Vancouver Canucks: Fixing the Struggling Power Play

Dec 8, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA;Vancouver Canucks center Henrik Sedin (33), defenseman Luca Sbisa (5) and defenseman Troy Stecher (51) celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-1 at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 8, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA;Vancouver Canucks center Henrik Sedin (33), defenseman Luca Sbisa (5) and defenseman Troy Stecher (51) celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-1 at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

A lack of success on the man advantage is not their only problem, but the Vancouver Canucks could be much better off if they scored on the power play every once in awhile.

The Vancouver Canucks have been struggling on the power play all season long. Their 13.9 percent success rate ranks 29th in the league — only the Colorado Avalanche is even worse. You can be sure that’s not what Canucks management envisioned when they signed Loui Eriksson last summer.

A power-play unit with Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Eriksson was one of Team Sweden’s biggest assets during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. But for whatever reason, it never worked out in Vancouver. Neither did other combinations.

Game after game, we witness Canucks power-play units that not only fail to execute plays, but they don’t even have ideas that would get them in scoring positions. I realised the seriousness of that once again when I saw a PP-sequence on Twitter, shared by Grady Sas.

Sas called it “one of the best 5v4 sequences the Canucks have had all season long” and, unfortunately, he is not wrong. I am saying “unfortunately” here, because this sequence does not show a dangerous power-play unit.

In the sequence shared by Sas, the Canucks spend a lot of time with the puck and in the offensive zone. As long as that is the case, their opponents — here the Los Angeles Kings — cannot score, which is a good start. But when it comes to creating shooting lanes and dangerous scoring chances, the Canucks fail to execute.

The sequence above shows a Canucks team that is either lucky enough to hang on to the puck or one that is extremely static, playing passes back and forth without creating room or a scoring threat. I have found that to be the theme of this season’s Canucks power play.

So, let’s take a look at a couple of other Canucks sequences as well as ways to fix that power play.

Static Passing

Here is a sequence from Vancouver’s 2-1 loss against the Winnipeg Jets on March 26.

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The Canucks win the faceoff and get into formation right away. Sort of, anyway.

Instead of taking the fastest route to their 1-3-1 formation, the Canucks set up in a 3-2, with the three forwards all on or at the goal line and defencemen Chris Tanev and Alex Edler at the blue line. That way, they create space for themselves because the penalty-killing unit needs to cover the net and the three forwards around it. The Jets forwards cannot pressure Tanev or Edler at the blue line without leaving any attackers uncovered.

But what do the Canucks do with that extra room? First, they play seven (!) passes between Edler, Tanev and Daniel Sedin, who is positioned at the right-hand boards. Brock Boeser keeps getting open on the other wing, Henrik Sedin screens the goalie — but neither one of them contributes to the play, mostly because the other three are playing their passing games. That is what the 3-2 often looks like, especially when there is little movement.

Only with their eighth pass, played from Daniel to Henrik — 20 (!) seconds into the sequence — they start to move and build a 1-3-1 formation. But even the way they get there looks rather random.

First, Tanev sets up in the middle of the blue line, with Edler standing in his way. Then Edler moves over to the left-hand side, “stealing” Boeser’s position. Only when the twins switch spots, Boeser sees the opening in the middle and moves in.

Now, that kind of movement is extremely important on the power play because it makes defensive coverage much harder. But this doesn’t look like everyone was on the same page, and Tanev’s shot was the result of Adam Lowry‘s bad positioning/anticipation rather than Vancouver’s passing plays. It’s just too static most of the time.

Lucky Goals

Despite their mighty power-play struggles, the Canucks do capitalise on the man advantage occasionally. But, and I don’t find this surprising, many if not most of those goals are products of luck as well.

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On March 25, during Boeser’s NHL debut, the Canucks scored a power-play goal against the Minnesota Wild.

Troy Stecher carries the puck out of the Canucks zone and plays a zone-entry pass to Bo Horvat. To this point, everything is fine.

Horvat knows Stecher is behind him for support, so he plays a blind pass back to the blue line. But, the pass is barely strong enough to reach Stecher and almost gets intercepted. Stecher pokes the puck through, another defender barely misses, Reid Boucher just tries to get it to the net. One rebound, another rebound — and the puck is in the net.

This goal was a product of pure luck, yet it currently seems to be Vancouver’s only way to score on the power play.

How Other Teams Are Successful

The Buffalo Sabres are currently the NHL’s best power-play team, with a conversion rate of 24.9 percent. In other words, they score on roughly one out of four attempts.

There isn’t one power-play concept that guarantees success. If there was, there wouldn’t be such big differences between the best and the worst PP-team.

So, I want to take a look at just two more video sequences that show ways to generate scoring chances on the man advantage.

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I like this Sabres goal against the Detroit Red Wings a lot, because it looks very much like the Canucks sequence against the Jets. The big difference, however, is that the Sabres play it less statically, faster and successfully.

Like the Canucks, the Sabres set up in a 3-2 formation first. But unlike Daniel Sedin, who stays at the goal line for most of the Canucks-Jets sequence, the Sabres wingers position themselves at the faceoff dot and the top of the circle, respectively, waiting to get into a 1-3-1 quickly.

The way they get there looks planned as well, and you can bet it was planned that exact way. Rasmus Ristolainen pulls into the middle with the puck — like Tanev did. But when he gets there, Ristolainen doesn’t get into Ryan O’Reilly‘s way, as O’Reilly fills in as a fourth forward. Instead, O’Reilly gets open at the boards and receives a pass.

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Next, O’Reilly moves towards the middle with the puck. Not because he sees an opening — there is none — but to force the penalty killers to stay centred and pressure him, leaving Jack Eichel open at the left circle. O’Reilly then sets Eichel up for a one-timer that finds the back of the net.

This sequence shows that the Canucks aren’t using a stupid concept that prevents them from succeeding. They just aren’t executing it the right way, mostly because they are much too static.

As soon as Daniel played a pass to Henrik and the two exchanged their positions, the defensive coverage got harder and the Canucks found a way to get a shot at the net. That is exactly what the Sabres did in the sequence above as well: get moving and force the penalty killers to react.

Alternative Set-Ups

As said, there isn’t one power-play strategy that guarantees success, and there isn’t one formation that does either. For example, teams can stay in a 3-2 formation — or rather make it a 2-1-2 — and succeed. Take SKA St. Petersburg for an example.

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SKA set up in a 2-1-2, which is rather uncommon but can be extremely successful. While most teams pick the 1-3-1, attempting to get a player set up for a one-timer at one of the circles, the most important part in a 2-1-2 formation is the play behind the net.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s PK-unit stays in a tight box, making sure they don’t allow any passes into the slot. In order to ensure all passing lanes to the slot are closed, they have to face the puck carriers behind the net. That allows one of the blueliners, in this case Ilya Kovalchuk, to sneak into a scoring position and get a shot at the net.

What It Means

So, now we have seen one sequence of a bad Canucks power play, one of a well-executed Sabres PP and one example for a nice power-play goal in the KHL. But what does it all tell us?

More from The Canuck Way

First, it’s not like the Canucks are using an extremely weird system or formation that doesn’t allow them to score. They usually start out in a 3-2 that transitions to a 1-3-1, which is what most teams do. The only thing wrong is the execution.

I don’t know whether this is bad coaching or the players’ fault, but the Canucks’ power play is too static. They just don’t move around and play endless passing sequences with zero effect. The first step in the right direction would be to get moving — that includes all five skaters.

Second, the Canucks need some set plays. Every team plays it differently, and there are endless options. This part is 100 percent coaching — get creative, draw up plays and practice them. Keep the power-play units together without changing the personnel too often, so that everyone knows their role and everyone knows what their teammates will do in any given situation.

And if all else fails, try something unique. If you can’t create scoring chances in a 1-3-1 formation with the Sedin twins and Loui Eriksson on your roster, try something different. Get creative.

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Henrik and Daniel Sedin behind the net, Eriksson in the slot, Troy Stecher and Reid Boucher, Nikolay Goldobin, Sven Baertschi, Ben Hutton or Alex Edler at the blue line. They’ve got nothing to lose.

The Vancouver Canucks have many issues and the power play is certainly one of them. They need to change it up — the possibilities are endless.