Twenty-nine games into the 2016-17 season, we’re learning more and more about who the Canucks are, and what they’re good at.
For instance, they’re really really good (or lucky?) at 3-on-3 hockey, winning four and losing just once in overtime this season.
An area where they’re a lot worse, is 5-on-4 and 5-on-3 hockey, the power play.
The Canucks power play has become a focal point with this team, and a frustration for everyone involved. Vancouver is clicking at a 13.8% clip with the man advantage this season, good for third-worst in the NHL.
That’s not good.
On Sunday night, their power play struggles reached a new level.
Not only did the Canucks not score a goal in five opportunities at 5-on-4, they didn’t even come close. In 10 minutes of power play time, the Canucks had only one shot on goal. The lone shot was from Loui Eriksson, who put a puck on net from the half wall on the second half of the final power play of the night.
So what gives? Why can’t this team score with the man advantage?
Let’s dive in.
A major issue with Vancouver’s power play is the fact that they don’t have enough quality right-handed shooters.
There’s more than one recipe for a successful power play, but for a team that trots out the Sedins – two playmaking left-shot players who typically line up on the right side – having right-handed shooters that can one-time shots is vitally important.
The Canucks were never more prolific on the power play than in 2010-11 when they led the league with the man advantage. For much of that season, the Sedins had Ryan Kesler and Mikael Samuelsson, two right-handers with excellent shots to feed on the first unit power play. When Samuelsson went down with an injury in the playoffs, Sami Salo stepped up and was great, unloading bombs with his right-handed canon.
Troy Stecher is a righty, and has been a real find on the blueline. After that, it’s been a struggle. Brandon Sutter has been stapled to the first unit this season, likely because he’s right-handed.
The problem? I can think of few times where Sutter has tested goalies with a one-timer on the power play.
Here’s a look at a typical alignment.
That’s Henrik (#33) with the puck. Henrik is in no danger to score from that position, while Daniel is not in a dangerous area either, on the right. Sutter is in front of the net, where he could convert on a slap pass, which would be difficult given he’s got his back facing goal. Ben Hutton is sneaking down on the far side, which could work, but is a low percentage play. Stecher is just out of the screen on the left at the point.
If Sutter, or the player in Sutter’s spot, could be a real threat in the middle, it would do a world of good. The problem? Whether it’s Henrik or Daniel passing him the puck, it’s advantage to be right-handed.
Other right-handed options to replace Sutter include Jannik Hansen, who has just two power play goals in his career; Jake Virtanen, who is in Utica; and Jack Skille, who is Jack Skille.
If you didn’t care about one-timers, then replacing Sutter with Eriksson is an obvious move. The problem: who’s going to shoot the puck?
Eriksson is more of a net-front presence, who converts off rebounds and deflections. He needs someone else to put pucks on net for him
Henrik Sedin has four shots on the power play this season, so it’s not going to be him.
Daniel Sedin leads the team in power play goals with four, and power play shots with 20. But he’s still very much a playmaker by nature.
Troy Stecher loves to shoot the puck from the point, but the team could be in trouble if a rookie defenceman is their triggerman.
If the Sedins are unable to thread the needle for pinpoint passes down low, the team needs to be able to keep it simple.
The tried and tested strategy of getting a shot on net with traffic in front is something the Canucks could be better at.
That’s where Loui Eriksson could be better utilized as well.
Eriksson in front of the net, with Stecher peppering goaltenders could be a strategy that works.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Henrik and Daniel Sedin are not getting any younger.
The Twins turned 36 in September.
It’s not their fault – father time catches up with everyone – but can they make a power play tick like they used to?
The overall theme to this article to this point has been personnel. The Canucks don’t have a great team on paper, we know this, but you don’t need a bunch of all-stars to have a successful power play.
It’s counterintuitive, but we see it every year.
The team with the best power play in the NHL this season is the Columbus Blue Jackets. Wait, am I giving John Tortorella credit? Why yes, yes I am. Columbus’ first unit power play currently consists of Nick Foligno, Sam Gagner, Cam Atkinson, Zach Werenski, and Alexander Wennberg.
Last year, Tampa Bay finished with the league’s third-worst power play. The New Jersey Devils, who missed the playoffs and were dead-last in overall goals, finished ninth with the man advantage.
So no team is a lost cause.
The power play is a time to run set plays and use different formations. Picking the right mix of players is also important. These are tactical decisions decided by the coaching staff.
The Canucks will have an uphill climb if they hope to battle for a playoff spot, and it only gets tougher for them if their power play can’t bail them out of a few more games.