Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
How Rick Tocchet’s hiring saved Conor Garland’s Canucks career
By Tyson Cole28 days ago
On July 23rd, 2021, one of the biggest head-scratching trades ever took place between the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes. The Canucks sent over a package of Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, and Antoine Rousell, all regarded as overpaid and underachieving forwards playing in their bottom six. To dump the salary, the Canucks had to attach three draft picks, including their ninth overall pick that season, which turned into Team Canada overtime hero at the 2022 world juniors, Dylan Guenther. In return, the Canucks received aging defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and young forward Conor Garland.
That trade is widely considered to be one of the worst in Canucks franchise history. Oliver Ekman-Larsson has since been bought out and will haunt the Canucks’ salary cap until the 2028-2029 season. It wasn’t until this season that we started to see somewhat of a bright spot that has come from the trade — the resurgence of Conor Garland.
Conor Garland’s Coyotes Stats
It was a long wait on draft week for Garland as he fell to the fifth round and was finally selected with the 123rd pick of the stacked 2015 draft. He was a very skilled forward coming into his draft year — leading the QMJHL in scoring with 129 points, 27 more points than the league’s next-highest scorer. Most notably, Garland outscored first-round picks of the same draft class out of the QMJHL, such as Timo Meier and Anthony Beauvillier.
It wasn’t until the 2018-2019 season that Garland got his shot up in the big leagues. That year, he split the season between the NHL and AHL. Garland scored his first NHL goal eight games into his career. He finished with nine goals and 12 points at 5-on-5 in his rookie season.
Here’s a look at Garland’s key offensive ‘On-Ice’ stats, 5-on-5 point totals, and where he ranked as a member of the Arizona Coyotes in these categories.
In his three years as a Coyote, Garland consistently provided more offensively than he allowed defensively. While he wasn’t a top-point contributor in his rookie year, the Coyotes generated more scoring chances than they allowed while Garland was on the ice. Garland’s performance in his rookie season would earn him a role in the top six the following two seasons.
In the 2019-2020 season, Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet gave him a shot higher in the lineup, playing the majority of his time with Taylor Hall and Christian Dvorak. This line played the highest 5-on-5 time on ice (TOI) of all Coyotes forwards, had the highest SCF% and fourth in xGF% of all lines to play a minimum of 120+ minutes of TOI together.
In his final season as a Coyote, Garland would play with completely new linemates in Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz. However, what didn’t change was the usage Tocchet gave him. The numbers for this season are fairly skewed due to the shortened season and some line juggling, but this new line would again play the most minutes of 5-on-5 TOI of all Coyotes forwards and rank as the highest in SCF% and fourth in xGF%.
It was the trust Tocchet had in him that earned him the minutes to show he could provide on a team’s top offensive lines, and he did it in back-to-back seasons. With his ability to do it with two different lines, Garland was the straw that stirred the drink offensively for the Coyotes in these two seasons, so it was no surprise the Canucks took the opportunity to make Garland a preferable trade target.
Conor Garland’s Canucks Stats
The trade was a little upsetting for Garland, as he told John Scott on the Dropping The Gloves podcast. “I loved being a Coyote. I wanted to stay like anybody does that’s been on a team since they’re 18. They were going into a rebuild, and I kind of expected to get traded after we hadn’t started (contract) discussions.”
Before we get into his stats, let’s not forget this memorable clip from his first season as a Canuck.
Here’s a look at Garland’s key offensive ‘On-Ice’ stats, 5-on-5 point totals, and where he ranked as a member of the Vancouver Canucks in these categories.
In Garland’s first season with the Canucks, he continued on the same trajectory that he left off in Arizona. Garland not only finished with a career-high 47 points at 5-on-5 this season, but he also led the entire team in 5v5 points, xGF%, and SCF%.
It was his second season with the Canucks where we saw Garland struggle, as he would go on to finish with his lowest xGF% and second-lowest xSCF% of his career. Under Bruce Boudreau, Garland never carved out a clear role for himself, and the chaos and dysfunction that was the 2022-23 Canucks didn’t make things any better for the 28-year-old winger.
It looked like Garland may have been on his way out of Vancouver after career lows, and his inability to find where he belonged in this Canucks offence. But if you look further into his numbers, he vastly improved after a familiar face returned behind his bench.
Tocchet leaned on Garland when he first arrived in Vancouver. Garland got the chance to play with the puck more and really drive play. I point this out because his ‘Hits Taken’ stat has significantly risen under Tocchet. His ability to go back to his ways of playing physically in the corners to retrieve pucks on the forecheck is the type of play that Garland excels in, and lucky for him, it’s the exact brand of hockey Tocchet wants the Canucks playing.
Rick Tocchet had this to say about Garland, “A lot of times I remember, the last couple years, he was in the middle of things, in a scrum. They’re punching him in the head, he’s sticking in there, he’s yelling at them — and he’s right back there the next shift, right in the same area,” per Sportsnet’s Sonny Scandeva.
The only category that Garland didn’t improve in was his individual scoring chances for (iSCF). While yes, this is an important stat to consider, he converted on his scoring chances more often, finishing with one more point in nine fewer games under Tocchet than under Boudreau.
If we look into his play this season, he far exceeds not just last season but his entire career-high iSCF/60. In his short two-year tenure with the Canucks, there was constant line juggling, making it extremely difficult to build chemistry. That is, of course, until this season.
The Third Line
The way this Canucks’ third line has played this season is something the franchise has not had in some time. It’s a bottom six line that’s hard to play against that the team can trust in all three zones of the ice. Teddy Blueger and Dakota Joshua make up the other two-thirds of this third line that has yet to be given a good enough nickname.
Among all the line juggling trying to find Elias Pettersson consistent wingers, this third line is the only one Tocchet hasn’t touched. They have played 307:43 minutes together in 33 games — more than 100 minutes longer than any other Canucks forward group this season.
The trio leads the team in defensive zone starts at 5-on-5, averaging 57.5% of their shift starts in the defensive zone. This line isn’t just all about defence; they also have the highest SCF% (58.2%) and HDCF% (63.39%) of all lines that have played 100+ minutes at 5-on-5.
In just 47 games played, Dakota Joshua has already set his career highs in goals (10) and tied in points (20) at 5-on-5. Teddy Blueger has played through an injury this season, but in his 34 games, he has four goals and 18 total points — currently on pace for 37 points, which would break his former career high of 23 5-on-5 points.
Now, is it the play of Conor Garland that’s elevating the games of Dakota Joshua and Teddy Blueger? Is it the style Dakota Joshua and Teddy Blueger play that meshes so well with Garland that’s elevated his game? Is it just as simple as Tocchet giving them consistent minutes together to build chemistry with each other?
Quite frankly, I’m not sure, but it’s exciting to watch guys we didn’t expect to provide this offence show up for the Canucks. What can be said with certainty is that this line is a massive reason the Canucks sit atop the NHL standings right now.
Rick Tocchet had this to say about his winger in the same interview with Sportsnet’s Sonny Scandeva.
“Whether you doubt him or believe him, know that Conor Garland will come back, time and time again. He’ll keep pushing and clawing and battling, as he always has — it’s just the way he’s wired.”
It was heavily discussed that this Canucks management team would move on from Garland last season, and even to start this season, there were reports that he wanted out.
Canucks fans should let out a sigh of relief that that an early season trade never came to fruition. Bringing in Tocchet was the perfect head coaching hire for Garland. After a down season, Garland has reunited with a coach who trusts him in a system that he’s proven he can excel in. All of this may very well have saved Conor Garland’s career as a Vancouver Canuck.
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