Fixing the Vancouver Canucks Power Play

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:27 am by J.D. Burke

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Photo Credit: Sergei Belsky – USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knew going into this season that the Canucks would be hard pressed to produce offence at even strength. Perhaps nobody knew more so than the Canucks themselves.

Combined with their general inability to generate positive shot differentials, Vancouver was always bound to a path less travelled if their destination was the post-season. That means playing to a tie at evens on most nights and putting the game away on special teams. There’s a large element of luck involved therein, but such is life for the league’s have-nots.

The Canucks penalty kill has, mostly, been a strength under Head Coach Willie Desjardins. His power play perhaps less so. Last season they finished 26th in the league in conversion rate. This season they’re ranked 28th.

At this rate, USA TODAY’s 65 point prediction is optimistic. If the Canucks can’t fix their power play, that is.

They’re not generating enough shots as a team, and even fewer that threaten on a consistent basis. Part of that is personnel. And if you’re looking at a Canucks power play that features the Sedin twins, Loui Eriksson, Brandon Sutter and Philip Larsen, it’s not particularly difficult to find the weakest link.

The Canucks are generating shot attempts at a half-decent rate with Larsen. Hell, they’re even generating unblocked shot attempts and shots in general at a better rate with Larsen on the ice than without him. If one were to look solely at the numbers, Larsen would flesh out as having a genuinely positive impact on the Canucks’ shot rates, which is important, because those are a better indicator of long-term success with the man advantage than goals.

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Wherein the problem lies is the distance of the shots. On average, Larsen is launching pucks 50-feet from the opposition net. A quick glance at the players in that range reveals a venerable murderers row of the league’s best trigger-men. In fact, it’s not even generally low relative to power play quarterbacks leaguewide.

If you can sling the puck like Shea Weber, that’s not an issue. Larsen isn’t Weber, though. He doesn’t have a particularly strong shot, and he’s not even all that proficient at getting it on net. Which is especially concerning when one looks at the percentage of shots Larsen is responsible for on the Canucks’ first unit.

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That’s not so bad, right? Well, peel the onion back another layer and the discolouration becomes increasingly stark.

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We all knew the plan going into this season was for Larsen to run the Canucks’ power play from the point. I didn’t think that would entail running more than 50% of their attempted shots through Larsen. All of which are coming from the least dangerous regions of the offensive zone. That goes a long way towards explaining the Canucks standing as the league’s 10th worst team by scoring chance generation.

Looked at in the context of the big picture, it does beg the question as to why the Canucks felt secure in handing the keys to their power play to Larsen. He’s an apt puck mover, and there hasn’t been a noticeable drop in their ability to move the puck from Alex Edler last season to Larsen in this one. By that same token, we’re talking about a player who’s never scored more than a single power play goal in a season; a player who’s shot four-and-a-half percent over the course of his career. 

That’s much more on the coaching staff than the player, though. Larsen’s never been a power play quarterback at the NHL level and nothing in his first stay in the NHL indicated he was capable of handling that role. There’s a place for Larsen on an NHL team’s power play. I don’t know if the Canucks have him in that space, though. Larsen is much more puck mover than a shooter, and the Canucks have him attempting more than half of their shots with the man advantage. 

And even if he had the shot to fulfil that role, it’s so predictable at this stage that teams have clued in and invested a disproportionate amount of their manpower to blocking his shots with the man advantage. Which places the onus firmly on the Canucks’ shoulders to adjust their scheme.

To the Canucks credit, they took their first step towards that end on Saturday. Down a few with nothing to lose, the Canucks altered their first unit to include Troy Stecher alongside Larsen. That was noteworthy for a number of reasons, but most especially because the Canucks had been running a four forward, one defenceman unit to that point in the season.

It also forced them to break from their traditionally ascribed to 1-3-1 formation. Which looks a little something like this:

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The advantages to running a system of this ilk are immediately apparent. If you’re going to run your power play through the point, it forces at least two men into the middle of the ice, or in the case of this still three. That turns the perimeter into a tariff-free zone, where the trigger men can pass among themselves with relative impunity. 

Of course, the pratfalls of this system are equally obvious. Good luck getting the puck to the middle of the ice where shots are most dangerous. Further to that end, just getting pucks through can be an onerous task in and of itself — something the Canucks realize all too well this season.

There isn’t any one size fits all way to run a power play. Where I take umbrage with the Canucks current setup though is that it takes the onus of finishing out of their best players hands and tries to generate the majority of its offence from a point man who hasn’t really demonstrated to this stage in his career that he’s capable of doing that. Particularly not in the context of their scheme.

When the Canucks started to integrate Stecher into their first unit, you could see them shifting their philosophy accordingly, though. They began to run more of an overload system, which looks like this:

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Similar to the 1-3-1, an overload system relies heavily on a strong net-front presence. Dissimilar to the 1-3-1, that net front presence has a lot more freedom in the offensive zone. The F1 (or the foremost forward in the offensive zone) doesn’t necessarily have to act as a screen. Puck retrieval, especially in the form of rebounds, is just as important.

This system opens up the most dangerous areas of the offensive zone but places a heavier burden on the trigger men to be quick in their decision-making. Running an overload system often relies on the five-man unit operating in a sort of rotation to try and create holes and find passing lanes. It’s a puck possession oriented approach that requires quick puck movement, strong coordination and patience.

If one were to focus on the first unit entirely, this scheme appears best suited to their players individual skills. Eriksson isn’t shy of the net, and the Sedins have as strong a cycle game as any pair of forwards in the league. Of course, this might force Sutter from the first unit. He’s not a particularly strong offensive puck possession type player.

But the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, and the Sedins desperately need to be placed in a situation where they can best utilize their skills. I just don’t see that from the Canucks’ current setup. If they keep moving towards an overload system that emphasises quick puck movement, I’d expect improvement to follow not long thereafter.

It’s not like they have anything to lose at this stage trying as much.