The Vancouver Canucks’ last game on Sunday night against the Minnesota Wild was the 24th game on the schedule, marking the halfway point in Gary Bettman’s abbreviated (2012)/2013 NHL season.
Normally by the halfway point of the year, the Canucks are firmly entrenched in first place in the Northwest Division, and in the past couple years, have been well on their way to consecutive Presidents’ Trophies (we all know how that worked out for them in the playoffs). Granted, we are dealing with a sample size of only 24 games this year as opposed to 41 games in a normal season, but this does seem like a good place to take stock of where the Canucks are at and what their prospects might be for the rest of the season.
The Canucks have been on a definite slide in the most recent section of their schedule, with a record of only 3-5-4 in their last 12 games. This slide has most observers clamoring for change, whether it be a change in the roster or behind the bench. It should be noted here that for those who believe in advanced hockey statistics, the guys at Canucks Army are of the belief that this is one of the Canucks’ better teams in the Mike Gillis era at 5 on 5. I can’t say that this team gives me warm fuzzies watching them at even strength, but I do believe in the underlying metrics behind this sort of analysis – and further, given how much parity there is in the league in this salary cap era, the margins between positive and negative results, especially at even strength, are very small.
Against the backdrop of a number of issues surrounding the team (goaltending situation, Ryan Kesler injury, etc.), two things have really stuck out for me this season in thinking about the team’s performance. First, the power play is struggling like we’ve not seen it struggle in recent years. Today, we’ll delve into this a little bit and try to quantify just how much it’s hurting the team and what mistakes the team has made, tactically, that might have contributed to it’s inefficiency.
Second is the team’s performance outside the Northwest Division, which is embodied in this most recent slide. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at what this really means for the team, and if this slump could actually somehow be a good thing for the team in the long term.
But first – the power play.
POWER PLAY WOES
It’s obvious to anyone that has watched the Canucks over the past number of years that the power play is just killing them this season.
This decreased efficiency actually began just before the halfway point of the 2011-2012 season. Starting with a game in Columbus on December 13, 2011 (a game which they lost 2-1 in a shootout to the horrible Blue Jackets), the Canucks went the rest of the season (58 games, including the 5 playoff games) with only 27 PP goals in 183 attempts. That is a woeful 14.8% efficiency rate. Many people point to the Boston game in early January 2012 as the Canucks turning point last year, but the futility on the power play actually began about a month earlier. After the Boston game, the Canucks were 13.4% on the PP.
We have unfortunately seen a continuation in this trend this season. The Canucks PP is currently in a 0 for 24 slump over the last nine games, and overall is converting at a pedestrian 15.1%, going 14 for 93 so far this season. Simply, that isn’t good enough for this team to win a lot of games.
Another angle which is more difficult to quantify is the impact of the PP not scoring when it’s “needed”. That said, it has seemed that often, when the Canucks could really use a timely PP goal, it just hasn’t been able to deliver. In an attempt to analyze this, I went back through all the Canucks’ games this year in an attempt to determine how many times the Canucks have had a PP in the third period, when they were either down by a goal, tied, or up by a goal. In my opinion, these three scenarios are important times for the PP to score – where it would either tie the game, take a lead, or extend a one goal lead into a typically insurmountable two-goal, third period lead.
Not surprisingly, I found the PP has failed on a colossal basis on that front this season, going 1 for 18 in those scenarios. I extended this a bit and found that, assuming timely PP goals would have changed a game’s outcome, the Canucks have lost a full 7 points in the standings due to these PP failures. Even more concerning is that they have given their opponents a further 10 points in the standings (typically this occurs because the PP doesn’t score, the other team ties, and then wins in OT or SO). That’s a point differential of 17 in the standings!
The only conclusion that can be drawn is that, indeed, the Canucks lack of power play success – for so long, a staple of this current team – is really killing them. It’s not “punishing the other team” when they take penalties, it’s not being a difference maker in close games, and it’s not helping the team get out in front of their opponents. While their play at 5 on 5 has generally been sufficient, as soon as the goaltending goes from superb to merely mortal, without any power play scoring to speak of, the team is in trouble – which is exactly what we’ve been seeing of late.
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE?
The bigger question which needs to be solved quickly is why this has occurred. We’ve now gone a full 82 games, or an entire regular season, with the Canucks’ power play looking anemic. It’s here where I really question the coaching staff and some of their decisions. In order:
1) Continuing to use the neutral-zone drop pass as a tactic when it’s been clear, for months, that the other team is expecting it;
2) Failing to deploy Jason Garrison (he who scored 9 PP goals last year) on the first-unit PP;
3) When Garrison is out there, using him on the left point where he’s unable to unload his huge shot;
4) Using Daniel Sedin at the point when his strength is down low;
5) Insisting on leaving Alex Edler on the first unit in the face of horrible performance in this role;
6) Using Jordan Schroeder at the point;
7) Failing to instruct the team, when struggling, to just generate shots at the goal and crash the net.
Points 2 and 3 are really concerning to me. The team was lucky to sign Garrison this off-season, as he was a highly sought after free agent. They paid a premium for him because, in addition to being a good defenseman, he has an extremely heavy shot and has exhibited the ability to score on the PP. So AV then leaves him on the bench after he struggles in his first few games, while Edler continues to play a regular shift, including first unit PP time, when he struggles night after night after night? It’s non-sensical at best.
There are a number of other things that the coaching staff could change in order to kickstart the unit, but they are the professional coaches so I’ll leave that to them. I guess it’s concerning when the only changes that one sees are of the non-sensical variety, like putting Daniel at the point, or using a rookie back there.
Regardless of the answers, if the coaching staff doesn’t get the PP figured out, this team just can’t be successful. So here’s hoping they make some effective changes and the players start to perform at a level closer to what history would suggest they are capable of. I suspect if the Canucks can return to being a top six PP league-wide, wins will start to come much more easily.
Tomorrow, I’ll discuss whether this current slump could somehow benefit the team in the long run.