Was it the power play, penalty kill, or even-strength play that sunk the Canucks in February 2024?

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
1 month ago
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The good news is that the month of February is over for the Vancouver Canucks. That’s good news both because February wasn’t the most pleasant portion of the calendar on the 2023/24 season, and also because now we can begin to examine it holistically.
The bad news is that we might not want to.
The Canucks played 13 games in February, the most of any team in the league. And they didn’t win all that many of them.
Their final record on the month was 5-6-2, which doesn’t sound outright disastrous, and might have been considered a downright average month in previous seasons. But this is the 2023/24 campaign, in which the Canucks had previously gone 33-11-5, the difference is stark.
Put differently, the Canucks have completed six calendar months on the year, but more than a third of their regulation losses occurred in February.
Still, things aren’t quite at the point of bleakness or anything like that. As of this writing, the Canucks are still in first place in the Western Conference and are within a couple of points of first place in the league. They’re still leading the Pacific Division by a full nine points.
The real good news here is that the Canucks’ lackluster February didn’t really cost them anything, at least not yet. There’s still plenty of time to turn this ship back around and transform a dreary month into nothing more than a speed-bump.
There’s more good news in that February should have, and almost certainly did, impart head coach Rick Tocchet and his staff with plenty of insight into where the team most needs to improve.
Most would agree that even-strength play is the most important component of the game, as it makes up the majority of the time played and is the default situation out on the ice. It’s also an area in which the Canucks had simply dominated prior to hitting February.
From October to January, the Canucks outscored their opponents at 5v5 to the tune of 124-80. That’s the most goals for in the league, and the fourth-fewest goals against. It’s a swing of +44. It’s a phenomenal showing of game-control, any way you slice it.
Compare that with February. Here the Canucks scored just 26 goals at 5v5 – just two per game – and allowed a total of 27 against. In other words, they were a -1 on the month.
Now, that’s a real plummet in fortunes and effectiveness. And while there were a few complicating factors at play here, including the losses of two key 5v5 players in Dakota Joshua and Carson Soucy, the reality was that the Canucks simply did not play with the same level of control and possession at even-strength in February as they had prior.
But a -1 rating doesn’t exactly explain an entire month’s losing record. For that knowledge, we have to turn to the special teams.
This isn’t exactly breaking news. Both the power play and penalty kill received ample criticism throughout February, and with good reason. But a closer examination of the numbers reveals that one of the two deserves much more of the blame than the other.
The Canucks had the fifth-worst power play in February at a 15% success rate. That’s down from the eighth-best, 25% power play heading into February.
Their penalty kill, meanwhile, clocked in at 74.5% effectiveness through February, good for eighth-worst in the NHL. That’s down from 80% and a tie for 15th place from October through January.
But here’s the funny thing about using a single month as your sample size: it’s not that large of one, and it’s prone to being thrown off by anomalies. And when we mention “penalty killing” and “anomalies,” you just know we’re talking about that Minnesota game.
In what will stand as one of the strangest games in recent memory, the Canucks lost 10-7 to the Wild and gave up FOUR two-man disadvantages along the way. The Wild, as a result, scored four consecutive power play goals against the Canucks in quick succession. The whole thing took approximately two minutes of game time.
And those two minutes totally tanked the Canucks’ monthly PK numbers. If we just delete those two minutes from the record, we end up with the Canucks having killed 35 of their 43 other times shorthanded, a success rate of 81.4%.
You’ll note that that’s actually a slightly better rate than what they put up in all the months prior. And, sure, we realize that teams don’t really have the luxury of deleting their worst couple of minutes from the equation when it comes to judging their overall success. All the same, it’s a testament to the fact that the Canucks’ PK was actually fairly solid through February, and not the primary reason for their bad month.
The power play’s role, on the other hand, is unsalvageable.
Folks like to blame the officials, but the Canucks received 40 power play opportunities in February, the third-most in the NHL. They scored on just six of them.
Even worse, the Canucks allowed three shorthanded goals against in February. Which means that, on the supposed man-advantage, they posted a scant +3 rating for the month. That’s just not going to do it.
And so, when it comes to assigning the “blame” for the woes of February, and thus the priorities for improvement in March, we’d have to put it something like this:
1) The Power Play
2) Even-Strength Play
3) The Penalty Kill
In fact, we might even go as far as to say that the penalty kill sort of bailed out the other two “teams” in February, and that without its generally positive play, things could have been a lot worse. It’s also worth noting that the PK lost Joshua and Soucy in February, whereas the PP kept all its main characters.
None of which will have escaped the notice of the Vancouver coaching staff. We’re sure that power plays have already been a big topic of discussion in the room and on the practice ice, and with a much less dense schedule in March, they’ll have plenty of time to work on it.
And if they can work on it enough, they should be able to avoid turning a bad February into a difficult Spring.
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