An individual could search, though not find, a year in which the Vancouver Canucks had better success with special teams.
Perhaps even more intriguing than when the Canucks may have had better specials teams, is why now? What things have changed, boosting a perennially mediocre special teams club to an elite level? Though there are obviously many reasons that underline their success, there are a few in particular that tip the scales in my humble opinion.
1. Management keeping the core players intact
There will be those that don’t feel this to be as important as it is, but the familiarity and consistency that has been achieved is born of time spent together. Even reaching back to Marc Crawford’s tenure as head coach, the core group wasn’t together as long as this group has been. Naslund, Morrison and Bertuzzi had a lot of chemistry, but the Sedins and Kesler have been dynamite. No matter which defensive tandem mans the blue line, it always seems like the puck is being distributed quickly and efficiently.
2. Individual growth/maturation of special teams players
The team is averaging one power play goal a game. It’s a very reassuring thought for coaches to know that, on pretty much any given night, their team will score a goal with the man advantage. The Sedins are tied for 3rd in the league for points, both with 55, only 2 behind Steven Stamkos. Daniel is second in the league in power play goals with 11, also 2 back of Steven Stamkos. Ryan Kesler is on pace (46 – pace) to smash his previous best in goals, 26. More on his insertion into the top line powerplay in a moment. Though it really started to unfurl last season, Manny Malhotra has really found his niche, and his dominance in the faceoff circle has given the Canucks a decided edge, around 63% of the time. Also, Jannik Hansen has evolved into a completely dependable penalty killer, reminiscent of Alex Burrows’ evolution a few years prior.
3. Coaching staff prowess
When Newell Brown was brought in rather unceremoniously in the offseason (from the Anaheim Ducks organization) as an assistant coach, nobody really knew what to expect. Now at the halfway point of the season, the results are speaking for themselves. During a meeting with coach Alain Vigneault, he suggested that Kesler be added to the top powerplay line. The results have been better than anyone could have hoped. Kesler’s fast, tenacious play in front of the net has wreaked havoc for opposition goaltenders. Between the screens and deflections he provides and the constant lateral movement necessary for a goalie to keep square to the Sedins, something is bound to give. Vigneault also continues to find the right combinations on the penalty kills, but careful not to overload players, particularly Kesler who performs both functions.
Currently, the Canucks trail the Chicago Blackhawks by 0.1% efficiency as the top powerplay in the League. They’ve killed over 85% of opposition powerplays, good enough for 4th in the NHL. Even though there’s a natural curiosity to see how they fare over the next half of the season, it seems safe to assume those numbers won’t fall drastically. The personnel is in place, the chemistry is there, and the systems set in place by the coaching staff are effective and hard to defend against. The only concern some Canucks fans will voice is that they hope the special teams don’t desert them in the playoffs, the same way they did against the L.A. Kings, and the Chicago Blackhawks.