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Only half of the Canucks’ power play is a problem — the second unit must start producing

The Canucks' first power play unit is scoring at about the same rate as last season, but they're not getting any help from the second unit.
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Tanner Pearson has the lone power play goal for the Vancouver Canucks' second unit.

Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green didn’t pull any punches earlier this week when talking about the team’s first unit on the power play.

“There’s been games where I’ve said they’ve been good and they just haven’t scored,” said Green after Monday’s loss to the Calgary Flames. “I didn’t think they were very good tonight.”
 
“I just didn’t think they were sharp, passing wasn’t sharp on the outside,” he added. “Give the other team credit too — when you get in mini-series like this, teams do make adjustments as the series goes on and their penalty killers did a good job tonight, but I thought our power play could have been better. You’re not always going to score, but sometimes momentum is gained and lost with a power play. We expect that a lot out of those guys.”

Green was right to criticize the first unit after that game. Despite picking up a power play goal on a two-man advantage, they mostly struggled to even gain the offensive zone. In a game where the Canucks had six power plays and they lost in overtime, one more power play goal could have been the difference-maker.

From fourth to twentieth

The power play has come under fire this season as they’re currently 20th in the NHL in power play percentage at 17.1%, a far cry from their fourth-ranked, 24.2% power play last season. 

Most of that scrutiny has fallen on the top unit, which is understandable. The first unit has the five best players on the Canucks and they’re primarily responsible for the success of the power play. It’s worth asking, however, if some scrutiny deserves to fall on the second unit.

Up until Tanner Pearson’s goal on Monday was ruled to have gone in just before a penalty expired, the second unit had yet to score a power play goal this season. Even that goal wasn’t exactly a goal from the second unit — Quinn Hughes got the primary assist on the goal.

While the first unit gets all the attention, the Canucks’ second unit was a major factor in the team’s fourth-ranked power play last season. Players from the second unit scored 19 of the team’s 57 power play goals last season, which is exactly one-third. That’s a pretty big portion of the Canucks’ power play success.

Look at it this way: this season, the Canucks’ first power play unit has 11 goals on 70 power plays, a success rate of 15.7%. Last season, the first unit had 38 goals on 236 opportunities, which comes out to 16.1%. That’s not a significant difference. 

In fact, the first unit is arguably performing just as well this season overall — notwithstanding a few games where they’ve visibly struggled — as they did last season. The difference is, they’re not getting any scoring from the second unit.

Running the numbers

We can compare the two units statistically from last season to this season by using two players as proxies for their units: Elias Pettersson for the first unit and Tanner Pearson for the second unit. All statistics are via Natural Stat Trick

Canucks power play statisticsCanucks 2019-20 and 2020-21 power play statistics for the first and second units.

In this chart, CF/60 stands for corsi for per 60 minutes, ie. shot attempts per hour. SF/60 is shots on goal, HDCF/60 is high-danger shot attempts, and GF/60 is goals. 

This season, the first unit is taking a higher rate of shot attempts, but shots on goal are at a slightly lower rate. They’re actually getting high-danger shots — shots from in tight around the net that have a higher likelihood of resulting in a goal — at a much higher rate than last season, but the goals aren’t coming with those high-danger chances. Instead, they’re scoring at a slightly lower rate, though not a particularly significant one.

In summary, what little has changed in the numbers for the first power play unit seems to be positive — more shots from dangerous areas. 

A counterpoint could be that more shots from around the net means fewer opportunities for a sniper like Elias Pettersson to score goals from a greater distance, but he’s actually averaging more shot attempts per hour on the power play than last season. Perhaps his league-high 7 posts and crossbars has something to do with why he’s not getting as many shots on goal from all those attempts.

What’s more interesting here, however, is the second unit. Last season, the second unit averaged fewer shot attempts than the first unit, but around the same rate of shots on goal and high-danger chances. In fact, they actually scored goals at a higher rate than the first unit, which is important considering the second unit gets less ice time.

This season, they’re getting nearly as many shots on goal, but the high-danger chances have dropped. Perhaps that is why they haven’t been able to get as many goals — less traffic around the net means fewer tips and second chances off rebounds.

A rotating cast of players

Part of the problem might be personnel as well. Last season, the second power play unit was driven by Adam Gaudette and Jake Virtanen, who actually led the Canucks in power play points per 60 minutes. 

This season, Gaudette and Virtanen have struggled to even stay in the lineup.

As a result, a multitude of players have popped in and out of the second power play unit. The two most regular members of the unit are Pearson and Nate Schmidt, as well as Nils Höglander after a stint on the first unit in place of the quarantined J.T. Miller to start the season.

After those three, the second unit has seen Gaudette, Virtanen, Tyler Myers, Brandon Sutter, and Tyler Motte take turns. At one point, Zack MacEwen was even at centre on the second unit. He even took a faceoff, which he won.

"I'm pretty comfortable there. Before I started playing pro, I was a centreman my whole life," said MacEwen at the time. "I took a lot of faceoffs in the minor leagues."

Like Gaudette and Virtanen, however, MacEwen hasn't been able to stay in the lineup consistently and Gaudette is back centring the second unit.

Are the second unit’s struggles just a matter of seeing so many different players cycling in and out of the lineup?

“Yes and no,” said Tanner Pearson after Monday’s game. “[The goal] was definitely a step in the right direction. I think we’ve been doing some good things lately. Obviously, we’re trying to get the goose egg off the board with our unit and trying to help the power play percentage out and also our team. Hopefully, things start clicking again soon.”

The second unit currently consists of Pearson, Gaudette, and Höglander up front, with two defencemen on the blue line, Schmidt and Myers. Last season, the second unit had more success with four forwards, but with Virtanen’s inconsistent play at even-strength, he hasn’t been in the lineup consistently enough to be a reliable option as the fourth forward.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

Perhaps they simply need to get back to basics, much like how Pearson scored his goal: a shot thrown towards the net and a tip from a forward in the eyes of the goaltender. With the drop in high-danger chances, the statistics show they’re not getting as many shots from around the net, so their focus should be to simplify: bodies in front, pucks to the net.

Despite his struggles in other areas of his game, that's one area where Virtanen can be of use. While he's never been one to drive to the net with the puck, he does take a high volume of shots. He had the highest rate of shots on goal on the power play for the Canucks last season and, as a result, also had the highest rate of rebounds created. Perhaps it's time to get Virtanen back on the power play in hopes of getting more shots to the net.

The Canucks need the second unit to start producing. All of the onus can’t be on the top unit.