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Photo Credit: © Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Stylistically and by the numbers: How the Canucks’ forecheck has changed under Bruce Boudreau

When the Vancouver Canucks appointed Bruce Boudreau as the team’s head coach almost two months ago, the move was lauded by both fans and hockey media alike. Tensions and losses had mounted to an unsustainable level, and the changes made at the top of the organization as well as behind the bench provided a much-needed breath of fresh air.

The Canucks’ bounce-back since Boudreau took over has brought new life to the team, who now sit at the .500 mark and have the playoffs back in their sights. The team is playing a more aggressive and high-tempo brand of hockey, and one of the small tweaks that Boudreau has made since taking over has been in the Canucks’ forecheck.

Canucks Forecheck Under Green This Season

After a disappointing 2020-21 campaign during which the team surrendered far too many odd-man rushes and high-quality chances against, the Canucks arrived into the 2021-22 season with a reconstructed blueline, hoping to fix their porous defensive record from last season. The team’s forechecking system reflected this attitude — Green opted for a 1-2-2 system, which has been his go-to while with the club. The basic premise and set up of a 1-2-2 is shown below:

Getting To Know Jeff Blashill's System - Forechecking - Winging It In Motown

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Source: SBNation

In a 1-2-2 system, F1 typically pressures the puck carrier and forces them one way while F2 and F3 will cover the strong-side wall and middle to limit breakout options. Here’s an example from the home game against the Jets earlier in the season to show what it looks like on video:

As Josh Morrissey retreats back into the Jets’ zone, Jason Dickinson (F1) follows Morrissey closely to try to pressure the Jets defenceman and force him behind the net. Pettersson anticipates this and is prepared to seal off his own side as he thinks he’ll be the strong-side F2, while Boeser is playing more centrally, ready to take the F3 spot in the middle of the ice:

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However, Morrissey does a quick turn to evade Dickinson’s check and passes it to Adam Lowry, who then looks to pass up the wall to Jets winger Jansen Harkins. Pettersson is now on the weak side and shifts over to cover the middle.

The 1-2-2 system isn’t inherently a bad thing at all — it’s one of the most common forechecks in the game and is used by some elite teams including the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, given the lack of mobility on the Canucks’ backend outside of Quinn Hughes, it’s likely that Green wanted to use a less aggressive system where his defence corps were less likely to be exposed as often. Although it’s hard to pin the Canucks’ slow start solely on the forecheck, the team clearly wasn’t creating enough turnovers and scoring chances from their forecheck.

Canucks Forecheck Under Boudreau

Having been clamouring for a faster and more aggressive brand of hockey, Canucks fans got their wish with Bruce Boudreau. Under Boudreau, the Canucks play a more aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck that has two forwards pressuring below the hash marks and a third covering the middle, as shown below:

Hockey Systems 101: 5v5 Play – The Athletic

Source: The Athletic

The image above does a good job describing most of the important elements of a 2-1-2 forecheck: F1 pressures the puck, F2 cuts off the D-to-D reverse, and F3 stays central while the defencemen remain active and look for good opportunities to pinch and close off the wall. On video, this is what it looks like:

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Vasily Podkolzin is the F1 here pressuring the puck, and Dickinson, while late, is able to seal off the D-to-D pass and force the play up the far-side boards, where Nils Höglander — playing as F3 and anticipating the play — cycles it back in deep and the team retains its 2-1-2 shape.

By the Numbers

Now that we structurally and visually understand the changes, we want to find out if the numbers are also telling us what our eyes are telling us about the new forecheck. Are the Canucks actually better at preventing clean zone exits and generating chances from their forecheck under Boudreau?

Quantifying the impact of a forecheck would have been a mammoth task even just a few seasons ago because of a dearth of tracking data — at least in the public sphere — but thanks to the magic work of Corey Sznajder, we now have some numbers to work with:

These metrics aren’t used too often, so let’s start with a few definitions:

Opponent Exit % – Completed exits, including clears, as a percentage of total d-zone retrievals

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Opponent Possession Exit % – Completed exits with possession as a percentage of total d-zone retrievals

Opponent Failed Exit % – Exit attempts that fail to escape d-zone, as a percentage of total d-zone retrievals

Opponent Botched Retrievals % – Retrievals completed but turnover occurs before exit attempt is made, as a percentage of total d-zone retrievals

In the table above, lower exit % and possession exit % numbers are better, as that indicates that your opponent is exiting the zone at a less efficient clip compared to higher percentages. On the other hand, higher failed exit % and botched retrievals % numbers are ideal, as that means you are foiling the opposing team’s breakout more often.

Based on this information, we see that Boudreau has improved the Canucks’ forecheck efficiency across the board. The team is now allowing drastically fewer exits overall and slightly fewer possession exits, while also increasing the frequency with which they cause failed exits and botched retrievals.

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Boudreau’s changes have brought a Canucks forecheck — that was clearly on the permissive side under Travis Green — back to league average or better, which is an impressive feat especially when considering the quality of competition the Canucks faced during their last road trip to the southeast US.

Opponent possession exit % is the most important metric here, and this is how the Canucks stand when benchmarked against all the teams in the league:

Beyond Montreal, it’s no surprise that a number of the top teams in the league are also near the left-most side of the bar graph above (Corey had a small sample size for Tampa). With the coaching change, the Canucks have jumped from the bottom ten in preventing opponent possession exits to the top half of the league.

However, simply preventing zone exits is half the battle — what the team does with those denials in terms of creating scoring chances is also critically important. Fortunately, the Canucks have also significantly improved their ability to create shooting opportunities from their forecheck under Boudreau:

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The aggressive forecheck has resulted in more shot creation opportunities because of higher pressure intensity and more frequent recoveries in the offensive zone, which certainly matches what fans have been seeing on the ice. And Boudreau said as much during one of his post-practice media availabilities earlier this calendar year, where he explained that “if you put pressure on teams, they will turn pucks over. That’s the offensive game that is fun for players.”

It’s clear that the forecheck under Boudreau is a contributing factor to the team’s rebound and recent run of form — the team is preventing zone exits more efficiently and using that success effectively by turning them into shooting opportunities. Fans should be optimistic that this playing style will be here to stay as the Canucks continue to build momentum and push for a playoff spot.