Canucks tap Dan Hamhuis to fix power-play flop
Tinkering Torts: Smaller cannon on the blue line raises eyebrows
Vancouver Canucks defenceman Dan Hamhuis (left) and Ryan Kesler celebrate after Kesler scored a rare power-play goal against the Coyotes on Tuesday at Jobing.com Arena in Phoenix, Ariz.
Photograph by: Christian Petersen, Getty Images
PHOENIX, Ariz. — Dan Hamhuis won the lottery. But it’s the Vancouver Canucks’ power play that needs to cash in.
With a rare man-advantage goal in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, the Canucks will stick for now with coach John Tortorella’s new power-play formation. It looks a lot like one of old coach Alain Vigneault’s power-play formations: four forwards and a lone defenceman, set up in middle of the blue-line, who tries to load one-timers for Ryan Kesler.
The key difference — in fact, the only one — from last season’s version of this formation is that the blueliner is Hamhuis.
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Best known in the National Hockey League for his shutdown role as a reliable defender, Hamhuis possesses, arguably, only the third- or fourth-hardest slapshot among Canuck defencemen.
Alex Edler, last season’s power-play ace, shoots it harder than Hamhuis. So does Jason Garrison, whose spectacular debut on the first unit a month ago was believed by some to be the sure-fire launch of a dominant season for the Canucks’ 5-on-4 unit.
Garrison’s opening-night blast in San Jose, where the Canucks play Thursday night (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet Vancouver, Team 1040) was also supposed to be evidence of Vigneault’s doltishness for stubbornly refusing to use Garrison on the top unit last season when the Vancouver power play was 22nd in the league at 15.8 per cent efficiency.
The Canucks’ power play on Wednesday is still a dismal 10.9 per cent, 26th among 30 teams.
We’re not suggesting for a second that this is Garrison’s fault. His point shot is heavy and accurate and tends to hurt opponents brave enough to stand in front of it. Garrison also leads Canuck defencemen with nine points in 17 games. But, clearly, his presence on the power play was no magical elixir.
For now, Garrison is on the second unit, opposite Edler. And defenceman Kevin Bieksa, who is having a strong season, is off the power play entirely.
“This isn’t the first time in my career I’ve been taken off the power play,” Bieksa said after Wednesday’s practice in Arizona, shortly before the Canucks flew to San Jose for their second of four road games against formidable Pacific Division rivals. “I’m OK with it. I’ll sit and wait for my turn and hopefully the power play can get going. They’re going to try new things for sure.”
Tortorella is going to try new things for sure.
His choice of Hamhuis over Garrison and Edler is interesting on several levels. Beyond the coach’s willingness to tinker, it’s unconventional to go with a smaller cannon on the blue line. It also reflects how much confidence Tortorella has in Hamhuis, the Canadian Olympic candidate who until two or three weeks ago was tripping over the puck and appeared to be playing without confidence while trying to understand the Canucks’ new system.
“I’m a lot more comfortable,” Hamhuis said. “It just took some time to adjust. I wasn’t thinking about the Olympics or anything else. I was just trying to learn (the system). With a new coaching staff, you always want to make a good impression and maybe I was trying too hard. But I feel like I’m back to where I was and letting the game come to me.”
Tortorella said before the Phoenix game: “He’s a very intellectual player. We’ve gone over a lot of different things, especially in rush coverages and situations like that. They’re a little bit different than he is used to. I think he has taken it in. I think he understands it now. I just think he’s allowing himself to play and you see the marked difference in his play. It’s instinctive now; he’s not thinking.”
Asked Wednesday about using Hamhuis on the top power-play unit when there are better shots on the Canucks, the coach said: “Better shots, yes, there certainly is. But as far as quarterbacking, settling it down, getting the middle of the ice, which is very important, I think he’s one of our best. His game has grown. His confidence is there. He adds that dimension as far as composure, both in the (offensive) zone and, if we do have some breakdowns, defensively.”
With four forwards on the ice, Hamhuis’s defensive instincts are important.
He scored at even strength Tuesday with a wrist shot that floated unseen past Phoenix goalie Mike Smith. On the power play, Hamhuis probably doesn’t need to blow pucks past goalies from 60 feet. For now, Kesler is the focal point, positioned on his opposite wing for one-timers teed up by Henrik Sedin and Hamhuis.
As always, the power play’s overriding strategy is to get pucks on net and crash for rebounds.
It is still bombs-away for Garrison on the second unit.
“We needed to change something up and get a spark back,” Garrison said. “It was good to get that one last night. The good thing about this group is you can substitute players and everybody is rooting for everybody else. At the end of the day, we just want to win. And we have been winning games, but we’ve got to make sure our power play gets goals, as well.”
Nearly one-quarter of the way through their season, the Canucks are just 6-for-59 with the man-advantage. It went 2-for-31 over four weeks until scoring on its first of nine tries in Saturday’s 4-0 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Kesler’s second-period blast against the Coyotes gave the Canucks’ power play goals in consecutive games for the first time since the season’s opening weekend.
“We’d like to score more goals,” Tortorella said. “I think we haven’t had much puck luck as far as rebounds. But for 90 per cent of our power plays, we have controlled (the puck) in the end zone. Our entries have been really good. We just have not had the finish, and I think a little puck luck has to come with that. A little change like we’ve done here, hopefully it will spark it.”
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