The Vancouver Canucks have looked like a different team since their coaching change a month ago. They no longer look like a “fragile team,” as Jim Benning called them earlier in the season, when they would routinely find ways to lose games. Instead, they look resilient and confident.
Of course, it’s not just their mindset as assessed by armchair psychologists: they’re playing significantly better under new head coach Bruce Boudreau than they did under Travis Green and the results have followed. But what has actually changed?
The Canucks have certainly made changes to their systems though probably not as many as most might think. They haven’t exactly had time to make wholesale changes.
Systems and mentality
One key change is in their regroup strategy, where the team is committed to quickly pushing the puck north when the opposing team clears the puck instead of a more conservative and controlled regroup that allows teammates time to get reset. It’s a little more chaotic but injecting a little chaos can be a good thing, as it also doesn’t give the opposition time to reset either.
Another change is in their forecheck, where they are more frequently using a 2-1-2 forecheck when the puck is below the goal line in the offensive zone, with two forwards pressuring the puck and a third playing aggressively up ice, ready to rotate in on the forecheck.
The forecheck has led to some great chances for the Canucks — three of their five goals against the Seattle Kraken in their most recent game came from forcing turnovers below the goal line — but they’re not universally aggressive. When the puck is above the goal line in the offensive zone, the Canucks typically revert to a 2-2-1 forecheck, with just one forward pressuring the puck.
For the most part, however, the Canucks are playing similar systems — they’re just playing more aggressively within those systems. They’re playing similar man coverage in the defensive zone but are a little more aggressive attacking the puck and collapsing less into the middle. Defencemen seem to have more leeway to pinch in the neutral zone and be more aggressive at the blue line to prevent zone entries.
All of this aggressiveness is matched by a commitment by the Canucks players to cover for each other. The constant aggressiveness has the potential to burn a team — we’ve all seen how dangerous odd-man rushes can result from an ill-timed pinch — but the Canucks have been pretty consistent in their rotations, with forwards covering for defencemen at the point and behind them in the neutral zone when they make an aggressive play.
It’s a similar story on the penalty kill. There have certainly been changes in personnel — Boudreau and assistant coach Scott Walker have expanded the roster of players on the penalty kill to youth like Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson, and Vasily Podkolzin and used Bo Horvat a lot more. Their in-zone defence on the penalty kill is still the same wedge+1 with three killers in a triangle in front and one killer roaming up top to pressure the puck.
The difference on the penalty kill is their aggressiveness within that system. The Canucks pressure the puck along the boards with a little bit more in the defensive zone but the aggressiveness really shows up on the forecheck. They attack up ice with seeming abandon, looking to disrupt the opposing power play’s breakout and play through the neutral zone, making zone entries harder to come by at the expense of risking more odd-man chances if the opposing team beats the forecheck cleanly.
So far, the changes in mentality — both their aggressiveness and their confidence — have paid dividends. The results in terms of wins and losses have been fantastic but let’s take a look under the hood: what has changed in the team’s underlying analytics?
Out-chancing at 5-on-5
Let’s start with a broad view of the Canucks’ 5-on-5 play: are they out-shooting or getting out-shot? Are they creating more chances than their opposition?
These are all score and venue-adjusted numbers from Natural Stat Trick, so they take into account things like the fact that teams that are trailing tend to get more shots than their opponents. Here’s a quick glossary:
- CF% = Corsi For Percentage: the percentage of shot attempts at 5-on-5 taken by the Canucks. Above 50% means they are getting more shot attempts than their opposition.
- FF% = Fenwick For Percentage: unblocked shot attempts.
- SF% = Shots For Percentage: shots on goal.
- HDCF% = High-Danger Chances For Percentage: shot attempts with a higher percentage of becoming goals, for instance from particularly close to the net.
- xGF% = Expected Goals For Percentage: a statistical model based on the likelihood of every unblocked shot attempt becoming a goal.
With all that in mind, the results before and after the coaching change are quite interesting. The Canucks had a better corsi under Green but every other statistic was worse.
Really, the difference between the team’s corsi, fenwick, and shots on goal percentages are small enough that they could be deemed insignificant. Perhaps if the Canucks’ corsi remains under 50% as the season progresses, that could be a concern but for now it’s not a worry, particularly since the two biggest differences come in high-danger chances and expected goals.
At 5-on-5, the Canucks were regularly getting badly out-chanced prior to the coaching change and the opposite is true after the coaching change. When it comes to the most dangerous areas on the ice, the Canucks are creating far more chances than their opposition and that has translated to the team’s expected goals.
This means a couple of things. One is that they’re not just getting lucky — they’re legitimately out-chancing their opposition and when you do that, good things happen.
Another is that the Canucks haven’t really changed much in terms of puck possession. Their corsi hasn’t gotten any better. What has changed is what they’re doing with that puck possession.
Let’s break it down a little further.
Defence: The differences are slight
According to Bruce Boudreau, the Canucks’ offence has stemmed from their defence, so that’s where we’ll start.
“I've always been a believer that if you play great defence, you're gonna create great offensive chances,” said Boudreau. “We're not allowing those high-danger chances, but we're getting opportunities from it, and I think that's just from playing really good defence.”
That’s similar rhetoric to what we heard from Green, of course, and what you’d likely hear from every NHL coach. How have the Canucks actually performed defensively under Boudreau?
Overall, the differences defensively aren’t particularly pronounced. They give up a few more shot attempts against but slightly fewer shots on goal. They’re averaging one fewer high-danger chance per 60 minutes of ice time, which is good — 9.74 HDCA/60 would rank top ten in the NHL this season — but it only translates to a slight reduction in expected goals against.
The truth is, the Canucks were already playing pretty well defensively at 5-on-5 this season. That they’ve maintained that under Boudreau and possibly even made slight improvements is a very good thing, particularly with their more aggressive approach under Boudreau. So far, they haven’t sacrificed defence in order to create offence.
Speaking of, let’s look at their offensive numbers.
Offence: Quality over quantity
The Canucks are scoring more at 5-on-5 under Boudreau but not by a wide margin. The Canucks were averaging 1.84 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, which ranked near the bottom of the league. Since the coaching change, they’ve bumped that up to a more respectable 2.05 goals per 60 minutes but that’s still below average.
What do the underlying numbers say about the Canucks’ offence?
Intriguingly, the Canucks are actually getting fewer shot attempts and shots on goal under Boudreau, though not by a wide margin.
But when it comes to high-danger chances, there’s a jump: the Canucks are averaging more than two more high-danger chances per 60 minutes. That bumps their expected goals up to 2.47, which is right around league average. That may not seem like much, but it’s a significant improvement for the Canucks.
A lot of that comes from what they create off the forecheck and through quick regroups, creating situations where it’s easier to get to the net to create chances. This is where their aggressive approach is creating results, while not giving up anything defensively to get them.
Playing the percentages
The Canucks have been fortunate to get excellent goaltending, particularly from Thatcher Demko, over their recent point streak under Boudreau. He has a .955 save percentage over the last month, which has played a major role in the team’s record, particularly considering six of the nine games have been decided by one goal.
That said, the Canucks haven’t just gotten lucky in their streak. Looking just at save percentage only shows part of the picture. Let’s look at the team’s shooting percentage and save percentage at 5-on-5 and their combined number, PDO, which is often used as a proxy for luck.
The Canucks’ save percentage at 5-on-5 was already good under Green and has gotten better under Boudreau. In fact, the Canucks have the highest 5-on-5 save percentage in the NHL this season.
On the flip side, their shooting percentage at 5-on-5 was terrible under Green and has barely improved under Boudreau. The Canucks also have the lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the NHL at 6.18 and even their 6.91 shooting percentage under Boudreau would rank sixth-lowest in the league.
So yes, their 1.017 PDO under Boudreau is on the high end and is likely to come down a little as Demko returns to earth. But their shooting percentage is also likely to regress upwards.
That’s particularly true if Elias Pettersson finds his form again. His shooting percentage of 8.0% in all situations is half of his career shooting percentage and his 5.56% at 5-on-5 is ridiculously low by his standards — even last season, when he struggled to start the year, he had a 15.63% shooting percentage at 5-on-5.
If the Canucks can keep creating dangerous chances, the odds are that they’ll start finishing more of them, leading to more goals at 5-on-5 to accommodate for a potential dip in save percentage in the future.
The biggest difference: special teams
What has changed the most for the Canucks, of course, is on special teams.
The Canucks’ power play is clicking on all cylinders, with J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes leading the way. It’s been a difference-maker with so many tight games.
The penalty kill has been an even bigger difference-maker, however. The penalty kill was bleeding goals against at an unprecedented rate: over the last month, however, it’s been near the top of the league, killing off 89.5% of the team’s penalties.
There’s a lot more to break down in the Canucks’ special teams but, for now, let’s look at a few of their underlying numbers, focusing on unblocked shot attempts and expected goals.
As is often the case with streaks of excellent play on special teams, the numbers under the hood speak to more modest improvements. That said, the Canucks have gotten better — their improvements on special teams are not illusory.
The Canucks are shooting the puck more on the power play, averaging around 6.5 more unblocked shot attempts per 60 minutes. As a result, their expected goals have bumped up to 7.5 per 60 minutes, when they’ve actually scored 13.76 goals per 60 minutes over the past month.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the power play cool off a little bit but it’s still better than it was.
Likewise, the underlying numbers on the penalty kill are encouraging: they’re giving up fewer shots and from less dangerous areas. It’s just that the numbers paint a picture of a slightly below-average penalty kill rather than one of the best penalty kills in the league.
Honestly, after the horror show of a penalty kill the Canucks had before the coaching change, “slightly below average” sounds wonderful.
Let me explain — no, there is too much: let me sum up
At 5-on-5, the Canucks’ primary improvements have come in shot quality, particularly when it comes to creating high-danger chances. This is likely a result of tweaks to their systems and a change to a more aggressive mentality, particularly on the forecheck and in the neutral zone.
Their offensive changes have been more pronounced than their defensive changes.
While the Canucks have been fortunate to have excellent goaltending, they’ve also been unfortunate in terms of finishing at 5-on-5, so it pretty much balances out.
And, while the Canucks improvements on special teams probably aren’t as significant as they’ve seemed over the last month, they have legitimately improved, which is cause for hope and optimism.
To sum up, the Canucks’ better record under Boudreau isn’t all smoke and mirrors — they look better on the ice because they are better.