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.
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.
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.
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.