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Chiasson over Boeser — Are the Canucks overthinking the power play?

Brock Boeser has been bumped to the second power play unit this season by Alex Chiasson.
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Brock Boeser has been spending less time battling in front of the net on the Vancouver Canucks top power play unit this season. photo: Dan Toulgoet

Tanner Pearson, at least, seems happy that Brock Boeser is on the second power play unit this season.

As the Vancouver Canucks’ practiced special teams on Monday, the winger loudly cheered when Boeser drilled a one-timer into the net from the top of the left faceoff circle.

“Bozo! Half-wall!” shouted Pearson with his arms raised, gleefully extolling Boeser — who is indeed called “Bozo” at times by his teammates — for scoring from a position he didn’t get to play when he was on the first unit: halfway up the left side boards.

Perhaps Pearson was responding, in his own way, to criticism that has been levied at the Canucks’ coaching staff for moving Boeser off of the first power play unit in favour of Alex Chiasson. It certainly seems like an odd choice: since Boeser joined the league, only Bo Horvat has more power play goals on the Canucks.

The addition of J.T. Miller, however, has changed the dynamic of the top unit. Instead of Boeser playing on the left side, available for one-timers, Miller has quarterbacked the power play from that spot, moving Boeser to the front of the net. The power play was no longer built around Boeser’s wristshot and he had to get more goals via tips, rebounds, and backdoor plays instead.

"I'm really comfortable playing that spot."

Playing net front might seem outside of Boeser’s wheelhouse but he adapted to the role, leading the Canucks in power play goals last season.

This season, however, the Canucks have moved Boeser to the second unit and placed him back on the left half-wall, to Pearson’s obvious delight. That gives Boeser less power play time but also gives the second unit a more potent offensive weapon.

Boeser, for his part, seems happy enough with his new role.

“I'm really comfortable playing that spot, that shooting spot,” said Boeser. “We have good enough players to have two good units, because obviously that's important. If one unit doesn't score, the second unit gets out there, we need to score. Chiasson is really good at net front — he's been with Edmonton's top powerplay the last couple of years — so I'm totally okay with it.”

While the Canucks do have the players for two strong power play units, the question is whether that is the best use of those players to spread them out between two units.

Perhaps that’s because the best Canucks’ power play in recent memory did the exact opposite.

Loading up the first unit

The Canucks had the best power play in the NHL in the 2010-11 season and it was a major reason why they won the Presidents’ Trophy and made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

They did it by loading up one power play unit with all of their best point producers with the man advantage: Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Christian Ehrhoff, and Alex Edler, with Mikael Samuelsson filling in for Edler when the defenceman was injured. As a result, that top unit dominated — Daniel had a whopping 42 points on the power play to lead the NHL.

The second unit, on the other hand, suffered. Mason Raymond, without Kesler centring the second unit, fell from 8 goals and 18 points on the power play in the 2009-10 season to just 2 goals and 6 points in 2010-11. Even though Raymond’s even-strength scoring was essentially unchanged — he actually scored at a higher rate at 5-on-5 in the 2010-11 season — Raymond was repeatedly criticized for his diminished point production.

It seemed like a small price to pay for leading the league in power play goals. 

Ever since, that seems to have been the strategy for the Canucks: load up the first unit and leave whoever is left for the second unit. Last season, however, poked a massive hole in that plan. The Canucks ended up with one of the worst power plays in the NHL but the biggest issue wasn’t the first unit — it was the second unit, which was completely unable to find the back of the net.

It was eminently clear that one unit wasn’t enough; at least, it wasn’t enough unless that first unit was truly dominant. The Canucks need production from two power play units.

"We can have two good units."

Boeser, with his skillset ill-used in a net front role, made sense to move to a second unit where he could play a more fitting role. 

“I think Brock, would be the first one to admit it that he probably enjoys playing the half wall more than the net front,” said Green. “Also, he understands that Chaser is a pretty good net front guy too, and we think that we can have two good units.”

Green also admitted that the second unit still isn’t ideal, since their three best centres — Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, and J.T. Miller — all play on the first unit.

“The one thing we wish we had was probably more of an offensive centerman on that second unit for face offs,” said Green. “We even talked about starting Bo with that unit once in a while. We'd really like to have two units that can be dangerous. We haven't started that unit as much and a lot of that has to do with faceoffs.”

Clearly, there is logic to the Canucks’ decision to move Boeser to the second unit. But even logical decisions can be wrong if they’re based on faulty premises.

The primary premise that might be questioned is that Chiasson is good as a net front presence on the power play.

Was Chiasson effective on the Oilers' power play?

Chiasson was brought in on a professional tryout (PTO) contract at training camp and impressed the team enough to offer him a one-year deal at a league-minimum $750,000. It’s not often that a player that had to sign a PTO gets immediately put on the first power play unit but it’s not a first for Chiasson, who had a similar experience with the Edmonton Oilers.

Here’s the thing: Chiasson is billed as a power play specialist. He’s not a particularly good two-way player at even strength and he doesn’t kill penalties. If you’re going to sign him at all, it’s to play him on the power play. 

Chiasson was part of the Oilers power play that scored on 25.8% of their power plays over the past three seasons — better than any other team in the NHL.

Of course, much of that success had to do with two players you might have heard of: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Over those same three years, McDavid and Draisaitl have led all NHL players in power play scoring by a wide margin.

So, how instrumental was Chiasson to that power play? It’s not enough to point to the Oilers’ power play success this season — they have a ludicrous 47.1% power play percentage — because it’s in a small sample size and also because they replaced Chiasson with Zach Hyman, a phenomenal net front player, who happens to be getting paid $4.75 million more per season than Chiasson and for seven more years.

We can, however, look at how the Oilers power play performed with McDavid and Draisaitl but without Chiasson over the past three seasons via Natural Stat Trick’s line tool. It might be surprising.

McDavid Draisatl PP WOWY Chiasson

Without Chiasson, the Oilers power play with McDavid and Draisaitl had fewer shot attempts (CF/60), fewer unblocked shot attempts (FF/60), fewer scoring chances (SCF/60), fewer high-danger chances (HDCF/60), a lower rate of expected goals (xGF/60), and — most importantly — fewer goals (GF/60).

Was that entirely because of Chiasson? It’s hard to say but it’s clear there are things he does well on the power play. He retrieves pucks well down low along the boards and he’s got the size and strength to battle in front. While there have been some chances he’s missed down low, that’s true of any player.

So far, Chiasson has one goal and an assist on the Canucks’ power play — same as Elias Pettersson — while the power play as a whole has gone 5-for-23, a respectable 21.7% success rate. The power play certainly hasn’t always looked great and it’s easy to make Chiasson the scapegoat for some of those struggles when a player like Boeser — not to mention Conor Garland and Nils Höglander — is playing on the second unit but it hasn’t been an outright disaster either.

"I think he's our most dangerous goal scorer."

Boeser’s spot on the second unit isn’t permanent, of course. He took shifts on the first unit against the Seattle Kraken at the end of the Canucks’ road trip and he’s likely to continue doing so.

“I'm going to put Brock out there,” said Green. “I think he's our most dangerous goal scorer and sometimes I'm just going to switch it partway through the game just to get him out there and put him in that spot. It might depend on the pace of the game, where the score is in the game, or just a gut feeling on it. And we're still toying with it too, a little bit.”

Early in the season, toying with the power play and trying different combinations is understandable. If the power play starts to slide, however, Boeser’s placement on the second unit will come under fire.