Realistic ways to improve the Canucks

March 6, 2014 5 minute read

I started this piece before the trade deadline, but many of these ideas still apply, and I have edited the post to reflect new roster changes accordingly.

Sports media is probably one of the best modern examples of propaganda and its effects on readers. People echo what they read or hear like no tomorrow. The team that had back-to-back president’s trophy two seasons ago is now suddenly in full rebuild mode? Reporters love to hint the possibility of big changes because for some reason, hockey fans love changes to their team and always view change, whether in a form of a trade, management firing, or coach replacement, as positive. Let’s step back, calm our emotions and explore realistic, beneficial moves the Canucks can make.

Power Play

When is the last time you remember the Sedins score after a sweet cycle? Probably last season. The Sedins like to slow things down on the power play. Henrik is almost always stickhandling in the corner with no pressure, scanning the ice for opportunities. If you look at strong power play teams like Pittsburgh, you will notice that puck movement is a huge part of their power play. The puck would never be on a stick for more than two seconds, and with fluid puck movement, the defense begins to chase and breakdown, opening up opportunities. Henrik has ran the power play in the corner for as long as I can remember, but the difference between this season and the seasons previous is that no other Canucks on the ice is moving either. When everything is at a standstill, the defense does not have to do any work; Henrik is killing the power play for them. Henrik has always been used to waiting for opportunities to open up, but because his teammates are all standing in relatively the same spots, he can’t do anything. The Canucks need to weave in and out of the defensive formation of the other team or the defensive formation will never change, and thus never break.

Transitions

Neutral zone play by the Canucks is so atrocious it’s not even funny. The Canucks are poor at everything involving the neutral zone, from breakouts, neutral zone traps, zone entries, to dump-ins. Tortorella loves to run neutral zone traps, but the Canucks suck at them. The Canucks would get in formation, then when the opposition walks into the the trap the Canucks don’t converge on to, or “trap”, the puck carrier. Try to pay attention to this the next time the Canucks play, you’ll share my observations.

The Canucks breakout is also awful. Even with a little pressure or few forecheckers, the Canucks just chip the puck over their defensive blue line as soon as they get possession, which directly leads to the ineffectiveness of offensive zone entries by the Canucks. Whichever forward that retrieved the chipped puck at the neutral zone usually has two opposition players already back skating while being hounded by a third player. He then is usually forced to dump the puck in while the rest of the Canucks exit their own zone, which leads to an ineffective forecheck and puck retrieval in the offensive zone after a dump in.

Roster Changes

The strength of the Canucks obviously lie in its defensive depth. With Santorelli out for the season and seven reliable defensemen in Edler, Bieksa, Garrison, Hamhuis, Tanev, Diaz, and Stanton, it would make sense to move one of these defensemen to forward, specifically Edler. Although I believe a defensemen playing 20 minutes is more valuable than a forward playing 20 minutes, in the Canucks’ case, Edler could be more valuable to the team playing a top six role with his excellent passing and big body. The Canucks have the luxury to do this without compromising their defensive core too much, and they won’t have to make a trade to do it. By doing so, the move will also solve another problem. EDIT: I was praising Gillis when he managed to pull off Weise for Diaz, and I thought he had the same idea of moving a defensemen up, but I am obviously wrong.

Ice Time

Here is the ice time per game for Canucks forwards:

Forward Ice Time per Game
Kesler  22:12
D. Sedin 21:29
H. Sedin 21:12
Higgins 19:10
Santorelli 18:33
Burrows 18:21
Hansen 15:14
Richardson 14:41
Schroeder 14:36
Booth 13:22
Kassian 12:26
Sestito 6:17
Lain 5:13

If you look at other teams in the league, no other teams have three forwards that play over 21 minutes, or even 20 minutes a game. No other team lean as much as the Canucks do on their top players. If you look at past Canucks seasons (pre-Tortorella), the Sedins have never played over 20 minutes, and Kesler has  never played over 21 minutes. Tortorella needs to distribute his forwards ice time more evenly, and the Canucks need a better bottom six. With the move of Edler, they can have him absorb some of the ice time and create a better bottom six by pushing a current top six player down.

Furthermore, Tortorella needs to save the Sedins’ energy by not playing them on the PK and deploy them in the offensive zone more often. By doing so, he can immediately cut down on their time on ice and allow them to play harder and a higher percentage of their ice time in the offensive zone, where they are most valuable.

EDIT: Now that Diaz has been traded, the defensive core won’t be as strong and deep, but I still think Edler would be more useful to this team at forward than defense. Contrary to popular opinion, I thought the Luongo trade was an excellent move. Sure, I still think the organization was a dick to their best goalie in franchise history by mistreating him so badly in the past two years, but the trade was excellent none the less. With a strong third line center to replace Richardson, the Canucks can further even out their ice times. Lack’s excellent play this season made Luongo expendable. I believe this team is better as an result of the trade, even though we might not have gotten market value for our goaltender.

Here is what the lines could look like with Edler at forward:

FORWARDS
Alexander Edler Henrik Sedin  Alexandre Burrows
Chris Higgins Ryan Kesler Janik Hansen
Brad Richardson Shawn Matthias Zack Kassian
Zac Dalpe Jordan Schroeder David Booth
Tom Sestito Kellan Lain

DEFENSEMEN
Dan Hamhuis Chris Tanev
Jason Garrison Kevin Bieksa
Yannick Weber Ryan Stanton

Imagine how much deeper the lineup would be if Diaz had stayed and Daniel and Santorelli wasn’t injured. The Canucks now have four fairly strong lines and three decent defensemen-pairs. With these changes, I’m sure the Canucks will solve their scoring problem, all while keeping the option of moving Edler back on defense if another defensemen gets injured.

When I started writing this post, I didn’t mean to solely bash Tortorella, but as I wrote, I realize that most of the Canucks’ problem stem from him. After all, he is the biggest change to this team from when the Canucks were division winners to playoff chasers (and don’t tell me it’s because of the realignment, because that is not a significant factor in the Canucks decline and I will proof it in another post). Cory Schneider’s trade was a big move, but goaltending isn’t why we are losing.

To conclude this post, I will discuss Tortorella’s coaching strength, the penalty kill. The Canucks are so effective at PK because they pressure the puck when it’s on the half-boards. The team trusts that their goalie can save blue line slapshots, as they should, and understand that most PP goals are scored after fluid passing that usually begins from the half-boards. Not only that, but, at the half-boards, half of the other team is also usually behind the short side neutral zone-post line (imagine a line that runs from the shortside post to the short side neutral zone faceoff dot), and the Canucks can pressure the puck carrier without compromising or opening options for the opposition. If only they can apply the understanding of the danger of passing plays on to their power play, and their effective convergence on to the puck carrier on to their neutral zone traps.