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Photo Credit: © Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Back To/The Future: Analyzing where the Canucks’ PP went wrong under Newell Brown

In this Back To/The Future series, Chris Faber and Stephan Roget are making a collaborative effort to learn from the mistakes of the Vancouver Canucks’ recent past and offer solutions to salvage their immediate future — you know, just like Marty McFly did that one time. Each weekly Roget Reverse/Future Faber two-parter will start out with a critical look at some component of the Canucks’ game that went wrong in 2021, and finish by making some suggestions as to how it could get better in 2021/22. Whether you like to grumble about bad things that have already happened or dream about the good things yet to come, CanucksArmy has got what you need. 

On Wednesday, the Vancouver Canucks announced a general reshuffling of their coaching staff, including the arrival of Brad Shaw, extensions and new roles for Ian Clark, Jason King, and Nolan Baumgartner, and the departure of Newell Brown.

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Brown completes his second stint with the team, having originally served as assistant coach from 2010 until 2013 and then returning to serve from 2017 until now.

When the Brown/Vancouver reunion was first announced four years ago, it was mostly met with optimism and good cheer. Brown had, after all, run the Canucks’ most potent power play ever circa 2011, and the man advantage had fallen on hard times in his absence.

Flash forward to the present, and several in the fanbase are glad to see him go, and specifically because of the current state of the power play.

What happened?

As Thomas Drance adroitly pointed out, Brown more or less did what he was hired to do. He took a middling power play and turned it into a top-ten unit over his tenure, despite often dealing with a lack of adequate personnel.

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But a deeper dive into Brown’s second stint as power play guru reveals some significant underlying problems: inconsistency, lack of movement, overreliance on set plays, and, more than anything, stagnation.

Season Power Play NHL Rank Goals/game NHL Rank
2017/18 21.5% 9th 2.66 26th
2018/19 17.1% 22nd 2.67 t-25th
2019/20 24.2% 4th 3.25 8th
2021 17.4% 25th 2.64 24th

From NHL.com

As we can see from the chart above, Vancouver’s power play has been uniformly up-and-down during the last four seasons. That can be at least partially attributed, however, to the team’s overall inconsistent offensive production. To properly diagnose where things went wrong, we’re going to have to get a little more specific on a year-by-year basis.

Fortunately, we’ve got Micah Blake McCurdy’s visual graphs and charts on hand so we don’t have to picture it all in our minds.

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From HockeyViz.com

The 2017/18 season undoubtedly represents the finest work of Brown’s second term. The year prior, the Canucks finished last in the Pacific Division and second-last in the Western Conference, with the worst offence in the league and a dismal 14.1% success rate on the power play.

After just one season under Brown, the power play had skyrocketed all the way up to 21.5%, even as the overall offence languished in the league cellar.

At that point, the man advantage was still very much the Daniel and Henrik show, as evidenced by the sheer number of shots and shot-attempts that came from down-low plays close to the net. They were joined by the rookie Brock Boeser, opening up a dangerous option on the left side, and that multifaceted attack plan often left opponents overwhelmed.

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How much credit Brown himself deserves for this resurgence is impossible to quantify, but it’s clear that his return had a positive impact on the Sedins. It certainly wasn’t the presence of Brandon Sutter, Loui Eriksson, Markus Granlund, or Ben Hutton — all frequent flyers on the 2017/18 man advantage — that rebounded the Sedins back to their past power play glory.

Obviously, the twins and Brown just clicked when it came to special teams.

But then they retired, and it was on to a new era of Canucks hockey.

From HockeyViz.com

Take a look at that chart right above, and it’s not hard to determine the exact sort of impact Elias Pettersson had on the power play when he arrived as a rookie in 2018/19.

The whole shape of the Canucks’ strategy shifted to accommodate Pettersson’s shooting preferences, cycling everything through his office at the top of the right faceoff circle — for better, and for worse.

The arrangement definitely worked for Pettersson, who picked up 22 of his 66 points on the power play en route to a Calder Trophy win.

But it didn’t work for the power play as a whole, which plummeted all the way back down to 17.1% even as the team’s overall production stayed level.

Now, plenty of that plummet had to do with the two greatest players — and power players — in franchise history retiring. But it also had a lot to do with the Canucks becoming far too predictable on the man advantage. Opposing teams soon figured out that if the Canucks were always going to try to work the puck over to Pettersson for a rocket, they could cheat their coverage over toward him — and with that literal black hole of a net-front presence from the Canucks, they could get away with it, too.

Under Brown, the Canucks simply refused to adapt as other teams adapted to them. They just kept feeding the puck to Pettersson, even as his office became more and more crowded with penalty killers.

Pettersson would only score two power play goals in his final 23 games of the season.

Thankfully, in 2019/20, he got help in the form of Quinn Hughes.

From HockeyViz.com

The power play bounced all the way back to the standard of the 2011 team with a sparkling 24.2% success rate in 2019/20, and it isn’t all that hard to figure out why.

Pettersson’s big brown shot-dot on the right circle didn’t get any smaller — in fact, it got a lot bigger. But it was also joined by a veritable gobstopper of offence from the point, and that was almost solely provided by the rookie Hughes.

Hughes’ unfiltered dynamism drew PKers away from Pettersson and toward him on the blueline, and his unparalleled playmaking made it simple enough for him to get the puck over to Pettersson whenever a break in coverage occurred. Hughes’ ability to take the puck deep into the zone at will forced opponents to be less stationary, opening up opportunities all over the ice.

The arrival of JT Miller and Bo Horvat’s ascendence into a power play ace definitely helped, but Hughes’ arrival was the key factor in the power play’s profound success.

Other teams simply couldn’t figure out how to mitigate Hughes’ impact – at least, not quite yet.

The rejuvenated power play would go on to push the Canucks back into the postseason and then all the way to the Western Conference Semi-Finals.

Again, Brown deserves his fair share of credit here for seamlessly integrating Hughes into the top unit – and often the second – and giving him a gameplan designed to make the most of his prodigious skating gifts. Manny Malhotra also deserves a shoutout, and it’s probably no coincidence that Toronto’s own power play numbers jumped significantly this year with him behind the bench.

Unfortunately, the resurgent success of the Canucks’ power play proved to be a double-edged sword by 2021.

From HockeyViz.com

There’s an old adage that says “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but that doesn’t always apply to professional sports. If something isn’t broke, it’s the job of opposing coaches and players to break it – and so, if you’re not continually fixing and updating some component of your strategy, it won’t be long before its effectiveness wanes.

Again, you can literally see the stagnation that crept into the Canucks’ power play. As opposing PKers grew wise to the Hughes/Pettersson connection, Brown did not adapt. Instead, he doubled down, ensuring that the Canucks kept going back to the same playmaking wells that had served them so well the season past — wells that had long since run dry.

The first unit began to stay out longer and longer, often taking up the full two minutes of a man advantage.

The puck was almost always worked over to Pettersson on the right or Hughes at the point for a shot — and then when Pettersson had his season ended early by injury, it was just Hughes. Increasingly, Hughes was asked to stay stapled to the point so as to “quarterback” the power play, taking away his freedom to employ perhaps his single most unique attribute.

It stands to reason that if the shots are all coming from the same places, it’s because the players themselves are stationary in those same places — and that’s certainly something that those watching through a non-analytic lens saw, too.

Even when the power play figured out something new — like the bumper play from the corner to Horvat in the slot — it would then be run into the ground until it became just as predictable as the rest of it all.

The charts don’t lie. Throughout 2021, the Canucks only really took shots on the power play from the same three spots, over and over again. And given the overall lack of movement and creativity, it was usually fairly obvious to opponents which of the three spots the Canucks were trying to set up at any given moment, and that allowed them to shift their coverage accordingly. Always, the front of the net was free-and-clear, making it all the easier to slide PKers up.

And we haven’t even gotten into the ubiquitousness of that damn drop-pass.

It’s really no surprise, then, that the power play tanked all the way back down to 17.4%.

But it is a shame, because in Hughes, Pettersson, and now Nils Höglander, the Canucks are in possession of some of the most creative minds in the game today. There’s no need for them to play boring, predictable, stationary hockey in any situation, and certainly not on the power play. No reason, save for the fact that it’s what worked in the past.

Sometimes, past success can be a millstone. If one doesn’t learn and adapt, and instead keeps trying to re-achieve past glory, it can lead to one falling behind the times with shocking rapidity. In many ways, that appears to be what happened to Newell Brown during his second tenure with the Canucks, and that’s why it’s fair to be optimistic about the Canucks’ special teams rebounding again in 2021/22.

We’re not here to suggest that Brad Shaw is the answer, because he’s not much of a power play specialist, and Columbus’ man advantage numbers were relatively atrocious during his time there.

As of right now, Jason King is poised to take over from Brown as power play coach. It’s a role he’s fairly inexperienced in, but that might be exactly what the Canucks need right now.

And if it’s a little chaotic at the beginning of the season, with Brown’s stabling presence gone and King still figuring it all out?

Good.

Say what you will about chaos, but at least it’s not predictable.