The Vancouver Canucks are undoubtedly one of the more exciting teams to watch in the National Hockey League. Their high-tempo, north-south style has made their games must-watch television for any fan of the sport. Anyone who appreciates the sport’s elements of speed and skill will be dazzled by such players as Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson. The team’s emphasis on swift, up-and-down offence is evident throughout the lineup with rapid skaters such as Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, Jake Virtanen, and Tyler Motte, among others, whose ability to carry the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone have helped to shape the identity of this squad.
There was once a lack of clear direction. However, a seemingly hopeless, disjointed situation only a few seasons ago has now given way to a much more cohesive vision. Astute draft selections have accelerated this group’s development. Some of the team’s recent acquisitions have been terrific, although a few have been detrimental. At this moment in time, it is apparent just which players do not fit the team’s philosophy. The organization seemingly knows what type of team it wants. Those who do not belong must be moved.
In light of the Canucks’ upcoming 2020 Stanley Cup qualification series against the Minnesota Wild, we can contrast the two teams.
The Minnesota Wild are an east-west club who rely on lateral passing plays through the neutral zone and a high degree of coordination between the players. They move up the ice as a synchronized unit and attack in the offensive zone by sending the puck from side to side. Sometimes, one entry into the offensive zone features three or four lateral passes just passed center ice. The now-KHL-bound Nikolay Goldobin, an east-west player whose passes often led to turnovers or disrupted the flow of the Canucks’ transition plays, may have found more success in that system than that of the Canucks. The Wild lack the same degree of speed and one-on-one skill that the Canucks possess. Their most important line driver is Kevin Fiala, whose contributions in transition and on the backcheck are quite significant. The team relies heavily on precision and passing plays.
For a compilation of every goal scored by and against the Minnesota Wild in 2019-20, refer to these two resources:
Every 2019-20 Minnesota Wild Goal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Puasswn_qE
Every 2019-20 Minnesota Wild Goal Against: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qmm5JiuNmt8
For a look at the performances of some of the players as well as the team’s entries and strategy against opposition entries:
Kevin Fiala shift highlights vs Nashville (Mar. 3): https://streamable.com/x79dae
Alex Stalock saves vs Los Angeles (Mar. 7): https://streamable.com/m7azck
Minnesota Wild zone entries vs Washington (Mar. 1) – Part 1: https://streamable.com/qps7ow
Minnesota Wild zone entries vs Washington (Mar. 1) – Part 2: https://streamable.com/uufjub
Washington Capitals zone entries vs Minnesota (Mar. 1) – Part 1: https://streamable.com/499d3t
Washington Capitals zone entries vs Minnesota (Mar. 1) – Part 2: https://streamable.com/661wq7
I wrote a brief analysis of the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild that readers can access here.
The Vancouver Canucks are a different beast. Their attack strategy revolves around speed, one-on-one skill, and full-throttle, north-south movement. The majority of the forwards possess the quickness and talent to carry the puck out themselves and put pressure on the opposing defence with a puck maneuver. One of the organization’s greatest successes in 2019-20 was the acquisition of J.T. Miller, who this year was a heavy contributor to the team’s forecheck and attack off the rush. His ability to knife through the opposing defence, retrieve the puck in the corners of the rink, and fire dangerous shots on net made him a tremendous asset to the Canucks this past season. He finished the season as the team’s leading point scorer. He was exactly what the team needed — a highly-skilled, high-tempo player who could actively apply pressure to the opposition and create plays on a solo basis.
Here is footage of J.T. Miller in the Canucks’ most recent match on March 10, 2020 against the New York Islanders. He wears #9 in blue:
J.T. Miller Shift Footage vs NYI (Mar. 10, 2020) – Part 1:: https://streamable.com/3b4fnk
Part 2: https://streamable.com/f2lckf
The management group’s other great success was the February trade for Tyler Toffoli, who similarly possesses slick puck-handling abilities but plays a more cerebral style. He offers two-way awareness, positional soundness and highly-intelligent distribution skills. He is center-like in his role, but can also attack with speed and tally goals with a dangerous shot. His one-on-one skills were evident during his brief time in Vancouver. He scored six goals and ten points in ten games upon joining the Canucks in February 2020. Along with Elias Pettersson, Toffoli can both challenge the opponent on his own with the puck and move it to a teammate after supporting his defence deep in his zone. Both Toffoli and Miller have changed the Canucks’ forward group in a significant manner. Both of these players should be considered core assets going forward. Miller is signed for another three seasons at an average salary of $5.25 million. Tyler Toffoli, having scored 24 goals and 44 points in 68 games between Los Angeles and Vancouver in 2019-20, will be negotiating a new contract as an Unrestricted Free Agent this November. His current contract pays an average salary of $4.6 million. The Canucks are a better team with Toffoli on the roster than without, and should look to retain him at a fair price.
I wrote an analysis of Tyler Toffoli’s game in February. Read it and view the footage here. Toffoli can be found in white wearing #73.
The Canucks’ style of play requires the forwards to drive the puck up the ice and attack the opposing defence individually. Unlike the Wild, who move up the ice as a unit, the Canucks often try to pierce the opposing blue line at full speed on solo dashes. The puck will often remain on the carrier’s stick. They like to punch holes in the opposing defence with their north-south carry-ins. If the forward can not carry it in, then they will likely chip the puck past the defender and try to retrieve it in the corner. The forwards then circulate the puck along the perimeter with the defence until two opportune plays become available.
Having compiled and observed all of the team’s goals and their best scoring chances of the season into the presentation at the top of this article, it is clear exactly which plays the Canucks prefer to attempt once they have established their forecheck. When the puck is sent to the point, the defence will frequently try to loft the puck towards the net. Two Canucks forwards will then swarm the net in an attempt to deflect or jam the puck into the net.
When the puck is down low in the offensive zone, the primary strategy is for one of the forwards to sneak into the low slot with one in the corner and the other behind the net. In this triangular formation, the puck will go behind the net and then to the shooter in the middle of the zone. The team has no shortage of shooters on the top two lines: Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Tyler Toffoli, and J.T. Miller. Tanner Pearson, the other consistent member of the top-six forward group, scored all of his 21 goals in 2019-20 off of deflections, point-blank opportunities and empty-net chances. Among the six forwards, there is one whose style does not completely suit the Canucks: Boeser.
A fan favorite and one of the bright spots of the 2017-18 season, the arrival of Boeser marked the beginning of the Canucks’ turnaround. His renowned wrist shot helped propel him to a 29-goal rookie season. However, he has failed to match that mark in the two years since and this past season declined to a mere 16 goals and 45 points in 57 games. While his shot still makes him a very appealing goal-scoring option, he was not nearly as dangerous this season as he was two years ago. He experienced back and wrist injuries at the end of his rookie campaign. In terms of his qualities as a player, his wrist shot is his greatest asset. He is an intelligent player who understands where to position himself to create scoring opportunities. However, he is just an average skater and does not possess the one-on-one skill that some of the team’s other players possess.
He does not play at a high pace nor does he help to facilitate his team’s transition. There are games when he can fade into the background when his linemates are not fully in sync with him. Thus, while he is a premiere sniper, there is room for the Canucks to improve by swapping him for a player who is better suited to the team’s style of play. He is a relatively passive player away from the puck, and he does not drive possession. During the Canucks’ transition attempts, he stations himself at the far blue line while his teammates try to move up the ice. On the forecheck, he is usually not quick enough to pressure the opposition, and the Canucks can not expect him to be a prominent back checker due to his lack of quickness. If he is already in front of the opposing puck carrier, he can step in front of them and hamper their attack. However, he can not close the distance between himself and an opponent in front of him the way that some of the league’s other forwards can.
Boeser’s greatest attribute aside from his quick wrist shot release is his ability to find open ice while his teammates have the puck. A team that specializes in east-west passing plays will be able to capitalize on Boeser’s skill. The Canucks play a style that relies less on surgical passes and more on an aggressive, north-south charge towards the opposing net as well as perimeter forechecking.
There are limitations to Brock Boeser’s game. He requires puck support from his teammates and a playmaker who can provide him the puck. We have already seen him play extensively with Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Quinn Hughes, and so we have already seen Boeser in the best-case line circumstances. While he is a very gifted goal scorer, his game is not well-rounded, and he slows the pace of the Canucks’ attack. He lags behind when the majority of the forwards play at a breakneck pace, and he offers neither board battle nor transition ability. Brock Boeser is not a line driver. The Canucks’ style of play benefits from team speed and a plurality of transition options.
In January 2020, Daniel Wagner of Pass It To Bulis posited that Boeser’s decreased production relative to his rookie season is because teams now recognize the threat of his wrist shot and actively try to take that extra split-second of time away. His wrist shot totals have decreased while his snap shot totals have increased. His overall production has declined since his rookie campaign, but his wrist shot remains potent. It makes sense to explore alternatives who possess a wider range of skills.
Here is footage of Boeser from the Canucks’ January 4, 2020 match against the New York Rangers. Boeser wears #6 in black.
Brock Boeser Shift Footage vs NYR (Jan. 4, 2020) – Part 1: https://streamable.com/hk48c2
Part 2: https://streamable.com/6uw0eh
At 23 years of age and with two years remaining at $5.875 million per season, Brock Boeser is a highly-valuable NHL player. He continues to possess star potential under the right team system circumstances, and his contract is perfect for an organization that wants to evaluate his appropriateness for their team before renegotiating his contract in two seasons. He is a very good scoring option, and the Canucks continue to hope for a 30-goal season from him. From a stylistic perspective, he would significantly aid an east-west passing team such as the Minnesota Wild that can feather pucks side-to-side through the middle of the offensive zone.
If the Canucks wish to improve their transition speed and the dynamic elements of their top six, they may wish to consider trading Boeser for a different scorer of the same age and scoring capabilities. One possible option is Nikolaj Ehlers of the Winnipeg Jets, who in 2019 was discussed in the media as a potential trade candidate after his subpar playoff campaign. In fact, with the Jets, Ehlers has been goalless in 21 consecutive playoff games. Ehlers spent the 2019 off-season studying video of his playoff performances in hopes of making some adjustments.
The Jets’ speedster is 24 years old and carries an average salary of $6 million for another five seasons. He is among the fastest players in the game and one of the league’s best transition players. This past season, Ehlers scored 25 goals and 58 points in 71 games. He has averaged 25 goals per season over the past four campaigns. There is no question that Ehlers would boost the Canucks’ transition game and contribute in ways that Boeser does not. His regular season numbers are similar to Boeser’s, and yet one might try to imagine Ehlers in a three-on-three overtime situation with Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes on the ice. The potential exists for Ehlers to reach another level playing with Vancouver’s dynamic squad.
This is footage from Winnipeg’s most recent match on March 11, 2020 against Edmonton. Nikolaj Ehlers wears #27 in white.
Ehlers Shift Footage vs EDM (Mar. 11, 2020): https://streamable.com/z8pjpg
This can be considered one of his lesser offensive performances. He recorded only one shot. During the season, he recorded 203 shots, third most among the Jets’ players and 25 more shots than the Canucks’ leader, Bo Horvat. In spite of the one-shot performance, he was very effective on the backcheck and in his own zone. His quickness allows him to slide up and down the left side of the zone with ease to support his defence, and his elusiveness with the puck allows him to separate himself from the opponent’s pressure whenever he has possession. Although he recorded only one official takeaway in this match, on several occasions he broke up the opponent’s rush at the Winnipeg blue line by racing back and wedging himself and his stick between the opponent and the puck. He can disrupt the opponent’s attack with his explosive strides and his aggressive backchecking. One of the Canucks’ weaknesses is their lack of ability to defend against the opponent’s rush offense.
It is crucial to differentiate between high-IQ and low-IQ skaters. Players with high hockey IQ should be able to comprehend how to maximize their skill set in terms of their positioning. The most intelligent players will be able to anticipate where the puck will be, and will understand what types of plays their skill set will allow them to execute. They will be proactive. On both the forecheck and backcheck, they will provide effective pressure by anticipating the movement of the opponent and closing their distance towards the opponent in a timely fashion. Some of the fastest prospects in the sport do not succeed or even reach the NHL, as in spite of their sheer skating talent, they often lag behind in terms of their positioning or are not creative enough with the puck to generate openings. The Canucks, when adding quickness to both the offense and defence, should seek high-IQ players. Nikolaj Ehlers is a fairly high-IQ skater, and he has a proven track record as a scorer in the NHL. We can differentiate between Ehlers and, for instance, Emerson Etem, the former Canuck who was known primarily for his speed.
A high-IQ player would not, during a carry-out, cut in front of their own net with the puck when the opponent is applying heavy pressure, whereas a lower-IQ player might feel that they can out-hustle the opponent, leading to a turnover. The high-IQ player would, if the lane is available, instead skate behind the net and use the net to create separation from the opponent. Regarding gap control and pressure towards the opposing puck carrier, a high-IQ player would be able to get into the opponent’s lane in a timely manner to interrupt their momentum and jar the puck loose, whereas the lower-IQ player will chase because they have taken that extra millisecond to recognize the situation. A player’s ability to identify their best options is what separates a high-IQ player from a lower-IQ one.
Ehlers averaged 16:31 of time on ice per game in 2019-20, sixth among the Jets’ forwards. He is not a particularly aggressive forechecker, often opting to stay high in the offensive zone. He also occasionally tries to do too much with the puck on his own when there are better options available. His swift and effortless skating often allows him to recover from his mistakes and regain possession from the opposition, however. He also tracks his opponent effectively on the defensive side of the puck. There continue to be thoughts among some fans that Ehlers may not remain a Winnipeg Jet for the duration of his contract. It would be worthwhile to inquire about his services. During the 2019 off-season, the Jets reportedly offered Ehlers to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for a defenceman. A forward-for-forward exchange could help both the Jets and Canucks.
Nikolaj Ehlers would make the Vancouver Canucks faster and elevate the ability of the team to carry the puck out of their defensive end. He would improve their transition game and add significant speed at both ends of the rink. Quinn Hughes, the club’s dynamic, game-breaking defenceman and talented outlet passer, would have another option to work with. The team would benefit from the acquisition of Ehlers.
Below, we have a look at another one-shot performance by Ehlers. The footage here is from the match against the Carolina Hurricanes on January 21, 2020.
Nik Ehlers Shift Footage vs CAR (Jan. 21, 2020) – Part 1: https://streamable.com/keu3cb
Part 2: https://streamable.com/8eb4hi
There are moments in the footage in which Ehlers single-handedly creates opportunities with his speed. There are times when he dodges his opponent’s check in the neutral zone, hustles into his own defensive corner to retrieve the puck, or weaves around the opponent to create an opening for his teammate. His impact is incredibly significant to the transition and pace of his team, and one gets the sense that the Winnipeg Jets undervalue his contributions. He quarterbacks the powerplay and determines the pace of the entries with the man-advantage. Nikolaj Ehlers should be the Canucks’ top target, especially if they desire a high-end puck-carrier who can take it out of his zone cleanly.
As of this writing, the news has broken that the Canucks are shopping Brock Boeser. Depending on the return, it could be a sensible move in terms of reinforcing the Canucks’ strengths while also addressing their back checking weaknesses.
The Canucks must target quickness without compromising their scoring ability. Ehlers should be at the top of their list of possible acquisition candidates.
The Vancouver Canucks’ bottom six forward group is also mostly comprised of speedy players, some of whom can surprise the opponent with their aggressive maneuvers at full flight. Adam Gaudette has become one of the Canucks’ most important bottom-six pieces, as he is among the few who can regularly give the opponent trouble off the rush with his puck skills and shot. Averaging only 12:23 of ice time per game, Gaudette scored 12 goals with a 16% shooting percentage and tallied 33 total points. Jake Virtanen and Tyler Motte are two others who can regularly drive the puck up the ice by themselves. Motte is a tenacious forechecker. Virtanen, meanwhile, was on pace for a 20-goal season before the March 2020 stoppage. He finished the season with 18 goals in 69 games. The Canucks also have Jay Beagle, whose speed is noticeable, especially as the team’s primary penalty-killing forward. We will look at the team’s forwards individually at a future date. Thus, we’ll save our analysis of Jake Virtanen for another article.
Here is footage of Virtanen from March 10, 2020 against NYI:
Jake Virtanen Shift Footage vs NYI (Mar. 10, 2020): https://streamable.com/ojn569
Over the next few seasons, the Canucks will look to add two of its more exciting prospects to the group: the team’s 2019 first-round pick and two-way winger Vasili Podkolzin, as well as their second-round pick from that draft class, the skilled puck wizard Nils Hoglander, both of whom are expected to be top-nine players. Neither will be with the team right away, however, and the Canucks can not afford to lose any of its current top-six firepower until either Podkolzin or Hoglander have proven that they can replace them.
An analysis of Podkolzin’s game with video is available here. The following video features his Kontinental Hockey League playoff performance on March 5, 2020 against Vityaz.
The Vancouver Canucks were one of the NHL’s higher-scoring teams in 2019-20. They ranked 10th in the league in goals, and eighth in terms of Goals For Per Game (3.25), just ahead of the Boston Bruins (3.24) and Pittsburgh Penguins (3.20). They were one of the league’s better offensive groups this year, and have achieved this turnaround over the course of just a few seasons.
However, the Canucks also had the eleventh-worst Goals Against Per Game (3.10) in the NHL, comparable to the Buffalo Sabres (3.12), Nashville Predators (3.10), Montreal Canadiens (3.10), and Washington Capitals (3.07). The aforementioned Boston Bruins were ranked best overall in the Goals Against Per Game category (2.39) with the Dallas Stars ranking second-best (2.52). The Washington Capitals, despite being in the same tier as Vancouver defensively, trounced the league offensively with a Goals For Per Game average (3.42) second only to that of Tampa Bay Lightning (3.47). Whereas the Boston Bruins, the 2019-20 President’s Trophy champions, were one of the league’s great defensive teams in 2019-20, the Vancouver Canucks could barely contain the opposition.
Jacob Markstrom rescued their season.
There remains much work to do before the roster and the performance of the Canucks can be considered among the league’s elite. There needs to be an emphasis on addressing the defence and the defensive system. Throughout the 2019-20 season, Markstrom played a crucial role in covering up many of the team’s defensive deficiencies. If not for his All-Star caliber and arguably Vezina Trophy-worthy heroics, the team would have been embarrassed by the opposition on so many more occasions. Numerous times during the 2019-20 season, the Canucks collapsed in spite of significant leads. The 8-6 defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh on November 27, 2019 and the 5-2 loss against Columbus on March 1, 2020 come to mind. In both games, the Canucks forfeited comfortable third-period leads and lost in regulation. Rookie backup goaltender Thatcher Demko was in net for both losses. Their game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2019 is another example of a near-collapse after the Canucks held a 3-0 lead; they were out-shot by a margin of 17-6 in the third period of that match. Markstrom was named one of the three stars of that match.
While the Canucks have learned to overwhelm the opposition with their speed, their hard work on the scoreboard is often undone by their ineptitude at the other end of the rink.
The defensive struggles of the team can largely be attributed to the lack of forward support on the backcheck, as well as also the immobility, inadequate gap control and slow decision-making of the defencemen with the puck. The defensive system needs to be improved to emphasize better teamwork among the players. It must include aggressive backchecking from the forwards. The forwards are fast, and they should use their speed and north-south aggressiveness to alleviate some of the pressure that the defencemen face.
A successful defensive strategy against oncoming rushes requires the forwards to help hamper and slow down the opposing puck carrier. Too many of the Canucks’ issues are the result of the defensive negligence of the forward group. The quicker the group, the more capable they are of skating into the opponent’s lanes, stick checking from behind, and clogging the defensive blue line. They must take advantage of their speed on the defensive side of the puck and support the defence.
Zone Entries Against (Mar. 10 vs. New York Islanders):
Part 1: https://streamable.com/wt7s2z
Part 2: https://streamable.com/vmzbhm
Rather than build the defence around slow and heavy defenders, the team should look to maximize the speed of all five skaters and mobilize the defence. This means adding puck carriers, intelligence and speed to the back end. The faster the skaters on the back end, the easier it is to compensate for gap control issues and to place pressure on the opposition. The quicker they think, or the more systematically synchronized they are, the quicker the puck will move. A flat-footed defence will always be required to be smarter about their positioning and to keep their gap control tighter against the opponent. Those types of players require a high-enough hockey IQ to read plays and adapt to the speed of the opposition. We will examine some potential options in a future article.
An active defence would place less pressure on the forwards to constantly move up the ice and encourage the forward group to be more active in the defensive zone. The team should consider defencemen who model themselves after the Minnesota Wild’s Jared Spurgeon and Nick Leddy of the New York Islanders — quick, but not risky. The Canucks need to improve their defence corps, and we will examine the deficiencies of the group shortly.
Important as well, however, is that the forwards need to use their skating ability to come back into their own zone and provide additional defensive support. If the forwards and defence can all skate quickly and shiftily, then the forwards would not bear so much of the burden to carry the puck up.
There seems to be no sense of coordination among the skaters, and the miscommunication of the group often leads to blunders. If the team is going to be fast at both ends of the rink, the defensive system needs to involve all five skaters in sync with one another. The forwards are sometimes guilty of fleeing the defensive zone too early and not coming far enough back to support the defence.
The key is a cohesive system of team defence and a quick, intelligent defence corps. The better the defensive system, the less pressure there will be to improvise and rely on one’s own instincts.
An overhaul of the defensive system, upgrades to the defence corps, and also improvements to the team’s overall speed should be among the Canucks’ top priorities.
One could argue that Boeser should be traded for a defenceman. However, it would be a mistake for the Canucks to lose a 20-goal, 50-point second line player and not effectively replace that vacancy. The team does not currently have an adequate substitute for Boeser on its top-two forward lines. The Canucks must enhance their back end via other means than by trading Boeser, and should instead swap him in a lateral deal for a forward who better suits their aggressive, high-tempo style of play. A competitive team requires balanced scoring. A lack of depth can be costly if the team’s scorers ever encounter injuries or cold streaks. It would be ideal, thus, for the team swap Boeser for a player of Ehlers’ ilk — a player who can score, use his speed at both ends, and drive his line’s offense.
While Brock Boeser has been a favorite of the fanbase for three seasons, it is time to pursue a more versatile and stylistically-effective upgrade. Ehlers would be an upgrade for the Canucks. Perhaps the Winnipeg Jets could see a fit for Boeser in their lineup. If Ehlers is unavailable, other options might include Minnesota’s Kevin Fiala, or Nico Hischier of the New Jersey Devils — line drivers with two-way awareness and greater one-on-one skill than Boeser. The Devils might be looking to pair Jack Hughes with a sharpshooter and could be open to such a deal. These are the types of players that the Canucks should target. The team should not look at rentals nor considerably older players, nor should they consider speed for the sake of speed. They also need to find a way to shed the salaries of Loui Eriksson, who has a modified no-trade clause beginning at the end of this season, and that of Brandon Sutter, who likewise possesses a modified no-trade clause, to provide some cap flexibility.
Bold moves are required for this franchise to take its next step forward. The Canucks should not be afraid to make moves that improve their team. A Brock Boeser trade, thus, can be a very astute move provided the organization targets high-IQ, young forwards who can be considered similarly-productive but more appropriate for the style that Vancouver plays.