Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick

Bo Horvat’s Power Play Unit is the New First Unit! …Or Is It?

Happy thanksgiving Canucks fans! I’m thankful for a lot of things, including my family and friends, and of course that I don’t live in a country where Donald Trump is the supreme leader. I’m also thankful for Travis Green, and for the fact that he makes Canucks hockey fun to watch again.

Lots of people were very happy with what they saw in the first game of the season. One of the most noticeable things was the spread of ice time. The Sedins were near the bottom of the list and Bo Horvat was right at the top. It seemed that Travis Green was making it pretty clear that the page was turning.

The same thing happened on the power play. Bo Horvat’s unit started the majority of the man advantages on Saturday, including ones following a TV timeout and an intermission. That’s normally a pretty clear signal of which unit is the top one.

Green was roundly praised for this decision. For the last year and a half, the fine people of Vancouver have been clamouring for the two units to be swapped, for the youthful new wave to take over for the decrepit old guard of yesteryear. Few have been louder in this than the Province’s Jason Botchford, who has talked often of how the Canucks’ power play has been the worst in the league over the past five seasons, and wrote glowingly of the decision to “pass the torch”, as it were.

Edmonton’s Adam Larsson was sitting out an interference penalty which was called and immediately followed by a TV timeout. What happened next was a potential earth-mover.

Bo Horvat glided off the bench, the centre for the group long considered the Canucks’ second power-play unit.

This is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. One, the lead dogs for the power play have been the Sedins for the better part of a decade.

Two, Horvat scored.

Squint and you can almost see the torch being passed.

All across the internets, there was much rejoicing. Out with the old, in with the new! Bo Horvat’s power play unit is the new first unit!

But is it really?

As it turns out, you’ve all been duped!

Perhaps not all of you, as I’m sure plenty noticed this on your own, but despite the fact that Horvat started more power plays, the Sedin unit still had more power play ice time. Furthermore (and this is even more interesting to me), the Sedin unit was also the more dangerous one.

Now, there is the whole matter of the Horvat unit scoring and the Sedin unit coming up empty, and that’s a solid point. Although, the fact is that the one goal involved Horvat skating up most of the length of the ice by himself and plowing through the defence and forcing the puck into the back of the net.

Aside from that though, the Horvat unit didn’t have a whole lot of chances.

Meanwhile, the stymied Sedin unit produced twice as many shot attempts per hour, and an expected goal rate three times as high as that of Horvat’s unit.

So what does this mean? Well for one thing, I think it reflects pretty brilliantly on Travis Green. He managed to make everyone happy by making it seems as though the Horvat unit was taking over, while still using the more effective unit more often. I have no idea as to whether this was intentional, but I like to this it was, and it’s a savvy move.

If it was intentional, then I’d have to tip my tap to Green, because here’s the thing: that bit about the Sedin unit being more dangerous according to the numbers, that was present last year too (just in case you were rightly about to cry foul over this small sample).

Botchford is right in his oft-mentioned talking point that Vancouver’s power play has been among the league’s worst over a five year stretch, converting a 16.0% between 2012-13 and 2016-17. That’s good for 29th, with only Florida (15.7%) being worse. Now, if you talk to analytics folks like myself, we’ll tell you that power play percentages are bunk, and you should be using goal rate stats instead! Well, the Canucks are second last in that regard too, so it hardly matters. But as much as some want to blame the Sedins for a five-year long stagnant power play, there are some extenuating circumstances.

First, there’s the fact that there are two power play units, or at least, there’s supposed to be. The Canuck tradition of the massively imbalanced power play units dates back to 2009-10, when then-coach Alain Vigneault loaded up the top unit by putting Ryan Kesler with the Sedins. It crippled the second unit, sure, but the overall benefits were extraordinary, culminating with the Canucks owning the best power play conversion rate in the NHL in 2010-11.

In many years since then, the second unit has been laughable compared to the first. This was never more true than in 2014-15, when you may recall that Chris Higgins scoring a power play goal on March 28th was a HUGE deal, because it was the first time all season the second unit had scored a goal.

In March. The end of March.

And yet, the Canucks’ power play still had 46 goals that year. You can thank the Sedin unit for that.

In fact, if we look at the Sedin unit alone over this infamous five-year stretch, we’ll see that they’re still holding up their end of the bargain, while it has been the second unit (or general lack thereof) that has been dragging their conversion rate through the mud. (Henrik Sedin’s 5-on-4 numbers will be used as a proxy.)

Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, Henrik had a 5v4 GF60 (5-on-4 goals for per 60 minutes) of 5.70. That’s not great: it would still sit 27th in the NHL if we counted it as Vancouver’s rate.

His xGF60 however (expected goals-for per 60 minutes) of 6.49 would rank ninth among all team expected goals-for rates.

The major factor here is that Henrik’s on-ice FSh% (Fenwick Shooting percentage, which includes shots that miss the net as well as those that are saved and scored) of 7.46% is a full percentage point below his expected on-ice FSh% (8.50%). That one percent might not seem like much, but Henrik was on the ice for 1,380 unblocked shot attempts for in that five year stretch. That’s potentially an additional 14 goals to the 103 he was already on for.

Plus, it’s not really Henrik’s fault that the shooting percentage is lower than it should be – he’s a set up man who hardly shoots. For a lot of this time, he’s been saddled with players that either don’t shoot well enough, or don’t shoot often enough. Certainly he benefited from that two-year period with Radim Vrbata. It should come as no surprise that the Sedin unit shooting percentage with Vrbata was five percentage points higher than it was with Brandon Sutter, who was parked on their unit for all of last season.

There mere fact that Sutter isn’t on the power play at all anymore should invite some improvement to its overall efficacy. I’d like to see what the Sedins can can with proven power play producers like Thomas Vanek and Sam Gagner first, and I’d really like to see them with Brock Boeser. You know, if he gets into a game. And if Travis Green puts him on that power play. And if Alex Edler actually passes him the puck.

Either by virtue of a non-existent second unit, or having to drag the dead weight of Brandon Sutter around, they in no way deserve sole blame for the Canucks’ power play being in the state that it has been in. And as such, they probably don’t deserve their removal from the “top unit” being celebrated.

Which makes is a good thing that they still kind of are the top unit.

There’s one more thing though, and I think this adds to the brilliance of Green’s power play strategy (or that of his coaching staff, whoever came up with this). The other aspect that makes the Sedin unit coming out second brilliant is the fact that they’ll  end up facing either tired penalty killers, or ones that aren’t as good. In either case, it could allow them the opportunity to feast on weaker opposition, and expose them to less risk of shorthanded chances the other way.

Look, I won’t argue that the figurative torch needs to be passed. I’m quite glad that Horvat led Canucks forwards in time on ice on Saturday, and I look forward to him taking on more responsibility as the season progresses. But even though they’ve lost a step at even strength, the Sedins can still handle their business when it comes to half-court hockey. Horvat will take over soon enough, but let’s not be too quick to kick the twins out – they’ve still got some left in the tank.

Thank the creator for the return of Corsica! All advanced data in this article is from there. Power play percentages were from NHL.com.

  • Naslund

    Green suggested that the reason why Horvat started more powerplays was because he’s better at faceoffs, which makes sense. When you lose a draw, it can eat up 20-30 seconds of the powerplay. Also, the Sedins are quite good at zone entry, so if they start in the middle of powerplays, it will usually be in their own zone. Green is just using the players to their strengths.
    I would like to see Boeser on with the Sedins though, and I’m not sold on Edler as a point man.

      • DJ_44

        The problem last year was not Sutter on the PP; nor was it Megna on the PP. It was Zone Entry. Edler should not be charged with bringing the puck up the ice, and neither should Hutton for that matter. Del Zotto and…well Stecher I guess.

        The Canucks are showing signs they are adding different looks and more than one (backpass) option to their zone entry. Thankfully.

    • Larionov18

      Sedins are useless now. They are slow and do not hit. They had a great run. Loved watching them at their peak..but come on…they are liabilities now. Seems politically incorrect to speak the truth about the Sedins. We should just suck it up and close our eyes and say everything is fine…no thanks.

      • truthseeker

        yeah…..no….not so much. They’re still pretty damn good actually. But it’s OK…I know you feel the need to be “that guy” on a message board.

  • Killer Marmot

    If I were Green, I would invite the Sedins to give up the Captaincy and Assistant Captaincy.

    Why? To relieve the Sedins of all pressure, and let them play hockey like they were kids again. Have fun. Make plays that shouldn’t be made. Don’t worry about the rest of the team, just fill the net.

    • LTFan

      While I agree with most of your comments – not this one. Let the Sedins play out the season with the “C” and “A” and give them the dignity and respect they have certainly earned. Green is a new coach and I cannot imagine that he would even contemplate this. Green’s most pressing issue is to prepare his team for every game. Further I can’t see TL or JB allowing that to happen.

      Otherwise most of your posts make sense.

        • Killer Marmot

          You give the captaincy to someone who has been with the club for a while, and earned everyone’s respect. Horvat would be the natural choice, and perhaps Tanev for the A.

          • Fortitude00

            I think next is the time when their contract runs out. Let’s give Horvat another year to establish himself. Also this decision should be done in the off season.

          • Killer Marmot

            The reason I suggest offering this to the Sedins now is because it may well be the their last season in Vancouver (or any club). They might enjoy the opportunity to play without the responsibilities they have shouldered for the last seven years, and their productivity might rebound as a result.

      • Killer Marmot

        I said “invite”. In other words, they have the option to retain the captaincy if they wish.

        Henrik has been captain for seven full seasons. That’s an eternity in hockey, and he might enjoy having the burden lifted in what may be his last season. The Sedins will have dignity and respect with or without letters on their sweaters.

  • bobdaley44

    Horvat sucks at half court hockey. Besides Henrik I’d even say Burmistrov is better at controlling the half boards. Until Horvat learns to pass he’ll remain a 1b centre. Play the toe drag and he’s done. Great players will kill you with a pass or a dangle. Can’t be one dimensional. Few times last game he could have head manned but didn’t and the play died. Twins are way better on the PP.

    • TheRealRusty

      Totally agree that Bo needs to add more elements to his game if he wants to be a 1A center. That move is getting old and keyed into as he assumes the attention of the opposition’s bedt defenders.

      • Cageyvet

        I hear you all, but Bo is not the guy to underestimate. I think he will add to both his offensive repertoire and defensive attention to detail. He is a decent playmaker already, but down low as he often finishes those drives with a puck to the crease, as Baertschi learned in a hurry.

        Also, his dangles have always been a below-50 per cent success rate, but I have loved that he doesn’t stop attacking. When he does bust through, it’s a high-end chance, and he has a few ways of going by you, he’s hardly bereft of skill, strength, or speed for that matter.

        He doesn’t make a lot of plays entering or high in the zone, I grant you that, but I see a driven, talented student of the game who will keep improving.

        Given his skills, I hope Peterson is ultimately better and more of a playmaker than Horvat, but forgive me for thinking Bo hasn’t hit his ceiling yet and you’d be foolish to bet against him. 70 points this year for Bo would not surprise me.

      • truthseeker

        lol…it’s only “old” if it stops working. It hasn’t stopped working yet. He still uses that move to great effect and opposing players still get sucked in by it even though they know he’ll do it.

        I think it actually could be a career long part of his game that opponents won’t be able to stop, because he combines his toe drag with physicality. He doesn’t just toe drag like a 170 pound winger. He toe drags while leaning on a guy and shielding the area where he is toe dragging. How do you stop that? It’s like he’s combining the distraction with the regular “cut in with leverage” move a lot of “power forwards” use. Pretty brilliant in my opinion.

        I noticed Jake trying it too on his beauty rush there.

        And I agree with you Cageyvet…..people are STILL underestimating Bo’s potential even now. lol. It’s bizarre. This kid could easily become a Jamie Benn level C. 70 to 80 + point seasons.

        Of course the dangles are going to not work more than they do….but that’s no different than any other play in hockey. Two on one’s fail more often than they work. Breakaway’s fail more often than they score. It’s not a reason for him to change or do less of them in favor of “passing”.

        • bobdaley44

          It got old later in the game. He tried it a few more times after the first one worked and got stripped. Jamie Benn? Really? Jamie Benn is a great playmaker who can slow the play down and control the tempo. Bo doesn’t do that. Will he eventually? Maybe but i don’t see that in his game. He’s a center and needs to learn to distribute better if he wants to get to the next level.

          • truthseeker

            So what? Show me one offensive play from any player or team in the league that works more often than it fails? I’ll bet you Bo does it several more times this season to success.

            Do you not remember how many times Bure didn’t score off the chances he created for himself? It was a hell of a lot more than the times he actually did score.

            I meant point producing wise.

            Second year Benn 22G 19A Horvat 16G 24A
            Third year Benn 22G 34A Horvat 20G 32A

            Horvat’s rookie year was lower but he played less games. They weren’t that far off.

            And really that’s my point…..people kept saying they “didn’t see” speed in his game, or they “didn’t see” him being anything more than an average 2C or more likely good 3C. You can put limits on him if you want. You could be right. But you may have to later admit you were totally wrong.

            I prefer not to do that because I’d rather not have to come back here and say….”I was way off on Horvat”…. I’ll just simply not judge him on what I think he can’t do. I’ll just watch to see what he can do without trying to predict the negative when all he’s done is show progression every single year. To me that means predicting even more progression is the logical position, given his work ethic and professionalism.

  • Jimjamg

    I think it is the latter reason, give the Sedins second tier PK guys to work against while also upping Bo’s reps on the pp. Brilliant really, and once word gets out around the league other teams won’t be keying on the Sedins in their planning which should translate into more opportunity. Finally, some creative coaching.

  • Using PP TOI as a metric is misleading for a few reasons. Unlike starts, the coach can’t control how long play will go, but they can determine who starts at the faceoff. The Sedins game is based on a possession cycle game so it’s not usual to see more TOI because they are controlling the play and hanging onto the puck longer. Finally, a coach isn’t going to look at the TOI-to-date and make a lineup decision on the past – you won’t see Green choosing Horvat over Henrik to “even-up” TOI. They’ll look at the match-up based on which unit is more rested, which opponent is in the penalty box, zone start, etc.

  • valleycanuck

    It’s a long season and could be fun to watch the progression of this. Insightful research and great points about the quality of trigger-men that Henrik has worked with over the past few seasons. I wonder what shooting percentage (and power play shooting percentages?) would reveal for Daniel over the last 5+ seasons. Maybe further to this point the most effective 1st PP unit would see Henrik surrounded by shooters other than his brother. That would make room for Vanek, Gagner and Boeser, as an example.

  • RobG

    I think the biggest take away from game one is the canucks now have a coach that understands the Sedins, while still in excellent shape, can’t be rode like mules anymore and he understands that the Sedins can still be effective if put in the proper situations against favorable matchups. Let Horvat and Co. eat up prime minutes against top defenders and let the Sedins run against lesser lines or exhausted lines. I think 12-14 minutes per night will be the new normal with ice time jumping up to 16-18 if they are having one of their vintage nights. It’ll only serve the team better in the long run. The last 3 seasons the Sedins have been out of gas by February, with reduced minutes they might have enough gas in the tank to make it to April.

  • defenceman factory

    It was clear Green still believes the Sedins are the 1st unit powerplay. When he moves Del Zotto and Vanek or Gagner to the Horvat unit then we’ll know the torch has been passed.

    The thing with Travis looks like accountability even if you might be future hall of famers. The Sedins often phone in a power play, have multiple giveaways and generate 0 shots. Do that and guess what your unit isn’t going to start the next PP. Perfect.

    The Canucks have been devoid of talent to man the power play for several years. This year they have some proven guys and Boeser and Granlund who I think could both be really good.

    I like the Sedins’ but their PP hasn’t been good for a long time. Now I think there are better options for a first unit. The sooner we see them the better.

  • truthseeker

    I hate to live in the past but man that 11 power play was a thing of beauty. (as was pretty much everything that team did).

    You almost felt like “OK…here’s a goal”. It felt like that much of a sure thing.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I seem to remember that PP had a lot more movement. Kes wouldn’t just stand in the middle and do nothing….he’d float in and out of places in the middle. And the D would constantly be moving….criss crossing along with the sedin’s cycle.

    Seems to me, since then it’s been a bunch of guys standing around and waiting while the sedins cycle. Waiting for the sedins to make the perfect pass to them instead of creating places for themselves by moving and letting the sedins find them where they will be, and not where they are.

    When that happens the PK can basically just focus on taking out Daniel and you’ve pretty much stopped any chances.

    The twins, in my opinion, would be far more effective again if their teammates started moving their feet and creating movement around the zone.

  • Acronix

    OK Canucks army it’s getting quite annoying with the politics. First you criticize nhl for going to White House, then every player is a bad person for not taking a knee during the anthem. And lastly the trump comment here. I come on the website for Canucks hockey! Not your political opinions voiced every article, please just do that somewhere else. If I want politics I’ll turn on the corrupt news thank you!

    • truthseeker

      Speak for yourself. I like it. Politics is a part of everyday life and frankly I’m sick of all the people who keep making excuses every single time an issue comes up. Whining about how “politics doesn’t belong in sports” or “politics doesn’t belong in TV or movies”, or “why don’t these athletes/musicians/actors etc…just shut up and play.”

      I’m sick of the past 20 + years of anti PC backlash whiners who simply want to be excused for not having to use their brains, and then listen as they blame everyone else for their own ignorance. Nothing more than a bunch of bullies.

      Nobody is making you read it. Don’t like the content then simply move on.

      • Acronix

        Ok and I value your opinion, for me though I just think I’m on Canucks army for reading about hockey. The thing that bothers me is everything is involved with politics these days it’s almost like you can’t escape the drama and bs involved. Politics is apart of my everyday life whether I like it or not that’s what’s bothersome. Now instead of seeing nfl highlights the sports centre just talks about them taking a knee and more bs. Idk If you understand or not that’s just my point of view.