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Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski - USA TODAY Sports

Everything wrong with the Canucks’ power play, and how to fix it

Seven games into the 2017-18 season, the Vancouver Canucks are third in the Pacific Division. They are right where we expected them to be: somewhere near/in a playoff spot, but probably not good enough to stay there in the end, as predicted by Sportsbooks like Heritage Sports.

One thing we might not have seen coming, however, is the team’s incredible power-play struggles. The Canucks added talented goal scorer Brock Boeser late last season and signed Sam Gagner and Thomas Vanek in the summer. Both Gagner and Vanek are known to be reliable playmakers from the slot in a 1-3-1 power-play formation.

Yet, the Canucks currently rank 27th in the league with a power-play percentage of 10.8, despite having the sixth-most man advantages in the league. Worse yet, they consistently struggle to create shots:

To top it all off, the Canucks struggle to create shots that go through to the net. Many of the few shots they take are blocked, as they come from low-danger positions and are easy to anticipate.

There are reasons for all of this, and thankfully, there are ways to fix it as well.

Regroup struggles

The Canucks’ power play has several issues, but the most urgent to fix might be slightly unexpected. As Arik Parnass showed in his Special Teams Project, even the NHL’s best power-play teams spend roughly 50 percent of their time regrouping. With that, a strong breakout strategy is essential to a unit’s success.

This is where things start to go wrong for Vancouver.

The Canucks have two main breakout strategies, none of which have been overly effective.

First is a triple swing with a high left winger. Two players swing low and move right out to each wing. Another swings slightly higher and moves up the right wing. The remaining player stays high at the opposing blue line the entire time (out of frame in the clip below). The puck-carrying defender then has the option to pass to the outside or try to enter the offensive zone himself.

This first play exposes a primary major weakness of the Canucks’ man advantage. With four players rushing up the boards and nobody in the middle, there is no-one who could force the defending team to make a decision and open up space. Instead, the first backchecker can easily steer the puck-carrier in one direction, allowing the rest of the penalty-killers to lock down that wing. As you can see in the sequence above, Ben Hutton has absolutely no options when he gets the puck on the right wing.

In a slight variation of this play, one player swings back low behind the net to get open for a drop pass. However, following the drop pass, the puck-carrier will once again run into trouble. With four teammates along the boards and nobody working to split the defence or create space otherwise, the Canucks frequently fail with this play as well.

Now, there have obviously been instances where the triple swing worked out, and the Canucks managed to enter the zone with speed. But, this neither happens very frequently nor does it allow the unit to get set up in formation very well.

The second frequently-used play is a double swing, where two players swing back low and cross behind the puck-carrier to get open for a drop pass. While this creates room for the recipient of the drop pass, it also gives the PK unit plenty of time to adjust. The goal here is to generate speed with the puck and either rush into the offensive zone or play a late pass, but the puck carrier has to cross the entire neutral zone before reaching the offensive blue line – which gives the defence more than enough time.

Creating space

So, what can be done to improve this situation?

There is obviously no one play that will work for every team and work every time. But the one thing every power play should always focus on is to make the penalty-killing unit move. Penalty killers know their responsibilities both on the backcheck and in the defensive zone, so forcing them to leave their assigned position and adjust to offensive players’ movement is key.

In the clip above, the New Jersey Devils show one excellent way to do it. They have two players swing back to support the puck-carrier, and these two are essentially his only options. However, the other two who are waiting high at the blue line have an essential role as well: they create space. Just before Nico Hischier receives the puck on the left wing, the two high forwards start moving to the right, forcing coverage on themselves to create room for Hischier.

There are many ways to regroup on the power play, and the Canucks’ main plays aren’t entirely bad. But by placing all four passing options high against the boards, they are quite easy to defend. If you take another look at the Canucks’ successful-entry clip above, there is one big difference to the other two: Instead of rushing up the boards, Bo Horvat pulls into the middle and cuts through the defence with speed.

Vancouver tries this on occasion, but it’s not nearly enough. The Canucks should try to focus on making the penalty killers’ jobs more difficult, by bringing more movement and speed into their breakout and entry attempts.

On to the next issue.

Getting into formation

The Canucks might not have much star power anymore, nor do they have outstanding depth on their roster. What they do have, however, is a number of players that can be considered power-play specialists.

Henrik and Daniel Sedin are ageing and clearly regressing. But they are still excellent passers, especially in the cycle game with the added room of a power play. Vanek, Gagner and Boeser were all expected to improve last season’s group. Add to that a semi-skilled defenceman (any Canuck not named Erik Gudbranson, really), and you should have a lethal first PP unit.

Now here is the problem: The Canucks are using their players in odd positions and relying on quick shots from far out, preventing them from getting into formation. In the clip below, you can see Sam Gagner recording two shot attempts.

Three things stand out here and can frequently be observed on the Canucks’ power play.

One, instead of playing his usual position in the slot, Gagner is positioned on the right wing. Horvat is the man in the slot, and Sven Baertschi is positioned on the left wing. Second, although forwards are usually more effective on their off-side when on the man advantage, as this brings their sticks closer to the net and improves the shot angle while allowing easier one-timers, both Gagner and Baertschi are positioned on their strong side. Finally, Gagner gets his shots off as soon as he gets the puck, giving his team no time to get into formation.

A similar approach can be observed from the blue line as well. The Canucks again don’t put much effort in to pull defenders out of position. Instead, they try to get shots at the net from the wings or the blue line, with one or two forwards skating into the middle for screens and deflections.

The general approach isn’t entirely wrong. As Parnass outlined in a Hockey-Graphs article trying to quantify power-play performance, roughly 70 percent of power-play goals are scored from the home plate area, and about 20 percent are scored on screened shots. Royal road one-timers a la Alex Ovechkin or Patrik Laine only account for about 15 percent of five-on-four goals.

So, in a way, the numbers actually support the Canucks’ plans. Get pucks to the outside, move in toward the net and shoot, or shoot from the blue line and screen the goalie.

The problem here is again that Vancouver just can’t pull defenders out of position. Everything they do, whether in formation or not, is extremely rushed. In the clip above, Del Zotto gets the puck at the blue line and has five skaters lined up in front of him, with both Baertschi and Gagner open as passing options. Yet, he fires a shot at the net that brings little to no danger to the goaltender.

Even when they do string some passes together, there is no movement at all. The players don’t move, and their passing plays are not enough to force defenders out of position or to force the goaltender to slide back and forth across the crease.

Fixing the offensive-zone play

Again, there is one distinct approach to fixing these issues. Instead of firing random shots from left, right, and centre, Vancouver should focus on forcing the defence to make decisions and get drawn out of position.

Here’s another look at the New Jersey Devils, who used player movement and a royal road pass to score on the man advantage against the Washington Capitals.

In the clip above, Jimmy Hayes wins a battle at the left boards and moves the puck back to the blue line. He then moves in front of the net; Drew Stafford, who was the previous net-front man, pulls out to the right half-boards. Taylor Hall, previously on the right side, skates around to the left face-off circle and moves in toward the net.

This three-player rotation forces the Capitals to adjust their coverage, which they fail to do. As a result, Hall is wide-open in a high-danger scoring zone and can finish for an easy goal.

Outlook

With an offensive group that includes the Sedins, Gagner, Vanek and Boeser, the Canucks’ power play can’t possibly stay as bad as it is. It won’t magically improve, but some video coaching and practice sessions should go a long way here.

We should also consider that chemistry is an important factor in power-play situations. If you take the five best five-on-four players in the league and let them play without any instructions or practice time, they likely won’t go out and score as much as you’d expect them to. So while adding Gagner, Vanek and Boeser should definitely help, it takes some time for them to get used to each other and adjust to their new surroundings and strategies.

The clip above shows Boeser skating down the right boards with the puck, looking for an open passing lane. He doesn’t find it, continues skating, and eventually bumps into Daniel Sedin. This has nothing to do with a lack of skill or bad coaching; the players just need to get used to each other.

There are several issues with the Canucks’ power play, but it should without a doubt improve over time.

  • Jabs

    ” The Canucks again don’t put much effort in to pull defenders out of position”

    To me, this is the most frustrating thing with the pp. It is easy to cycle around the boards for 2 minutes, in fact, the defending team will probably concede that. There are different ways to avoid this but the Canucks seem content under Newell Brown to keep doing the same things they seemed to do in 2011

    • There’s a difference between a cycle game and perimeter passing. The cycle game requires the non-puck carrying players to move to positions of puck support and scoring opportunity. Perimeter passing is just throwing the puck around the outside without forcing the defenders to react. The point of the puck movement is to make the defenders’ diamond/box collapse as they try to prevent scoring opportunities, not just stretch it out a bit.

  • FireGillis

    I think we just lack an elite, power play running defenseman. That used to be Alex edler, but he hasn’t been the same since his back surgery. Juolevi is not necessarily that guy, although I hope he is. It’s time to upgrade our blue line, we haven’t had an elite level defenseman in our franchise’s history except maybe Jovocop.

    • What were Aucoin, Salo, Erhoff & Lumme? (maybe not elite enough but they were good on the PP) To be fair, “an elite, power play running defenseman” is something that would have to come from drafting or a blockbuster trade. Are you ready to give up some high-end prospects and/or draft picks for that? I’m not.

      • Freud

        Samuel Girard could have been had in the 2nd round in 2016, but management traded their pick for Gudbransen. Girard is already getting powerplay time on a stacked Nashville blue line and has 3 pts in 3 games.

        Management also passed on Adam Fox in the 3rd round and took Lockwood instead. Fox had twice as many pts in college hockey as Lockwood last year, as a defenceman.

        This team could have two valuable, young offensive defenceman without giving up anything of value. Are you ready to give management a pass on valuing defenceman with size and defensive forwards, when successful teams were going in the opposite directions? I’m not.

      • FireGillis

        Tanev is a first pairing defenseman, I’m talking about a doughty, kieth, seabrook, karlsson, burns, suter. They are very hard to come by, and I know the Canucks made a serious effort to make a deal with Florida to get ekblad, and the next one to come along is (potentially) Rasmus dahlin. But we won’t be able to get him at 5

      • jaybird43

        Aucoin, Salo, Erhoff & Lumme: all were great puck-movers and all except for Lumme had outstanding shots. None if the current crew quite gave that combo. Yes, we “need” a great defenceman (what team doesn’t?), but they are rare creatures. Every other team has one.

  • The problem still lies with the PP coach, who does not understand how to take advantage of the “man advantage”. Adding more players is irrelevant. On the breakout, when the forechecker engages with the puck-carrier, that should create a 4-on-3. But because the Canucks leave 2 forwards cherry-picking on the blue line, it’s really just like a 5v5 situation except you know that there will only be 1 forechecker. As Beichler says, they need to have puck support and move their feet instead of standing at the same spot near the blue line/boards for the “oh-so-original” drop pass entry.

    And when they set up in the opposing zone, the players are positioned like islands on the perimeter. It’s obvious what the passing lanes are and they’re so spaced out, there is time to react. There’s no opportunity to do short passes to get around defenders and get a shot. Even when the play breaks down, it’s still pass-pass-pass and no shot.

    Even Brown wouldn’t approve of what he’s doing now, here’s a quote from 2013 when he was fired from the Canucks: “Teams are so fast to get into the shot lanes these days,” Brown continued, “that if you can’t take one-timers, if you aren’t in position to take one-touch passes and move the puck quickly to shooters and shoot off the pass, you’re at a big disadvantage. That was something we were dealing with this year.”

    http://www.vancouversun.com/sports/Canucks+didn+have+right+stuff+power+play+ousted+coach/8427083/story.html

    If the Canucks want to be successful on the PP again, they need to look at some of those epic “shifts” and see how they managed to keep control and get shot opportunities with a lot of puck *and* player movement. The team does not play like a single unit that are spontaneously and constantly involved in the play, it’s like it’s chopped up mechanistically and scripted in a predictable manner.

  • Too much back and forth and not enough in and out!

    1 – We need a skilled, puck moving defenseman, who can carry the puck and quarterback the powerplay.

    2 – The defenseman has to get the shot through.

    3 – No standing still. All players need to be constantly moving. (Except the guy screening the goalie and deflecting shots)

    4 – Chemistry between players has to be right.

    5 – Practice makes perfect.

    • neal

      When the Canadians were in their heydey Toe Blake would bench players for standing still. It’s all about perpetual motion even today. Still, players are pylons. Move your damn feet.

  • Locust

    The only static play in hockey is immediately after the faceoff. Everything else is fluid.
    The PK can easily defeat a “planned PP” by adjusting their positioning and that is how teams are making the Canucks look befuddled on the PP.
    We need constant movement and quick passes to players moving ‘through the gaps’. More chemistry and practice time. No one on the PP should be standing still, even the D have to move to make it harder for the high forward to get into the shooting lane. This should all have been learned in bantam hockey.

    But …. you can be an “expert’ and complain about management and draft picks…….

  • Naslund

    The problem with using the same zone entry system repeatedly is that the other teams have video. They’ll predict it and stop it in a hurry.
    It’s best to just have players treating the entire powerplay as a series of two on one’s. Breakout with two on one’s in mind. Draw the lead forechecker to the puck carrier and then pass to a teammate to put the forechecker out of position. Then work the two on one at the defender on the line.
    When the whole point is to have a general philosophy that players can use to adjust depending on how the defense is positioned, the powerplay will succeed. They have enough talent to be average in the NHL. They just need to overcome the coach’s desire to put in static, predictable systems.

  • Cageyvet

    For starters, thanks for a hell of an article Janik, nice to see you on CA. I agree with others that the movement in the zone is sorely lacking.

    Also needed is speed at the blue line, however you get there. Just like running the football helps the passing game, dumping it in instead of carrying it over every time keeps the defense gaps bigger.

    Above all else, there’s a common thread here. Less predictability, please.

  • truthseeker

    “The players don’t move…”

    This is what I’ve been saying all along. Nice to see someone actually do the work to prove it….lol.

    There is no problem with the Sedins on the power play. They are the only two guys who do move with their cycle. Everyone else waits around for the twins to set them up.

    Kes used to float in an out of the middle, going closer to the twins when they were cycling and then getting back into the slot when a shot was coming. Ehrhoff and Edler would make quick passes around the outside and not be afraid to cross over.

    The second part of what I quoted is interesting too…

    “…and their passing plays are not enough to force defenders out of position or to force the goaltender to slide back and forth across the crease.”

    More movement. Better passing. And sprinkle in a little bit of bloody confidence. I think the players are in a head space where they don’t think it will work. In 11 it was like they knew they would score pretty much every time they got the man advantage.

    • crofton

      The players don’t move, plus some like to hold the puck much too long, very few sharp, quick passes. Any player movement there may have been, causing players to chase is is quickly destroyed by holding the puck, allowing defensive players the chance to get back into position. Plus IMO, Daniel and Henrik still look for the bro pass when there are better options.

  • BC SPORTS FAN

    When i hear “Dim-Jim” saying he would like a right handed D-man to run the point on the power play I start to laugh. He passed on drafting Liligren and let him fall to 17 when the Leafs got the steal of the draft. Next year he will be a stud on the Blue Line for the next decade. He was the star of the U-17 World’s hockey championship held in Fort St. John. Did Benning and Linden forget to send a scout ?

    • DJ_44

      Pettersson, even taken at #5, my just turn out to be the steal of the draft. Careful with the comments in these early days. “Dim Jim”; Really? let me guess, you love typing that cause you think it’s clever? “get it …. Dim Jim ….. see what I did there”

    • crofton

      Several other teams also passed on Liligren, so by your child-like name calling, their gm’s would therefore be Dim Bulb, Dim Witted, Dim Vision, Dim View and Dim Sum

    • Cageyvet

      At the risk of feeding this many-headed troll, please be sure to post your draft order this year in advance of the actual event so we can use hindsight to criticize you.

  • Charlie y

    Boeser should maybe stop smoking giant fatties while on the pp. Thats kinda beer league. Or at least a veteran move, so wait till he gets a no trade clause.

  • RandomScrub

    Cool article. I find the tactical, X’s and O’s coverage interesting, and I don’t believe it’s something we’ve seen a ton of on CA. Nicely done.

  • Fred-65

    The set up for sure is the key. I find the original set up when the puck carrier fed it to a winger stationed at the blue line only has to move the puck 2-3 feet to make the play on side worked pretty well the original passer simple skated in past the winger and waited for the top of the box to challenge the winger at the blue line. It was then a simply one on two which is what you’re striving for. The other rarely used play was the play used by Ohlund and Sopel. Ohlund would drift towards the centre of the ice from his spot on the point…the top of the box would follow and then Sopel would suddenly skate outside the blue line around behind Ohlund and get a return pass in the open for an easy shot down in the high slot. Worked again and again.

    One of the sad thing IMO is in Boeser they have a player that can shoot a one timer, much like Brett Hull or Stamkos …at the spot on the weak side. He’s never used in that position which IMO is a waste of his talents