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If the Canucks don’t fix their power play, it won’t matter if Elias Pettersson gets calls

"It is frustrating for me as a coach to see some of the abuse he takes where it doesn’t get called."
Elias Pettersson battles through a stick check against the Carolina Hurricanes. photo: Dan Toulgoet

Canucks head coach Travis Green was fired up talking to reporters after the Canucks’ 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, at least by his standards. It wasn’t about his team’s performance, though he certainly wasn’t entirely happy with it; he was upset about a hit Elias Pettersson took early in the first period.

“I’m so frustrated with it,” Green said to reporters in Boston. “This guy’s one of the best young players in the league and he gets hit and he’s totally defenceless.

“It’s two seconds after he lets go of the puck, I’ve watched it a couple times. He’s unassuming, he’s defenceless, and he feels there’s no way he’s going to get hit in that spot. He’s in a vulnerable position, those are hits that the league is trying to get out of the game, especially against top young guys, top players in the league, and I think Petey has shown that he’s one of those guys.”

It’s clear that this goes beyond just this one incident: opposing teams know that Pettersson is the biggest threat on the Canucks and generally try to get away with as much as they can against the young centre. That’s expected, but it’s still galling to see teams cross the line frequently and escape punishment.

“It is frustrating for me as a coach to see some of the abuse he takes where it doesn’t get called,” continued Green. “He works through it. He gets frustrated, and I know he’s not the biggest guy, but that doesn’t mean you can take advantage of a player that’s not ready to be hit.”

With his frustrations with officiating boiling over, Green’s message can be compared to that of Brian Burke during the 2002 playoffs, when he said, “Sedin is not English for ‘punch me or headlock me in a scrum.’” He meant “Swedish,” but still, message delivered.

Green’s message wasn’t quite as pithy, but he was speaking off the cuff rather than reading from a prepared statement, so he’s easily forgiven. 

Pettersson expressed his own frustrations with the lack of a call on that specific play, pointing out that he was prepared to get hit after passing the puck, but Grzelcyk waited until Pettersson had relaxed and let his guard down. He called it a “dirty play.”

It’s undeniable that Pettersson isn’t getting the calls he once did. Prior to Christmas, Pettersson led the NHL in penalty differential, drawing a league-leading 22 minor penalties in all situations, while taking just five minor penalties himself.

Since Christmas, however, Pettersson has drawn just two minor penalties in 16 games. He went from drawing 0.58 penalties per game to drawing 0.13 penalties per game. That’s an alarming drop.

Pettersson hasn’t visibly changed the way he’s played and there are clear examples of fouls against him that have gone uncalled. Perhaps Green’s words will get through to the NHL or perhaps GM Jim Benning can raise similar concerns to the NHL directly.

Here’s the thing, though: it won’t make a lick of difference if the Canucks don’t figure out their power play.

That’s not just in the sense that more power plays won’t help the Canucks win games if they can’t score more consistently with the man advantage, but also that a power play can’t be a deterrent to opponents taking liberties with your stars if it isn’t a threat to score.

The Canucks used their dominant power play in the 2010-11 season as a deterrent — teams wanted to avoid penalties as much as possible — though you could argue they had become too dependent on the power play once the playoffs rolled around. It could play a similar role for this season’s Canucks, but if the power play struggles, teams won’t be worried about hooking, hacking, and hitting Pettersson: they’ll just take the penalty, kill it, and be happy they’re getting Pettersson off his game.

Early in this season, the Canucks power play was dynamite, though it was notably better against weak penalty kills and struggled significantly against the better penalty kills in the league. Recently, the Canucks power play has struggled to convert. Since January 4th, the Canucks are 4-for-44 on the power play, a percentage of 9.1%. That’s lower than the worst power play percentage since the NHL started keeping track of the stat: 9.3% from the 1997-98 Tampa Bay Lightning.

It was at its worst against the Bruins. The Canucks had three power plays and struggled to gain the zone and get set up: the best chance on each of those three power plays were shorthanded chances for the Bruins.

The Canucks are well aware of the problem.

“We needed to find a way to get a goal and obviously our power play didn’t get us much momentum tonight,” said Green after the game. “They’re going to need to be better as well and they know it.”

While the Canucks have tried some different formations on the power play, the biggest issue appears to be how static they are, with little movement and rotation. Something needs to change and it could come down to personnel: the Canucks have practiced with Adam Gaudette on the top unit and his skillset could help shake things up. Jake Virtanen’s shoot-first mentality might provide a different look to the top unit as well.

Hopefully, the Canucks power play will go back to being a part of their winning formula, rather than a momentum killer.