When Brock Boeser first broke into the NHL, he looked like he was going to become one of the league’s next great goalscorers.
Boeser scored 29 goals in 62 games in his rookie season, won the accuracy competition at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition (then All-Star Game MVP the next day), and was on track to challenge for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year before a freak back injury ended his season.
If Boeser had reached his 38-goal pace that season, it would have been the fourth-most by a rookie since the 2004-05 lockout behind Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews, and Sidney Crosby. That’s some top-tier company.
Boeser is finally realizing the potential of his rookie season
Since his rookie season, however, Boeser has yet to fulfill that potential. It felt like Boeser was going to become a 40 or even 50-goal scorer but instead has yet to reach the 30-goal mark, though he scored at a 30-goal pace in a couple of seasons.
Part of that was long-term repercussions from his broken back, which affected his shot years after it happened. Some of it was due to the mental burden of dealing with difficult circumstances off the ice. Whatever the cause, it looked like Boeser would never be that top-of-the-league sniper that he looked like he might be in his rookie year.
Through 22 games, Boeser leads the NHL in goalscoring, tied with Nikita Kucherov with 15 goals. It’s been a stunning start to the season for Boeser, who kicked things off with four goals in the Canucks’ opener and has been scoring in bursts ever since. Boeser is already halfway to that elusive 30-goal mark and is now on pace for 56 goals this season.
Boeser might not reach that lofty total — he’s riding an unsustainably high 24.2% shooting percentage — but breaking through that 30-goal barrier seems almost certain and 40+ goals is well within his grasp. And, while his shooting percentage likely isn't sustainable, a lot of what he's doing to create scoring chances is sustainable and should last all season.
Changing training and finding peace of mind
There are a lot of reasons why Boeser is finding success early in the season. One element is his preparation, both during the offseason and on a daily basis. He skipped his usual routine of playing pond hockey in Minnesota’s Da Beauty League this offseason to focus more on his conditioning.
“I didn’t feel like it was benefiting me,” said Boeser to the Canucks’ Lindsey Horsting. “I’d have to miss my morning skates with a lot of NHL guys in order to go play Beauty league.”
He hired a new trainer, Tommy Powers, who was a conditioning consultant with the Arizona Coyotes when Rick Tocchet was head coach. The two worked together to improve his speed and agility.
“It was something the Canucks and I talked about at the end of the year last year to switch it up and I worked with a new trainer,” said Boeser. “More agility, more turf stuff, it was a good summer of training and I’m just glad the hard work paid off so far.”
On top of that offseason work, Boeser started wearing a sleep monitor to ensure that he was getting the rest necessary each night and used that data to adjust his daily routine.
“As I got older, I started to go to sleep earlier with having more responsibilities,” said Boeser to Postmedia’s Ben Kuzma. “I’m not a young kid who’s staying up as late anymore. I think it’s really important.”
Another big reason for his improved play is that he’s found peace of mind after dealing with his father’s death.
“How much he’s gone through with seeing his dad [battle cancer and dementia] and dealing with that for many years, it’s very good to see him happy and playing well,” said Elias Pettersson to Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre. “I’ve seen the change on the ice.”
“I'm just really proud and happy for him,” said J.T. Miller. “It's a dark point to go through stuff like he did, and for him to rebound and play the way he can, play with aggression and passion and some fire — I'm just happy for him.”
So, those are some of the reasons why Boeser has been so much better this season. But what has actually changed on the ice?
"He's a really smart guy" — Intelligence is more important than speed
Boeser’s greatest weapon on the ice isn’t his lethal wristshot. Or his snapshot, his slap shot, or any other type of shot.
It’s his mind.
“His hockey IQ — even in practices — is something I really didn’t know he had to that level,” said Tocchet. “He’s a really smart guy.”
Boeser’s mind for the game is what makes him an effective top-six winger despite not being the fastest or most agile skater. While his offseason training seems to have given him an extra step, he’s still on the slower side, with his top speed this season of 20.74 mph coming in below the 25th percentile for NHL forwards according to the NHL’s EDGE data.
Where his mind has helped him this season is in finding more opportunities for scoring chances. He’s getting to soft spaces on the ice, finding gaps in defensive coverage, and going to the net at the right time.
"If you have a high hockey IQ, you look faster because the feet will follow," said Tocchet about Boeser at the end of last season.
That’s why he’s been able to have some of the luck that has come his way this season, such as pucks deflecting in off his skate or landing right on his stick in front of the net: he’s in the right place at the right time, not because of his speed but because of his intelligence.
Boeser is getting fewer shots but more chances
What’s intriguing about Boeser’s game right now is that he’s actually taking shots on goal at a lower rate at 5-on-5 than in previous seasons: 6.14 shots per 60 minutes compared to 7.09 last season or 7.61 the season before.
But, despite getting shots on goal at a lower rate, Boeser is actually getting scoring chances at the highest rate of his career: 8.80 chances per 60 minutes compared to 7.45 last season.
Meanwhile, on the power play, Boeser’s shot and chance rate have both jumped up significantly. Boeser is no longer locked to the net front in a static power play formation but has been freed up to roam around the ice in the Canucks’ new, more dynamic approach with the man advantage.
“If you’re playing a team that’s very aggressive and that middle’s open at certain times, then I want Brock there,” said Tocchet. “But there’s some times where a team plays a strong diamond — I don’t want Brock in the middle all the time. I want him to decide.
“If you watch him play now, he’s everywhere. He’s scored goals from up top, he’s scored goals in front of the net — I don’t know how many power play goals he’s scored, but I betcha they’re from different areas, they’re not just always in the bumper…I think he likes the concepts that we have here, where he gets to move and where a lot of other guys are moving.”
As a result, Boeser is averaging 17.15 shots on goal per 60 minutes — up from 13.28 last season — and 26.69 scoring chances per 60 minutes — up from 23.73.
The real upshot for Boeser is that more of his shots are coming from further away from the net on the power play, which may sound counterintuitive. Previously, the bulk of Boeser’s shots on the power play were coming from right on top of the crease as he jammed at rebounds or tipped point shots, neither of which allowed him to use his shot.
This season, more of his shots are coming from further out in the slot — the bumper position that Bo Horvat used to occupy — as well as a concentration of shots from the top of the left faceoff circle and the high slot. The animation below shows the shift in where his shots are coming from, using heat maps from HockeyViz.
So, the data shows that Boeser has been able to get more scoring chances on fewer shots at 5-on-5, while getting more shots and chances on the power play, specifically in areas where he’s better able to use his shot.
But what does that look like in practice?
Breaking down Boeser's seven shots versus the Sharks
Let’s take Saturday’s game against the San Jose Sharks as an example.
The Canucks may have lost that game 4-3, but Boeser was all over the boxscore with a game-high seven shots on goal on nine shot attempts, with all nine of his attempts classified as scoring chances by the standards of hockey analytics site Natural Stat Trick.
So, let’s take a look at his seven shots on goal and what led up to them.
Boeser’s first two shots came one after the other on the power play.
This is a more traditional bumper role that Boeser is playing, as he looks to find the space to get a shot off from a pass or to tip a shot from the point. He ends up in a great spot in the slot for a chance off a J.T. Miller pass but his stick is checked at the last second and he can’t jam the rebound in.
Even without the movement, the process is good to be in the right spot for a great chance.
Boeser’s intelligence is on display on his third shot on goal. He starts the play at the front of the net but doesn’t stay there.
While some wingers might have stayed at the top of the crease to battle and perhaps provide a screen for someone else to shoot, Boeser instead pushes off his man to get into the slot for a chance.
Quinn Hughes’s pass is too far in front of him to get a shot off, but you can see him quickly shoulder check to reassess the situation and he does something unexpected: he heads to the top of the zone. In doing so, he completely sheds his check, giving him a wide-open chance down the left side for him to skate downhill and fire a hard wristshot to force a kick save.
Boeser’s fourth shot of the game comes after another area where he’s improved: winning pucks along the boards. This is less of a board battle than some others, but he still does well to pick off an attempted clearance at the left point.
That’s where Boeser’s scoring instincts take over, as he immediately gets to the middle of the ice for a wristshot that forces a blocker save.
At this point, Boeser might have been wondering what it would take for one of his shots to go in, but he finally found the back of the net with his fifth shot on goal.
Again, Boeser is in the bumper on the power play, with little of the movement that Tocchet talked about. Still, there’s something worth noting here: notice that each time the puck comes to Filip Hronek on the left side, Boeser immediately has his stick on the ice, anticipating a potential slap pass. It’s that readiness that enables him to reach behind himself to reel in the rebound and sweep it into the net.
The movement comes back on the power play for Boeser’s sixth shot of the game.
Boeser starts at the net front, providing a potential screen for a shot from the half-boards or the point, but rotates up to the bumper again when Miller moves down low. Boeser then reads the play as it develops and rotates to the left half-boards as Quinn Hughes rotates down to the right side, Hronek moves to the point, and Elias Pettersson cuts into the slot.
Nothing much develops from this rotation, so the power play rotates back into its previous formation. But because the Sharks’ penalty kill diamond is now fixated on shots from the flanks, Boeser manages to find a soft spot when he gets back to the bumper and is open for a Pettersson pass and a great scoring chance.
Finally, there’s Boeser’s final shot of the game, which happened to be his second goal. Though it’s not a power play, it is a man-advantage situation with the Canucks’ net empty for the extra attacker.
Boeser starts things off by fishing the puck out of a scrum off the faceoff, then gets to his left flank as the Canucks get set up. Boeser opens up as a passing option for Hughes, then darts to the backdoor when it looks like Pettersson might shoot before he sets up a Hronek point shot.
The rebound doesn’t come to Boeser then, but he’s already hunting for that opportunity, so that when, a moment later, a rebound off a Miller attempt does squirt out to him, he’s already there to finish it off.
To me, Boeser’s third shot, even if he didn’t score, really shows how his intelligence can create opportunities. That’s a wide-open chance in a great area of the ice for a right-hand shot created not by speed but by unexpected off-puck movement to lose a check.
Boeser isn't focused on goalscoring at all
What Boeser is really focused on this season, however, isn’t scoring. Instead, he’s proudest of the work he’s done defensively playing on a match-up line with Miller and, primarily, Phil Di Giuseppe.
“When my line’s matched up against the other top line, that’s our main goal,” said Boeser. “We take a lot of pride in that and that’s all I’m worried about.”
Boeser isn’t just being used in a goalscoring role. Instead, he’s seeing heavy usage when the Canucks are up by one or two goals and they need to defend the lead. Boeser gets the third-most ice time at 5-on-5 among Canucks forwards when the Canucks are up by one goal and the second-most ice-time when up by two goals.
It’s a role Boeser relishes.
“I want to be one of those guys that they can trust at the end of games,” said Boeser earlier this month. “Put out there to make sure that we don’t get scored on. Our line has been pretty good defensively this season, I feel…We’ve got to make sure we stay on top of it and keep it going.”
You could even argue that Boeser focusing more on the defensive side of his game has relieved some of the pressure to score goals and, paradoxically, led to a more relaxed approach in the offensive zone that has led to more scoring.
Boeser's desire to play detailed, defensive hockey has stood out to Tocchet above and beyond his league-leading goal totals.
“I’ve seen him on the bench — I didn’t see it last year — but this year, he’ll go talk to [Nils Höglander] or some of the younger guys about certain situations: ‘Hey, make sure you don’t over-backcheck in this situation’ — he’s not talking about scoring, he’s talking about details of the game,” said Tocchet. “Even the last minute, if I put him out there, the next day he’ll come ask questions: ‘Hey, in this situation, what should I do?’ — he’s asking questions because he wants to be out there in the last minute.”
The end result is a player who is having an impact in multiple facets of the game rather than being a one-dimensional sniper.
There’s another upshot to being trusted to defend leads in the final minutes of the game: Boeser has been able to pad his goal totals with two empty-net goals. He had just one empty-net goal all of last season.