Vancouver Canucks: A requisite of speed and odd coaching decisions

VANCOUVER, BC - DECEMBER 6: Craig Smith #15 of the Nashville Predators checks Josh Leivo #17 of the Vancouver Canucks during their NHL game at Rogers Arena December 6, 2018 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver won 5-3. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BC - DECEMBER 6: Craig Smith #15 of the Nashville Predators checks Josh Leivo #17 of the Vancouver Canucks during their NHL game at Rogers Arena December 6, 2018 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver won 5-3. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Speed is a requirement in the NHL and the Vancouver Canucks seem to get that. However, speed is merely one piece of the puzzle and can mask a player’s value.

As many of you have noticed, the Vancouver Canucks have altered their approach this season. Stripping away all the losing and poor defensive play, the team made a fundamental change to produce more offence. Using their speed, they are able to play a more up tempo game off the rush.

The back and forth is a treat for fans to watch and the offence is responding. I was concerned that this team would have trouble scoring goals, but they have roughly kept the same pace as last year. They are in the middle of the pack in lead scoring and their overall defensive play at even strength and on special teams is killing them.

One thing that I noticed is that some of the strangest coaching decisions that I take umbrage with can have a common theme. Let’s go back in time to when Willie Desjardins was the head coach of the Vancouver Canucks.

Among his favourites, the strangest of his head-scratching moves revolved around Jayson Megna. It wasn’t him playing in the lineup that was the issue, it was where. Megna played up and down the lineup, earning top six minutes that should not have happen. But the strangest thing was seeing out late in games when the team was down a goal or putting him on the struggling power play.

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It didn’t make sense. Why would the the coach put someone with limited offensive ability in prime positions to score? The answer was a mix of speed and effort. While Megna was low in the skill department, he was fast. He tried hard and the coach wanted to reward that, but chose the worst way to do it.

That brings me to Travis Green. First, it started with Michael Del Zotto. Objectively one of the worst defencemen on the team last year (and this year too), he got more rope than other player to make mistakes on the ice. We kept hearing about Del Zotto’s physical conditioning and his hitting ability. Nothing changed between last year and this season, yet he’s facing scratches when the Canucks have a healthy lineup.

Why? Because Ben Hutton got in better shape despite playing exactly the same as last year. Both players are roughly the same as they were last year in terms of skill level, yet speed related to conditioning has suddenly made one more valuable. It feels arbitrary and inconsistent. Part of this issue relates to coaches and their perception of players based on age. However, I’m going to ignore that since I think I’ve covered it enough.

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You should have seen this coming, but we’re going to talk about Reid Boucher. He has a lot of trouble sticking in the Canucks lineup for long despite having a heavy shot and better offensive instincts than most of the bottom six employed by this team.

So what holds Boucher back? His speed. There is no denying that Boucher is a step below most other players in the NHL in that department. He is slower, but despite the offensive skill set he can bring to the table, he is on a tight leash due to his lack of speed.

Brendan Leipsic got a lot of chances with this club, so it is odd to hear him complain about his deployment on the team. There is a good reason why is with his fourth organization in three years. Sure, he is quick, but he has yet to show why he separates himself as an NHL player and not just a good AHL player. I do think someone like Boucher has a more useful skillset, but like Leipsic, he’s not very big.

That finally brings me to Josh Leivo. While in Toronto, Leivo was not a regular option in the lineup until this season. Mike Babcock was not a Leivo fan until the William Nylander situation left a hole in his lineup. He gave Leivo and shot and he thrived (relatively speaking). But Leivo only got to show off what he can offer because of a rare opportunity like this one. However, once Nylander signed, Leivo was destined for the waiver wire if not for a weird arrangement where Toronto would trade him if he fell out of the lineup.

Like Boucher, he has a powerful shot and is not the fastest guy. But unlike Leipsic and Boucher, he has size (height). Although, it is interesting to note that Boucher is heavier than Leivo. If only you could combine all three into a single player. You would have someone pretty good taking the best attributes of each. Time will tell how long Leivo will get a spot in the top six, especially with the recent good play of Antoine Roussel. Leivo has been playing less during the ends of games, so it may already be starting.

I think speed is incredibly important in this league. Without achieving a certain minimum, you can’t make it in the modern NHL. However, I don’t think speed gives you a free pass if you offer nothing else. There has to be a balance because ultimately, you want to ice a lineup that gives you the best chance of winning.

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You have to look at net contributions and at the end of the day, I can understand that speed can help you get yourself out of trouble. But if that’s all you bring, how is that different from the player who has size and nothing else? Like I said, you need to look at what a player can offer overall and not just one particular trait that stands out. You’ll be better off for it in the long run.