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Photo Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Why the Canucks need to improve their 5 on 5 play this season, and how they’ll be able to do it

Are you ready, Canucks fans? The season is set to begin in a matter of days, and we’ll be treated to a lifetime’s supply of Tkatchuk shenanigans and constant chatter from the Toronto media about why Auston Matthews is the GOAT.

Out of the Canadian division gong-show, four teams will make the playoffs, and we should all feel lucky that the Canucks won’t be playing south of the border.

See, Vancouver was a weak 5 on 5 team in 2019-20, as they were outscored by three goals in those situations. Even with the expanded play-in tournament last year, only five other teams that were invited to the bubble had a negative goal differential at 5 on 5.

Fortunately, three of those included Canadian squads. Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Calgary all had goal differentials even worse than the Canucks did, which increases Vancouver’s 2021 playoff odds significantly.

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With that said, the team still needs to improve their 5 on 5 play if they want to finish high in the division. This is because the Canucks will likely experience some regression on their power play, which was lethal but slightly lucky last season.

Expect some power play regression this year

According to Natural Stat Trick, Vancouver was expected to score roughly 38.5 goals on the powerplay in 2019-20. They instead scored 56. To put that into perspective, only five other teams exceeded their expected goals number by 10, and Edmonton was the lone club that had a larger positive difference than the Canucks.

A lot of this was due to inflated shooting percentages, especially for a few players on the second unit. Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette converted on 33.3% and 28.57% of their shots, respectively, when on the man advantage. Those numbers are higher than the top three PP goal scorers last season, as David Pastrnak, Leon Draisaitl, and Mika Zibanejad all shot between 25-26%.

Moreover, Virtanen and Gaudette were expected to score less than four goals on the powerplay, but they more than doubled that figure by potting 10 instead. This wasn’t just prevalent on the second unit, either, as Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller also far exceeded expectations, as they combined to score 20 goals but were expected to capitalize on less than 12.

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Looking at those stats, it’s safe to say that Vancouver’s powerplay will likely take a step back this year. It can still sport one of the ten highest success rates given the talent available, but it probably won’t finish in the top five like last season. In order for the Canucks to compensate, they’ll need to become a stronger 5 on 5 club, and that starts with utilizing more of their blueline.

Vancouver needs to take advantage of its blueline mobility

Man, what a difference a year can make. If you had asked me about Vancouver’s blueline mobility before last season, I would’ve responded: “blueline mobility? What’s that?”

Fast forward to the present, and Canucks fans are now spoiled with watching Quinn Hughes skate circles around whoever tries to keep up with him. At this point, you might be wondering how blueline mobility can help with Vancouver’s 5 on 5 play. Well, the most obvious way to improve in such situations is to generate more scoring chances, and that begins by having possession of the puck. Since defencemen are usually responsible for breaking out of their own zone, they’re especially important in these scenarios.

If you’re still not convinced, take a look at Hughes’ on/off numbers with the Canucks.

Even with Hughes on their side, Vancouver still lacked other puck-moving defencemen last year, but that problem has largely been solved by the recent additions of Nate Schmidt and Travis Hamonic.

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Both defencemen have the ability to transition play up ice, with Schmidt being one of the best blueliners in the league at doing so.

Of course, we also need to remember that the team lost Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher, but it’s pretty clear that the former Canucks aren’t as good at puck-moving as the new duo.

With two elite transition defencemen in Hughes and Schmidt, Vancouver can now take their possession game to a new level. Both players will help the Canucks generate more shots and better scoring chances, which were two of the team’s main struggles last year. Vancouver had a Corsi of 48.43% and an expected goals rate of 48.35% in 2019-20, which ranked 23rd in both categories.

By having Hughes and Schmidt play on separate pairs, the Canucks will be able to employ one elite puck-mover for 45 minutes each game. This could help the team have a positive Corsi and expected goals percentage, which might result in a positive goal differential at 5 on 5 as well.

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Conclusion

In any other division, Vancouver’s odds of making the playoffs are slim if they continue to struggle at 5 on 5. In the Canadian division, however, lots of other teams are even worse in those situations, but the Canucks still need to improve in this area since they’ll likely experience some powerplay regression. One of the ways they could achieve this is by utilizing the mobility of their blueline, which will allow the team to maintain possession and generate more scoring chances. Travis Green and his coaching staff should encourage both Hughes and Schmidt to jump up in plays, putting more pressure on opposing defences. For the first time in years, the Canucks will have multiple elite puck-movers on the backend, and they need to fully take advantage of this.

All stats via Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, and A3Z Performance Tool.