Travis Yost: Fixing the Canucks’ offense starts with the defense | Catch My Job


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The Vancouver Canucks are 0-4-2 to start the season and may be the NHL’s biggest early season disappointment.

Once again, the Canucks can’t generate meaningful offense — a factor so limiting it’s already putting the team’s postseason hopes in doubt. I can’t imagine how frustrated the fan base is right now because this story has been written so many times before.

The organization is already looking for answers. Coach Bruce Boudreau noted Saturday that he has serious concerns about that effort level his team puts forward, this after a blowout loss courtesy of the Buffalo Sabres.

If Vancouver can’t dig itself out of this hole, we’ll quickly move on to discussions of whether the team should pull off the proverbial Band-Aid and start selling off assets, which will start a rebuild that some argue is long overdue. Others argue that there is enough talent on the roster and other components (front office, coaching, specific holes in the lineup) need to be addressed first.
I’m back on offense with the Canucks. It’s a paradox. Either we have greatly exaggerated the individual skills of forwards like Elias Pettersson, JT Miller, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Conor Garland, or there is something else preventing Vancouver’s core from producing regularly.

Admittedly, it’s hard to stare at this lineup — the one the Canucks iced Saturday night — and think they’re too thin on scoring (via DailyFaceoff):

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The fourth line leaves something to be desired, but there is plenty of playmaking and shooting ability inside the top nine to make the playoffs.

But let’s put aside our qualitative opinions about the skill in this group of forwards. This, along with goalkeeper Thatcher Demko, should be the main strength of this team. It’s certainly not a defense, which is a horror show – more on that in a moment.

Let’s take a look at Vancouver’s five-year offensive production in even numbers. Despite this talent throughout the lineup, they haven’t broken the league average once. In fact, they’re as certain to finish in the bottom third of the league offensively — certainly in Pettersson’s (2018-present) era:

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So what’s going on here? Are we being unrealistic about the skill in the lineup, or is something else causing Vancouver to be about 8 percent less efficient than a league-average even team — and as much as 11 percent this season?

I think the defense, or lack thereof, contributes a lot to this. And how Vancouver’s front office decided to attack this issue, given how tight their salary situation is right now, seems murky to me. Because if you watch a Canucks game, it’s impossible to miss the amount of difficulty this team has getting the puck out of the defensive zone. Not only does it prevent any chance of transition or counter-attacking play, but it also draws forwards deeper into the defensive third, working harder to deny goals and sacrificing attacking opportunities as a result. Unless puck-moving sensation Quinn Hughes is on the ice (he currently is from day to day with injury), that is grinding.

Consider Vancouver’s four standout scorers and how they’ve produced with and without Hughes on the ice over the past three seasons. The quality of teammates can have an obvious impact on production, and across the league, first-line forwards who play with first-pair defensemen are always the most productive; replace the first pair with the third pair and you will see a decrease in performance.

But these performance drops are staggering:

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The Canucks scored as one of the better teams in the NHL when the top units were on the ice. The problem is that as soon as the first-pair defense is taken off the ice, the offense immediately takes a step back—players like Miller and Boeser see nearly 10 percent less production, and Pettersson as much as 20 percent. (Interestingly, Bo Horvath sees his numbers improve with Hughes away. I haven’t figured that out yet!)

This, of course, also ignores the defensive component at play here. These forwards – when not playing with the first pair – have less significant time in the offensive zone per shift, and since their shift length remains unchanged, we know they spend more minutes clearing the defensive zone or breaking through the middle of the LED. It’s certainly a significant part of hockey, and these forwards aren’t just compensated to score goals. They are also paid to play reliable defensive hockey and, most notably, to achieve favorable goal differentials for their team.

And that’s the problem. This group from Vancouver has a tough enough time controlling the game with their best units on the ice. Take away their best pair and it’s a war of attrition.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Tyler Myers, Kyle Burroughs, Luke Schenn (Hughes’ most frequent partner so far this season), Riley Stillman, Tucker Pullman and the rest of the Canucks’ depth chart have skills that can pay off. But as a collection of talent compared to what other teams are putting on around the league, it’s deeply disappointing. And sometimes a bad defensive group doesn’t just mean bad defensive play and big goals against totals.

In this case, Vancouver’s defensive woes manifest themselves all over the ice.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Hockey in Development, Daily Faceoff, Hockey Reference


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