Fixing the Vancouver Canucks Power Play

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Photo Credit: Sergei Belsky – USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knew going into this season that the Canucks would be hard pressed to produce offence at even strength. Perhaps nobody knew more so than the Canucks themselves.

Combined with their general inability to generate positive shot differentials, Vancouver was always bound to a path less travelled if their destination was the post-season. That means playing to a tie at evens on most nights and putting the game away on special teams. There’s a large element of luck involved therein, but such is life for the league’s have-nots.

The Canucks penalty kill has, mostly, been a strength under Head Coach Willie Desjardins. His power play perhaps less so. Last season they finished 26th in the league in conversion rate. This season they’re ranked 28th.

At this rate, USA TODAY’s 65 point prediction is optimistic. If the Canucks can’t fix their power play, that is.

They’re not generating enough shots as a team, and even fewer that threaten on a consistent basis. Part of that is personnel. And if you’re looking at a Canucks power play that features the Sedin twins, Loui Eriksson, Brandon Sutter and Philip Larsen, it’s not particularly difficult to find the weakest link.

The Canucks are generating shot attempts at a half-decent rate with Larsen. Hell, they’re even generating unblocked shot attempts and shots in general at a better rate with Larsen on the ice than without him. If one were to look solely at the numbers, Larsen would flesh out as having a genuinely positive impact on the Canucks’ shot rates, which is important, because those are a better indicator of long-term success with the man advantage than goals.

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Wherein the problem lies is the distance of the shots. On average, Larsen is launching pucks 50-feet from the opposition net. A quick glance at the players in that range reveals a venerable murderers row of the league’s best trigger-men. In fact, it’s not even generally low relative to power play quarterbacks leaguewide.

If you can sling the puck like Shea Weber, that’s not an issue. Larsen isn’t Weber, though. He doesn’t have a particularly strong shot, and he’s not even all that proficient at getting it on net. Which is especially concerning when one looks at the percentage of shots Larsen is responsible for on the Canucks’ first unit.

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That’s not so bad, right? Well, peel the onion back another layer and the discolouration becomes increasingly stark.

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We all knew the plan going into this season was for Larsen to run the Canucks’ power play from the point. I didn’t think that would entail running more than 50% of their attempted shots through Larsen. All of which are coming from the least dangerous regions of the offensive zone. That goes a long way towards explaining the Canucks standing as the league’s 10th worst team by scoring chance generation.

Looked at in the context of the big picture, it does beg the question as to why the Canucks felt secure in handing the keys to their power play to Larsen. He’s an apt puck mover, and there hasn’t been a noticeable drop in their ability to move the puck from Alex Edler last season to Larsen in this one. By that same token, we’re talking about a player who’s never scored more than a single power play goal in a season; a player who’s shot four-and-a-half percent over the course of his career. 

That’s much more on the coaching staff than the player, though. Larsen’s never been a power play quarterback at the NHL level and nothing in his first stay in the NHL indicated he was capable of handling that role. There’s a place for Larsen on an NHL team’s power play. I don’t know if the Canucks have him in that space, though. Larsen is much more puck mover than a shooter, and the Canucks have him attempting more than half of their shots with the man advantage. 

And even if he had the shot to fulfil that role, it’s so predictable at this stage that teams have clued in and invested a disproportionate amount of their manpower to blocking his shots with the man advantage. Which places the onus firmly on the Canucks’ shoulders to adjust their scheme.

To the Canucks credit, they took their first step towards that end on Saturday. Down a few with nothing to lose, the Canucks altered their first unit to include Troy Stecher alongside Larsen. That was noteworthy for a number of reasons, but most especially because the Canucks had been running a four forward, one defenceman unit to that point in the season.

It also forced them to break from their traditionally ascribed to 1-3-1 formation. Which looks a little something like this:

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The advantages to running a system of this ilk are immediately apparent. If you’re going to run your power play through the point, it forces at least two men into the middle of the ice, or in the case of this still three. That turns the perimeter into a tariff-free zone, where the trigger men can pass among themselves with relative impunity. 

Of course, the pratfalls of this system are equally obvious. Good luck getting the puck to the middle of the ice where shots are most dangerous. Further to that end, just getting pucks through can be an onerous task in and of itself — something the Canucks realize all too well this season.

There isn’t any one size fits all way to run a power play. Where I take umbrage with the Canucks current setup though is that it takes the onus of finishing out of their best players hands and tries to generate the majority of its offence from a point man who hasn’t really demonstrated to this stage in his career that he’s capable of doing that. Particularly not in the context of their scheme.

When the Canucks started to integrate Stecher into their first unit, you could see them shifting their philosophy accordingly, though. They began to run more of an overload system, which looks like this:

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Similar to the 1-3-1, an overload system relies heavily on a strong net-front presence. Dissimilar to the 1-3-1, that net front presence has a lot more freedom in the offensive zone. The F1 (or the foremost forward in the offensive zone) doesn’t necessarily have to act as a screen. Puck retrieval, especially in the form of rebounds, is just as important.

This system opens up the most dangerous areas of the offensive zone but places a heavier burden on the trigger men to be quick in their decision-making. Running an overload system often relies on the five-man unit operating in a sort of rotation to try and create holes and find passing lanes. It’s a puck possession oriented approach that requires quick puck movement, strong coordination and patience.

If one were to focus on the first unit entirely, this scheme appears best suited to their players individual skills. Eriksson isn’t shy of the net, and the Sedins have as strong a cycle game as any pair of forwards in the league. Of course, this might force Sutter from the first unit. He’s not a particularly strong offensive puck possession type player.

But the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, and the Sedins desperately need to be placed in a situation where they can best utilize their skills. I just don’t see that from the Canucks’ current setup. If they keep moving towards an overload system that emphasises quick puck movement, I’d expect improvement to follow not long thereafter.

It’s not like they have anything to lose at this stage trying as much. 

  • DJ_44

    JD. Interesting analysis. I believe you are unfair of your evaluation of Larsen on the power play.

    The Canucks PP zone entry (at least of the first unit) has improved dramatically this year (albeit this is eye test stuff). The reason is directly attributed to the Larsen and his skating ability.

    The Canucks now have options, which include a viable back pass (because of the speed), Larsen carrying the puck in, or a pass to the wing. Edler is not the one you want to carry the puck up ice on the PP as evidenced last year, when he came forward with similar speed to that of a captain taking a ceremonial faceoff.

    I also consider his shot to be strong. He has to get more through. I do like him and Stecher on the power play together, with the overload. With Stecher as the distributer and Larsen is the one charged with looking for weakside rebounds in that case. Again, hit the net.

    A more interesting analysis is the brutal second PP unit. This is simply because they cannot enter the zone (…Edler….Hutton….). This is a bigger concern for me.

  • chinook

    Instead of benching Larsen or sacking Desjardins, how about trading Tanev for a young centre and putting Henrik in the press box? The return on Tanev could be Sean Couturier or Tomas Hertl or Nazem Kadri or Vincent Trochek. C’mon Canucks Army, get some real controversy started.

    • crofton

      I’m of a similar make this trade mind, however, you have to ask yourself before making a trade like this….How much difference will it make in this year’s standings?” If you were to get a 30 goal man, how many more wins does that equate? 30 goals over a full 82 game sched is less than a goal every second game, and that won’t be a win every second game. I think you need to input at least 60 more goals per year to see a difference. Stillll….there are possibilities.

  • Hockey Warrior

    The level of DELUSION and OVER ANALYSIS of the Canucks (and hockey in general) is astounding on here.

    Let me make it PLAIN and SIMPLE for you (SIMPLETONS) because analytics mean NOTHING. It’s like making a great movie see, ALL you need are GREAT ACTORS and a GREAT SCRIPT… The Canucks have NEITHER. The actors (players) are average or over-the-hill. The Script (identity/game plan) is stale, tired and cliche ridden.

    The PP involves the same two tired OLD men cycling the puck on the PERIMETER with no traffic in front and average D men with NO ENTRY SKILL or CANNON SHOT from the point (think Weber, Letang, Subban and yes SAMI SALO/CHRISTIAN ERHOFF) running the clock down. EVERY team has figured this out big style. Friends, It’s been this way since the window SLAMMED SHUT against the B’s… just as i TOLD YOU PRE-SEASON.

    Guys, this is an utter train wreck that will take another TEN YEARS to put right under the current regime/owners… but many who have deserted the ROG in DROVES already know this – so why DON’T YOU?

  • RIP

    I have been unimpressed with Larson from the start. Remember this is a player that could not crack the Oilers D roster in the past – a pretty telling observation.

    His movement when not under pressure is good, but he is unable to create much when under even a little pressure. Also, a massive liability in our end when the opposing team is hitting. Why waste our time on him just for power play goals when that means sitting another D man that could add a more complete game?

    AND the PP has been aweful and he is a major part of that (along with the rest of them and the coaching staff). I believe Hutton could be a better point man that Larson within a short while of being the point man. Regardless we need to give our other prospects a chance by sitting Larson.

    Also our toughness as a team is still lacking. Watching the Anahiem LA game last night was pretty telling. In all areas we need to be tougher to compete with teams like that. Pretty clear that Larson is the biggest liability in that respect. Could you imagine him in the playoffs? What a joke.

  • krutov

    the power play will not get better unless the sedins get better. right now they are fighting the puck so defenders are taking chances to pressure them.

    larsen looks ok skill wise, but he was initially too static. he looks more creative/desperate now which is good. otoh i am not sure if he has an nhl shot. if you look at his khl highlights he was beating unscreened goalies with high shots from above the circle. in the nhl he is shooting low point shots that do not get through very often.

    a trade of anyone under 30 is a waste for this team. the only way this team gets better this year is if the sedins bounce back. if they don’t then nobody we could trade for is going to help the post-sedin canucks avoid missing the playoffs.

  • The power play was getting stale under AV and Desjardins has done nothing to improve it. Under AV, it was all about setting up a point shot by the same guy. Under Desjardins, it’s either a point shot from the same guy (Larsen) or a cross-ice feed from Henrik. Why do you think that Vrbata’s effectiveness on the PP faded so quickly into his first year? It became predictable.

    Here’s what the Canucks need to do:

    1) Draw up some plays where the play *is not* a point shot or originates from a pass from Henrik. I was at a game where Anaheim game was visiting 2 years ago and their puck movement was killer. The puck never stopped moving and you couldn’t predict who was going to shoot the puck. The Canucks PP is simply not dynamic.

    2) Ensure that someone is always in front of the net. I recall the media flack Eriksson got from one of his assists, where he was standing point blank and passed to Daniel who scored from a bad angle. The media forgot that Eriksson was in the dirty area where most of the Canucks get outmuscled and he made a great, instinctive pass for a goal. We need more than that.

    If the Canucks present a power play where everyone is a shooter and there is a net-front screen presence, it will make life hell for opposing goaltenders and increase their PP conversion rate. If Desjardins can’t figure that out, at least pull a Jarvis and bring in someone with PP expertise.

    • TheRealRusty

      Your bang on there. The leagues have seen the twin brother act for the better part of a decade, and hence the power play has become predictable and unproductive. If anything, the Sedins are guilty of over passing the puck around looking for the perfect shot. Defenders are just setting up in their box and waiting for the pass or the point shot. How about overloading the front with bodies and getting some greasy goals? Not everything has to be a highlight reel goal…

  • Locust

    A power play is fluid, it changes with each opposing player, each team, each situation. It isn’t a game of ‘go fish’.

    Not that you wouldn’t (or haven’t) bashed the Canucks at every level on every issue but a handful of games isnt an indicator of anything when it comes to special teams.

    The games will be MUCH more entertaining this year and that’s a good thing…ooops… are we allowed to talk about good things on this site?

  • TheRealPB

    I really like these kinds of analysis (rather than conjecture) driven articles. This is a pretty fair assessment of the state of the PP. We can actually gain the zone now (I would put that to Sutter and Larsen and actually winning the face-off) but after that it is far too predictable — the Sedins fight the puck on the half wall (and the opposition immediately swarm them) and when it does go back to the point it’s either an unscreened floater or it gets blocked. There needs to be a much better (and different) approach. Which D are best at actually getting the puck on net or alternatively can make quick passes down low? Stetcher maybe? Subban potentially? No idea who we could park in front of the net. Gaunce? But as others say if the Sedins continue to fight the puck it is hard to really see what real options we have.

  • Jamie E

    The problem on the Canucks power play is not predictability, it’s execution. Everyone knows the Washington Capitals are going to try and get the pack to Ovie in the circle for a one timer. Guess what? He executes.

    The team lacks bona fide goal scorers, both up front and on the point. There is no fear in opposition penalty killers so they press hard – and often successfully.

    Lot’s of pretty passing and possession on the PP. Very few grade A shots on goal.

    • If you look at last season’s power play stats, you can compare Vancouver and Washington’s points distribution.

      – The Sedins drove the power play (19-20 points each) then it falls off sharply (Horvat’s next with 12 points, then single digits for everyone after).

      – The Capitals had 7 players with 14+ points on the power play, with Backstrom (30) and Ovechkin (24) in the lead.

      Ovechkin is just one weapon on a very talented Capitals’ PP. When everyone is a scoring threat, it makes life much easier for a keystone player like Ovechkin and his signature slapshot. It’s easy to figure out who makes or breaks the Canucks’ PP.

      http://www.sportingcharts.com/nhl/stats/player-power-play-scoring-leaders/2015/

  • Smyl and Snepsts

    We need a real shooter on the left side the way Ovechkin sets up. Players of his quality are few and far between but someone with a decent one-timer would be wonderful. Stecher seems to be able to do it on occaision. I would love to see Vitannen get chance as he can really wire the puck.

  • Fred-65

    I think to only laying the blame on the players is not the reason. This PP is drawn up by the combined coaching staff although I did read some place it’s Perry Pearns baby. They then go out at practise and practise the plan formulated. This not an ad lib sort of decision. Sure the executions is part of the failure but it’s not all of it. I tend to believe this current PP is not designed for the players that are being used. Remember when Salo was one timing heavy shots from his off side and scoring with regularity. Well that PP certainly included the Sedins

    I would like to know/confirm that pearns is the PP guru and if he is why was he brought back when he ( or who ever he is ) is clearly failing. Now that’s JB/TL territory

  • Dirty30

    Sit the Sedins.

    Send out Tryamkin to park his 235-265 pound self in front of the net and give the goalie and a defender something to focus on.

    Give the puck to Bo to rush the net with guys like Baer, Loui, Hansen, or Burrows out there to fight for pucks and keep throwing pucks on net from wherever they can.

    This nonsense of taking time to setup the perfect pass and perfect shot at a perfect angle just isn’t working for this team.

    If WD expects Bo to score starting from behind his own net playing 5v5, then why not increase his chances by giving the puck in the O-zone on the PP?

    I’d rather watch these young guys try and fail then to go through another futile exercise of watching the Sedins pass the puck for two minutes of futility.

  • BertTheTank

    Nah dude. The reason Larsen has such a higher percentage than the rest isn’t coaching. It’s that the star players the PP runs through don’t shoot or take it to the net. They’d prefer to cycle it for 2 straight minutes around the perimeter.

  • Ragnarok Ouroboros

    Canucks are too slow when moving the puck. The puck is passed to a player, who holds it and takes a look around and then passes it to another player who repeats the cycle.

    It’s like they have never heard of a one timer before.
    The goalie has all day to get in position, because there is no threat of a one timer.

    They need to work on one touch passes that force the play to move quicker, and they need to get one time shots off before the goalie and defence have a chance to get set.

    Daniel Sedin needs to stop hiding behind the net on the power play too. He should be in front of the net screening the goalie or just get off the ice and get someone else in there that is willing to pay the price in front of the net.

  • Rodeobill

    I think our PP is both predictable and lacking that set up shooter.

    I think Stecher adds that dynamic element a bit, and in the few PP he was given in his call up I thought it looked much more dangerous.

    I also have wondered why they haven’t tried JV on the power play. He is excellent at puck retrieval and takeaways, He is solid enough to be net front, or accurate enough to be a trigger man.

    Larsen, to me so far, has still been an upgrade on Weber, but mostly because I consider him to be better defensively. However, I also think Stecher, Pedan, and Subban are better too for the PP. Pedan has that Shea Weber style shot too.