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Canucks’ biggest issue defensively seems to be a lack of trust

"We practice this stuff every day and get better at it every day and then, in the game, it’s like our mind goes a little off.”
Can the Vancouver Canucks skaters, like Tyler Myers, trust their teammates to make the right play defensively?

The Vancouver Canucks have proven this season that they can score goals. The trouble is that they can’t prevent them.

After back-to-back 5-1 losses on home ice, the Canucks are now averaging 3.90 goals against per game, the third-most in the NHL. Only the Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets have allowed more goals per game and their porous defence has negated any advantage their offence has created.

It's not just goals against, which might just be an issue of goaltending. Anyone watching the games can see the defensive struggles and they show up in the numbers too. At 5-on-5, the Canucks have given up the fifth-highest rate of goals against in the NHL; according to Natural Stat Trick, they’ve given up the fourth-highest rate of expected goals against, a statistic that combines shot quality and shot quantity.

To my eyes, the Canucks struggles defensively stem from a lack of trust. 

Defensive systems rely on trust

Trust is a vital component of team defence. No matter what system a team plays, all of the players on the ice have to be able to trust that their teammates are going to do their job.

In a man-on-man defence, a defenceman needs to trust that if he takes his check, his teammates are also going to take their checks, leaving nobody open. In a zone defence, players need to trust that each of their teammates will be responsible for their area of the ice and will collapse to the middle of the ice to defend the “home plate” area when appropriate.

When the team does a strong-side overload, sending three players to the boards to break up the cycle, those players need to trust that the two remaining defenders will keep their heads on a swivel and pick up open players to prevent backdoor plays.

NHL teams don’t really play any one defensive system, but a blend of these systems depending on the situation. Few teams play pure man-to-man defence these days, though there are exceptions — Ethan Bear has talked about how his former team, the Carolina Hurricanes, played a strict man-to-man system. 

Teams might play man-on-man when the puck is high in the zone but switch to an overload when the puck is down low along the boards. Others might use a man-on-man defence when the puck is below the goal line, while the two high forwards are expected to drop back and play zone defence to protect the slot. 

Often, a full zone defence happens when a team has been stuck in the defensive zone for a long shift and is tired. At that point, the most important thing to do is to protect the “home plate” area and let the opposition have free run of the perimeter.

“The whole point of playing Zone is to eventually get out of playing Zone,” said Jack Han, former assistant coach with the Toronto Marlies and author of Hockey Tactics 2022. “The effective defensive players know when to step out of their zone coverage and press for a turnover.”

"You don't want to try and do too much."

Mistakes can happen in any of these systems, at which point players need to read and react to the situation to cover for their teammates, but the baseline assumption is that everyone on the ice is going to do their job.

A lot of times, it really seems like the Canucks no longer have that baseline assumption.

A lack of trust often leads to chasing the puck, trying to cover for a teammate before that teammate has even made a mistake. 

“You don’t want to try and do too much and then it ends up being your fault because you make it complicated and double-up and try to do somebody else’s job,” said Riley Stillman. “When that happens, your guy usually ends up scoring.”

While the Canucks may not play a strict man-on-man system like the Hurricanes, Stillman said it’s definitely more man-on-man than his former team.

“In Chicago, we played a zone, but I’m getting more comfortable every day here as we continue to work through it,” said Stillman. “When you play a zone, you’re responsible for your quadrant and when you play in layers, who have shared responsibility. That’s trusting your teammate and if he goes, and somebody gets beat, your next guy should be right there.”

Whatever the system the Canucks are playing, the trust just doesn’t seem to be there. It’s understandable why there might be a lack of trust. The Canucks have several players who are not particularly good defensively, including some of their most highly-paid players. But the lack of trust exacerbates those issues.

Defensive breakdowns against the Blues

The St. Blues’ 5-1 goal from Monday seems most illustrative of this problem. 

Thanks to some hustle on the backcheck by Nils Åman and good gap control by Kyle Burroughs, a threatening 3-on-2 rush by the Blues is negated and all five Canucks skaters get back into position in the defensive zone. But that’s when everything goes wrong.

Dakota Joshua blocks a pass but gets beat by Vladimir Tarasenko. This, by itself, should not be a problem: it’s still a four-on-four with one Blues defenceman still back at the point.

Here’s where the lack of trust comes in. Tarasenko should be Åman’s responsibility as the centre in the slot but, before he can skate out to challenge him, both Burroughs and Curtis Lazar converge on Tarasenko, leaving their checks wide open on the flanks. 

There’s no trust there that everyone is going to do their job. Instead, all three players are trying to do the same job.

The result is predictable. Tarasenko passes to Robert Thomas, who was left open by Burroughs, and he sets up Jordan Kyrou at the backdoor. Kyrou was Schenn’s man, but he had two checks on the right side, so it’s hard to blame him too much for simply trying to take away the pass instead.

"We practice this stuff every day."

The trouble is that the Canucks make so many individual mistakes defensively that the trust might be irrevocably broken. 

“The mistakes — when we make a mistake, it’s a ten-bell mistake,” said a clearly-exasperated Bruce Boudreau after the game. “We’re doing stuff that — if you’re there every day, you know we practice this stuff every day and get better at it every day and then, in the game, it’s like our mind goes a little off.”

The Canucks could make adjustments to their system defensively, but that likely wouldn’t eliminate the individual mistakes. 

Consider this Blues chance in the first period.

The Canucks are playing man-on-man down low, with Tyler Myers, Bo Horvat, and Quinn Hughes each tracking a man. The two forwards, Brock Boeser and Ilya Mikheyev, are playing more of a zone defence, with Mikheyev drifting down into the slot.

The trouble is that when Horvat moves to his man in the corner, so does Myers. Is that lack of trust from Myers that Horvat will take his man? Is it a bad read by Myers? Is it an attempt at an overload without buy-in from the rest of the team? It’s hard to say.

But that leads to Boeser moving towards Nick Leddy on the boards — the player left by Myers — and missing Brandon Saad sneaking in behind him from the point. Mikheyev doesn’t pick up Saad either, as he should if this was an overload situation and he was meant to be protecting the “home plate.”

That’s a bad missed read by Boeser and speaks to his defensive struggles this season. If Myers hadn’t chased the puck, however, and either stayed with Leddy or retreated to the net while Horvat pressured the puck, perhaps there’s a different outcome.

So, is this a systems issue or are the players doubling up coverage because of a lack of trust and then not doing their jobs within the system?

Here’s a play from the second period that led to another wide-open chance in the slot.

Surely the Canucks’ system didn’t require both Quinn Hughes and Jack Studnicka to chase the puck carrier on the wing and leave Noel Acciari open down the middle. Hughes should have stayed in the middle with Acciari but instead of he ends up doubling up with Studnicka.

But did Hughes chase the puck because he didn’t trust Studnicka to do so? Or is that just a bad read by Hughes?

The lack of trust could also be one of the issues on the penalty kill. For example, on the Blues’ 4-1 goal, all four penalty killers end up chasing the puck instead of finding their position on the ice and trusting their teammates to do their jobs.

Would different systems and structure make a difference? Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford hasn’t been shy about calling out the team’s structure as the primary issue.  

“If we were playing in a really strong structure, it would make it easier for our defence to play and it wouldn’t matter who was on our defence,” said Rutherford. “But right now, we don’t have that strong structure and we need to change the makeup of our defence.”

While a tighter defensive structure may well help the Canucks, suggesting that it “wouldn’t matter who was on our defence” seems wildly hyperbolic. It’s worth noting as well that the Canucks did play with a tighter structure in the past: it was the start of last season under Travis Green, when the team played a much more defensive style that completely stifled the team’s offence and saw the Canucks sink to the NHL’s basement and resulted in Green losing his job, along with the entire management team.

Can the Canucks find a structure that covers for the team's defensive issues without completely negating their ability to score? The truth is, no changes in structure will help if the players don’t trust their teammates to play within that structure. 

That said, maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe these mistakes are not caused by a lack of trust but by a limited ability by the Canucks’ skaters to read the play defensively and react appropriately. 

Of course, that’s not any better. Regaining trust after it’s been lost is a difficult task; teaching NHL players how to read-and-react when their habits have already been ingrained over many years might be impossible.

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