One of the biggest reasons for optimism next season is the power play and not just because Elias Pettersson will be 100% healthy. No, the optimism lies in the second unit.
The 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks exceeded expectations and a big reason why was their dynamite power play.
The Canucks scored 57 power play goals that season, second only to the Edmonton Oilers. Considering the Canucks were outscored at even-strength, a dominant power play was essential to them making the playoffs. The 14 power play goals they scored in the playoffs — fourth-most in the NHL despite not getting past the second round — didn’t hurt either.
That’s why it was such a surprise to see the Canucks’ power play go plummeting off a cliff like Eric Cruise last season.
The Canucks went from 2nd in power play goals to 26th and that played a large role in the team sliding down the standings. With an even worse goal-differential at even-strength, and no dominant power play to prop them up, the Canucks were severely outscored.
When a power play struggles like that, it’s easy to point the blame at the team’s top players. After all, the players on the first unit get the bulk of the power play ice time and are expected to score the bulk of the power play goals. If the power play isn’t clicking, it’s assumed to be the fault of the first unit.
Here’s the thing: the Canucks’ first power play unit was actually pretty good last season.
Canucks' first power play unit wasn't the problem
At the very least, the first unit was nearly as good as it was in the 2019-20 season, when the Canucks had one of the best power plays in the league.
In 2019-20, the first unit of Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, and J.T. Miller combined for 37 goals on 236 power play opportunities — a success rate of 15.7%.
In 2020-21, that quintet combined for 22 goals on 155 opportunities — a success rate of 14.2%. That’s not a huge difference, particularly when you consider that Pettersson missed 30 games.
The big issue was the second power play unit, which barely scored at all.
Outside of those top five players, the Canucks got just five power play goals from the rest of their lineup: two from Tanner Pearson and one each from Nils Höglander, Jake Virtanen, and Tyler Graovac. That’s a far cry from the 20 power play goals the rest of the lineup scored in 2019-20.
The rest of the lineup got power play goals on 8.5% of the Canucks’ power plays in 2019-20 and just 3.2% in 2020-21. If you want to find how the Canucks went from a 24.2% power play success rate in 2019-20 to a 17.4% success rate in 2020-21, the second unit crashing and burning explains a lot of it.
It’s even worse than it looks. One of Pearson’s power play goals came while on the first power play unit when Pettersson was injured. The other was assisted by Hughes when Pearson had come on the ice for a line change but Hughes hadn’t changed yet. Both could arguably be considered goals by the first power play unit. The same is true of Graovac’s lone power play marker, which was assisted by Miller and Hughes.
Really, the Canucks’ second power play unit provided just two goals last season. They were woeful.
The problem with the second power play unit
You can point to any number of reasons why the second unit couldn’t score last season but a lot of it has to come down to personnel.
Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette, who combined for 10 power play goals in 2019-20, struggled to even stay in the lineup. In their place came the likes of Travis Boyd and Jimmy Vesey, who struggled to create anything at all with the man advantage. That lack of a consistent power play group meant the unit never developed any chemistry.
Without four reliable forwards to use on the second unit, the Canucks resorted to two defencemen at the points, usually Nate Schmidt and Tyler Myers, and the two didn’t click together as Myers and Alex Edler did the previous season.
All of this put Höglander in a tough spot in his rookie season, with no consistency in linemates on the power play and a ramshackle throw-the-puck-on-net style that didn’t use his strengths as a skilled playmaker.
That left Tanner Pearson to try to hold the second unit together and the power play has never been a major strength of his. When he was called up to the first unit with Pettersson injured, the second unit fell into further disarray.
That’s not to say that the first power play unit was perfect, as they certainly had their struggles last season. There’s room for improvement heading into next year — Miller, Pettersson, and Hughes all have the capability to score more goals on the power play — but the most important improvement needs to come from the second unit.
Here comes the cavalry?
Fortunately, the second unit will have a few new players with the potential to make a big difference.
The Canucks’ big trade with the Arizona Coyotes brought back two players who spent time on the Coyotes’ first power play unit: Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland.
While Ekman-Larsson’s play has declined in recent years, he’s still effective on the power play. He makes crisp, decisive passes and has a rocket of a shot. While he only scored three goals last season, that was on a career-low 3.6% shooting percentage. If that regresses towards his average of 7.4%, he should be able to put a few more goals.
Ekman-Larsson had 14 power play points last season — 2 goals and 12 assists — which would have tied for third on the Canucks last season. Over the past five seasons, only three defencemen have more power play goals than Ekman-Larsson.
While Ekman-Larsson won’t and shouldn’t supplant Hughes on the top unit, he immediately provides a firmer foundation for the second unit than Schmidt, Myers, and Edler.
The next piece is Conor Garland, who came over from Arizona in the trade with Ekman-Larsson. He’s a small but scrappy playmaking winger and should immediately boost the Canucks’ possession game at 5-on-5 but he’ll also be a boon to the power play.
Garland was frequently the puck carrier on the second power play unit for the Coyotes, entrusted with skating the puck through neutral ice to gain the offensive zone. With his mobility and vision, it was an ideal role, and he could help the Canucks' second unit gain the offensive zone, a major issue last season.
Once in the zone, Garland played in the bumper spot in the middle, where he could both facilitate and finish. He had 10 power play points last season, largely with the second unit, though he spent some time on the first unit as well. 10 points would have ranked fifth on the Canucks last season.
With Ekman-Larsson at the point and Garland in the slot, that’s already an improvement over last season, but the Canucks also have two rookies coming that could potentially play a role on the second unit: Vasily Podkolzin and Jack Rathbone.
Podkolzin and Rathbone: rookies with power play potential
Podkolzin didn’t get many opportunities on the power play with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL — all 11 of his goals in the regular season and playoffs were scored at even-strength — but he’s got the toolkit to be a very effective net-front presence. He has the size and strength to battle in front to screen the goaltender and get to loose pucks and rebounds but can also peel off the net as a down-low passing option thanks to his excellent vision and playmaking.
While he didn’t get the chance to show it in the KHL, Podkolzin has been a dangerous power play threat at every other level. With his skill, he doesn’t have to just be a grinder in front of the net either: he could be a playmaker on the right-side boards instead, creating chances for his teammates, as he frequently did for Russia in international competition.
Then there’s Rathbone, the Canucks’ top prospect on defence. Rathbone was an outstanding power play quarterback for Harvard University, where he had 17 power play points in just 28 games in 2019-20, good for fifth in the nation in power play points per game among defencemen.
Rathbone may be battling with Olli Juolevi and Brad Hunt for a roster spot at training camp, but he already proved he was too good for the AHL last season, quickly racking up 9 points in 8 games.
Four of those points came on the power play, as Rathbone had no problem adapting his power play prowess from the NCAA to professional hockey.
Rathbone’s offensive skills are borderline elite, with the vision, playmaking, puckhandling, and skating to create from the blue line, along with a heavy shot that he can use to both score and create rebounds.
The question is whether Rathbone will get a shot on the second power play unit. Before the Canucks acquired Ekman-Larsson, he seemed a safe bet. While Rathbone will be an option in case of injury, whether Rathbone plays a regular role the power play will depend on two primary factors: can Rathbone stick in the lineup? And will the Canucks go with three or four forwards on the second unit.
Canucks have plenty of power play options
The days of top power play units using two defencemen are dying and for good reason. Four-forward setups on the power play simply generate more goals. There are even some who think that five-forward setups could be in the future.
While the Canucks have used four forwards on the first unit for years, they’ve typically been a bit more conservative with their second unit. Part of that might be because they didn’t have the forward depth to use four forwards on the second unit but part of it might be a fear of giving up shorthanded chances or being caught with just one defenceman on the ice as a power play ends.
The Canucks potentially have the personnel now to try four forwards on the second unit: Podkolzin in front of the net, Pearson on the right side, Garland in the middle, and Höglander on the left side. That would leave Ekman-Larsson as the defenceman at the point.
The other option would be the conservative approach: two defencemen at the point. That could mean Ekman-Larsson with Tyler Myers but the Canucks would likely be better off using Rathbone with Ekman-Larsson if he’s in the lineup. Even though both Rathbone and Ekman-Larsson play on the left side, that’s less of a concern on the power play.
The question then is who gets dropped from the forwards. Garland stays — he’s shown he can produce on the power play — while Höglander and Podkolzin have plenty of potential but have yet to prove themselves. Pearson has never been a major force on the power play but he did have 10 power play points with the Canucks in 2019-20.
Then there’s the wild card option: what if the Canucks choose to break up the first unit?
One possibility would be bumping Garland up to the first unit and moving Miller to the second unit, which lacks a centre to take faceoffs. There would be some logic to such a move but Miller was also second on the Canucks in power play points behind Hughes last season — would they really want to move him to the second unit?
How the Canucks put together the second power play unit could be one of the most intriguing stories at training camp because getting some production from that unit could be the difference between having one of the best or one of the worst power plays in the NHL.
However they arrange the unit, it should be a significant improvement. Replacing unproductive players like Gaudette, Schmidt, and Virtanen with the likes of Garland, Ekman-Larsson, and Podkolzin should make a difference.
That will obviously help the team get a few more goals but consider the difference it could make beyond just the scoring. If the second unit can find a groove, it will be a lot easier for the Canucks' coaching staff to give them more ice time. That means more rest for the Canucks' top players but it could also provoke some friendly competition between the two units.
At the very least, a strong second unit might be able to pick up the slack when the first unit hits a dry spell. That alone could be the difference between winning and losing some nights.