puck on his stick keeps the PP shift going. Maybe it’s more about playing Daniel on the point? I think it’s likely that AV prefers his passing in that spot over Garrison’s. Daniel can thread cross-box passes to Henrik in the corner better than anyone. His shot is accurate but not hard.

    I don’t see it. I agree Garrison would be better. Daniel is superior as a winger, playing off his brother. Over a long series Garrison’s shot could end up taking opposing PKers out of the lineup. I hope AV rethinks it.

  • BrudnySeaby

    “Down the stretch I thought perhaps the Canucks coaches were keeping Jason Garrison off of the first power-play unit because having him rip slap shots at the net in meaningless games with, say, Daniel Sedin providing the screen in is just playing with fire.”

    I never thought of it that way, it makes sense to try and prevent injuries to their own players.

    Here’s another thought as well. There might also be some weird logic to having Garrison on the 2nd unit, if opposing teams put their best penalty killers out against the first unit that means that the lesser penalty killers will play against the second unit which means Garrison might have a few more good looks at the net without the opponents best shot blockers and he might get a bit more time and space to get a shot away when facing secondary killers.

    If the 2nd unit can keep scoring, the opponents coach is now in a pickle, does he put his best penalty killers out against the second unit and risk getting them hurt by a Garrison shot and risk having his secondary penalty killers out against Vancouver’s top unit, or does he allow Vancouver’s second unit to feast on inferior penalty killers.

    On the surface it makes sense to put the teams’ best shot on the first unit but when you think deeper it kind of makes sense to have him on the second unit too.

  • billm

    There are other reasons I would like to see Garrison on the 1st unit PP other than the canon of a shot.

    1st He actually shoots the puck. If there is one thing the 1st unit PP has failed to do this year it’s get shots on net. When there is another forward on the blue line the opposition KNOWS if a shot is coming it will be from Edler and they close that lane. With Garrison back there it gives two threats from the point and Garrision, when he gets that puck, there is no hesitation. It’s a simpler and more dangerous PP with him on the point.

    2nd Edler makes bad decisions on close plays at the blue line. If the other team is going to get a shorty, chances are Edler made the gaff with a bad pinch or misplay on a break out. Frankly he needs another d-man there who can cover those gaffs.

    If both power play units got roughly the same deployment time 5 on 4 you could make a case for having Garrison QB the 2nd unit. But they don’t, not even close.

  • billm

    Honestly, I would like to see Kesler moved to the 2nd unit to play with Roy and Raymond with Bieksa and Hamhuis on the points, while Garrison moves up to the first unit along with Zack Kassian.

    Kassian’s main flaw is that he appears to have no idea what to do when he doesn’t have the puck, but he is well suited to a Dustin Byfuglienesque “stand in front of the net” role. He has size and hands in close and would be difficult to move. With Garrison, Edler and Daniel firing pucks at a screened goalie, you expect he’d get a few rebounds or tip ins, and if not, at least the goalie can’t see anything. It also frees up Kesler to create a rather dangerous-looking second unit.

    Unfortunately this was an experiment that should’ve begun 10 games ago, rather than now. Still, at the very least you’d expect to see some tinkering if the PP gets off to a slow start.