Iain MacIntyre: Canucks’ power play problems persist under Pearn

 

 
 
 
 
Vancouver Canucks work their power play against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Rogers Arena in Vancouver on March 19, 2015.
 
 

Vancouver Canucks work their power play against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Rogers Arena in Vancouver on March 19, 2015.

Photograph by: Mark van Manen, PNG

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It is neither accurate nor particularly newsworthy to declare that the power play is the elephant in the Vancouver Canucks’ living room.

The power play pachyderm showed up three years ago, bred and multiplied, and now there are elephants all over the house. The only thing on TV is Babar, the pantry is filled with peanuts and the most annoying development is Animal Planet’s Austin Stevens has lodged himself under the couch and won’t shut up or stop taking photos.

A struggling Canucks power play is not new. What’s newsworthy is that the power play “slump” is nearing the end of its third season, under three different head coaches and three different assistants charged with fixing it, and is getting statistically worse even as the National Hockey League team has elevated its game as it races for a playoff spot.

“The one thing that we are well aware of as a group of coaches is that our power play has been protected by the fact that our penalty kill has been excellent,” Canucks assistant coach Perry Pearn says. “Certainly, it’s not something that sits on us lightly.”

Directed by Pearn and new head coach Willie Desjardins, a Canucks power play that was 26th among 30 NHL teams last season looked re-energized and reloaded in the fall, scoring 17 times on 80 chances through Vancouver’s first 25 games.

The unit was still scoring at a 20.3 per cent clip, tied for 11th in the league, after a 2-for-4 performance during a 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 3.

That was up considerably from last season when the Canucks’ power play finished at 15.2 per cent, down further from a poor 15.8 per cent efficiency in 2012-13.

But since the third day of 2015, Vancouver’s power play has all but vanished, going 11-for-91 or 12.1 per cent. For context, consider that a 12.1 per cent success rate over the course of the season would put the Canucks just above the Buffalo Sabres’ league-worst power play of 11.6 per cent (before Friday’s NHL schedule), and behind 29th-ranked Colorado Avalanche’s 13.8 per cent.

Special teams are a package deal and, as Pearn notes, the Canucks’ outstanding penalty-killing unit, ranked third at 85.7 per cent after Thursday’s dismal 6-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, has offset the 21st-ranked power play.

But with the playoffs only a month away, there is growing uneasiness about the power play’s unending struggle and how the Canucks will score enough goals to win if they’re not generating any with the man-advantage.

“When it comes down to it, the power play is pretty simple,” defenceman and first-unit pointman Alex Edler says. “You work hard and get pucks to the net. That’s what we have to do. What we have to focus on is not scoring goals, but creating momentum, creating scoring chances, getting pucks to the net. When we get those, the results will come.”

In the four years since the Canucks were the most lethal team in the NHL skating 5-on-4, Edler and the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, have been fixtures on the power play.

But the group has been struggling to score for most of the last three years.

Some issues this season:

• The NHL’s best power plays are constantly in motion and force defenders to move, opening shooting lanes; the Canucks’ top unit is often static — five guys standing on islands.

• The Sedins’ cycle/rotation from the right side has become predictable and the more precise and deliberate the brothers try to play, the slower the puck moves.

• The Canucks’ second power-play unit has scored only a handful of goals, putting all the pressure on the first unit.

• Edler has a cannon shot but isn’t the classic puck-distributing quarterback at the blue-line the Canucks have lacked for most of their history.

• The Canucks are 28th in the NHL on faceoffs with a win rate of 47.3 per cent, and often begin power plays by losing a draw and skating back to their end to retrieve the puck.

• With two or fewer power plays in 26 out of 54 games since Remembrance Day, the Canucks simply don’t generate enough at-bats with the man-advantage to make adjustments and play their way out of problems.

“You need to get three or four a game,” winger Alex Burrows says. “Then you start feeling the puck, start making reads on how the other team plays. You pick up on their stick lanes, the shooting lanes. As much as you (scout) it on video, it’s not the same as when you’re out there and see things you might be able to take advantage of on your second or third power play. We need to find ways to generate more power plays on our side.”

How critical is this?

In these 26 games the last four months when the Canucks have had two or fewer advantages, their power play is 2-for-34, or a putrid 5.9 per cent. Subtract this astonishing sample from their overall numbers, and the Canucks’ power play jumps to 10th from 21st in the NHL, from 17.1 per cent efficiency to 19.3.

There is another difficult-to-quantify issue: the Danny Factor.

For more than a decade after the Sedins entered the NHL, Henrik was the passer and Danny the shooter. Now both are setup men. Daniel and Henrik are tied this season with 15 goals and 46 assists each.

When Danny Sedin won the NHL scoring title in 2010-11 with 41 goals and 104 points, he had 18 goals on the power play. In this season and the last two, he has 12 power play goals. That’s 12 power play goals in 190 games.

What happened? Duncan Keith happened.

The Chicago Blackhawks defenceman’s vicious elbow that concussed Sedin on March 21, 2012 — three years ago today — is the point at which Sedin’s statistical landscape changed.

The three seasons before that injury, Sedin had a shooting percentage of 13.89 per cent. In three years since, he has scored on only 7.76 per cent of his shots. And he is taking fewer shots: 2.74 per game this season, down from a 3.24 the year he won the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion.

Sedin has argued emphatically that there are no lasting effects from Keith’s elbow and that his shot is the same as it was.

But although Daniel is still an elite offensive player, the Canucks’ power play is down a finisher. Winger Radim Vrbata, signed as a free agent before this season, is the Canucks’ only pure shooter and leads the team with 26 goals, 10 of them with the man-advantage.

Pearn wants everyone to shoot more and admits he’d like the Sedins to move the puck quicker at times.

“I certainly would,” he said. “And they’re aware of that. But these are the same guys you’re talking about that in 2011 had the best power play in the league. So for me to come along or Willie to come along and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to move it quicker,’ they have a lot of ammunition to say back to us that they’ve been successful doing it this way.”

Asked about holding onto the puck and becoming predictable with the Sedin give-and-go, Daniel said: “When we’ve been successful, this is what we do. That’s kind of our setup. But we’re too easy to read when that’s the only thing we do out there. For our group, it’s about using both sides of the ice. We need to get Vrbie (Vrbata) setting up plays on his side, too. That would open up things for us.”

A rival team’s scout observed recently at Rogers Arena: “The Canucks have defencemen who can handle the puck (at the point) but they don’t seem to generate shots from there. The Sedins try to make plays down low, but they’re playing three against four.”

Henrik Sedin says, correctly, that the Canucks do a lot of good things on the power play. After retrieving the puck, they generally get through the neutral zone and across the opposition blue-line with it.

It is what happens once the power play sets up that is usually the problem.

“I don’t think you could say our issue is breaking out or entering the zone on the power play — with either group,” Pearn says. “If you compared our power play to other power plays in the league, we would stack up pretty well. The only thing that I see we could be better at is getting more shots to the net and being comfortable with attacking the net off the rebounds we create. That’s something we’ve certainly been trying to sell all year.”

The Canucks are 14-1-0 this season when outscoring opponents on special teams. They’re 5-11-1 when their power play is outscored, as it was Thursday. The power play is a titanic factor in determining whether the Canucks win or lose.

“We talk about it all the time,” Henrik says.

“I mean, we’ve shown we can be really good. But it seems we get into these funks where we can’t score. And that’s tough because if you have that in the playoffs, you can’t win.”

imacintyre@vancouversun.comTwitter.com/imacvansun

 
 
 
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Vancouver Canucks work their power play against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Rogers Arena in Vancouver on March 19, 2015.
 

Vancouver Canucks work their power play against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Rogers Arena in Vancouver on March 19, 2015.

Photograph by: Mark van Manen, PNG

 
Vancouver Canucks work their power play against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Rogers Arena in Vancouver on March 19, 2015.
While fans were fuming Thursday about the Canucks’ loss to the Blue Jackets, the bigger issue is the team’s inability to score on the power play.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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