The man advantage hasn’t been much of an advantage for the Canucks lately.
The Canucks have been involved in a lot of one-goal games this season: 31 of their 61 games have been decided by one goal, third to the Detroit Red Wings (33) and New York Rangers (32) this season. That means they have very little margin for error, as one goal can so frequently mean the difference.
When the Canucks’ power play struggles, then, it can make a huge difference.
Since the Canucks scored two power play goals against the Ottawa Senators at the beginning of 2019, they’ve scored just four power play goals in 18 games. They’re 4-for-53 in that time, a power play percentage of 7.55%.
That’s appalling. The worst power play percentage in NHL history over a full season is 9.35%, held by the 1997-98 Tampa Bay Lightning. Fortunately for the Canucks, their success earlier in the season on the power play means they won’t touch that record, but their 15.5% power play is still 26th in the NHL right now.
The Canucks’ struggling power play is part of the reason why they’re having trouble winning lately. They’ve won just two of their last nine games, and both of those wins came via the shootout.
Even a league-average power play would have scored four or five more goals over the last nine games, which could have meant taking a couple more games to overtime or winning a couple of their overtime losses.
“They gotta score,” said Travis Green about the power play after the Canucks overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes. “We’ve said it a lot lately: a power play goal would have been nice tonight. It would probably have been the difference in the game if we could’ve got one in the first two periods.”
The Canucks went 0-for-3 on the power play, while the Coyotes went 1-for-2, eventually winning 3-2 in overtime. Special teams made the difference.
There are multiple reasons why the Canucks’ power play is struggling, none of which are the drop pass, which is a frequent target of the ire of Canucks fans. The power play lacks crisp puck movement and is frequently far too static, with skaters staying in one spot. Nothing pleases a penalty kill more than a static power play, as it makes it easy to stay in passing and shooting lanes.
The biggest issue, however, is personnel, and some of that is out of the Canucks’ control.
Let’s look at the Canucks that have played at least 40 minutes at 5-on-4 this season, which includes Troy Stecher, who has been recently added to the first power play unit, but leaves out players like Brendan Leipsic, Brandon Sutter, and Sam Gagner.
These players are ranked by scoring rate on the power play, led by Sven Baertschi with 6.16 points per 60 minutes. That’s good for 39th among the 352 skaters that have played 40 minutes at 5-on-4 this season, putting Baertschi in the same area as high-end power play producers like Mitch Marner, Mark Stone, and Mikko Rantanen.
Baertschi also leads the Canucks in goal-scoring rate on the power play. This is, of course, a significant issue because Baertschi is out of the lineup with post-concussion syndrome, with no timeline for his return. Right now, the priority for Baertschi is ensuring he’s healthy for the rest of his life with his family.
Next best is Ben Hutton, who has been taken off the first power play unit in favour of Troy Stecher. You could certainly argue that Stecher has earned the opportunity and deserves a longer look on the first unit, but Hutton is still the most efficient power play point producer among Canucks’ defencemen right now.
Then there’s Alex Edler, who the Canucks have been missing in all situations since he suffered a concussion against the Philadelphia Flyers.
So, that’s the Canucks’ three most efficient power play point producers, all of whom are not on the first power play unit — two because of injury, one by choice. Also missing by choice: Nikolay Goldobin, who is the fifth most efficient power play producer, right after Elias Pettersson.
It’s tough for a power play to score when it’s missing four of its five top scorers.
Goldobin’s absence from the top power play unit is mainly because Travis Green keeps taking him out of the lineup altogether. It’s understandable to want the power play to build chemistry with alternate players, but the first power play unit misses Goldobin’s calming influence with the puck. As much as Goldobin’s turnovers stand out, he also has a way of slowing down the game with the puck on his stick and creating opportunities for his teammates with the man advantage.
Josh Leivo has been getting first power play unit time in Goldobin’s absence and, while Leivo has been a solid addition to the lineup since coming over from Toronto via trade, he hasn’t done much of anything on the power play, though he has had a decent rate of scoring chances. If the Canucks are looking to shake up the first unit, Leivo might be a good place to start.
Another issue is that Brock Boeser isn’t scoring power play goals the way he did last season. I delved into that issue a month ago and the same issues are still there. Boeser is still getting chances and shots on goal at a similar rate to last season, but has been a little slower to release the puck and isn’t picking corners the way he did as a rookie.
Bo Horvat’s goal-scoring rate has also taken a dive from last season, but is making up for it with a few more assists. He’s averaging around two-and-a-half fewer shots per 60 minutes on the power play, however, so getting Horvat a few more scoring chances would help. Unfortunately, that’s where Baertschi excelled, making great passes off zone entries to give Horvat opportunities to score off the rush.
After Boeser, the Canucks scoring rate takes a dive, largely because the second power play unit has been ineffective all season. Jake Virtanen has managed a lot of shots and chances and potted a couple power play goals, but that’s about the only good news.
There’s reason to believe Adam Gaudette can improve on the power play given more time and Stecher deserves a longer look, but that’s about it.
There’s more to solving the Canucks’ power play issues than just shaking up the personnel, and Newell Brown is likely hard at work making adjustments to their schemes, but making some personnel changes could make a difference.
Of course, the last time I wrote about the Canucks’ special teams struggling, they immediately turned it around. Hopefully I’m catching the power play at their worst moment the same way I did with the penalty kill and that improvement is just around the corner.