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Canucks haven’t scored a one-timer goal on the power play this season (and other PP investigations)

Exploring what has worked for the Canucks power play and how they can get better.
Elias Pettersson and Josh Leivo prepare for a faceoff in the Canucks 2019 preseason.

The power play has been one of the most frustrating and baffling elements of the Canucks season so far.

At times, the power play has looked unstoppable, seemingly scoring at will, and their overall power play percentage is in the top 10 in the NHL at 23.3%. Other times, the power play has looked disastrous, unable to either gain the offensive zone or too slow to move the puck and create scoring chances when they do.

The power play is therefore an intriguing conundrum. It’s far from the Canucks’ primary problem — in fact, it’s won them several games this season — but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it could be a lot better. Sometimes the power play is demoralizing, killing any momentum the Canucks might have gained leading up to it.

Such was the case on Tuesday against Dallas. Though the Stars soundly outplayed the Canucks, it felt like it could have been a very different game if the Canucks had capitalized on their two-man advantage in the second period. They had an opportunity to tie the game 1-1, but looked predictable on the 5-on-3, content to create long shots for Brock Boeser that were easily stopped.

One red flag for the power play is how much they’ve struggled against the top penalty kills in the league. While any NHL team can be expected to perform better on the power play against teams that have poor penalty kills, the difference in performance is particularly stark for the Canucks.

More than half of the Canucks’ 21 power play goals have come against teams with a bottom-five penalty killing percentage. That includes going 5-for-8 in two games against the 30th-ranked Los Angeles Kings and 5-for-10 in two games against the 29th-ranked Detroit Red Wings.

The Canucks’ power play has feasted on these lower-tier penalty kills this season, with a 52.38% success rate, but against better penalty kills, they’ve struggled. Against the top 15 penalty kills this season, the Canucks have gone 2-for-31, a power play percentage of just 6.45%.

In other words, when the Canucks face a team that’s weak on the penalty kill, their power play has the skill to pick that penalty kill apart; against teams with good penalty kills, they get completely shut down.

In recent games, the Canucks have particularly struggled to get shots on goal. In their last five games, they have 23 shots on the power play, averaging 1.11 shots per two minutes. Essentially, they’re getting one shot per power play, which simply isn’t enough.

Taking another five-game stretch from when their power play was at its most successful in late October, they averaged 2.51 shots per two minutes, a much better rate. That may not seem like much, but the power play that takes the most shots in the NHL, that of the Vegas Golden Knights, averages 2.41 shots per two minutes.

The Canucks have to find a way to get more shots, but that’s easier said than done. So, let’s focus on the positive: when have the Canucks been most successful on the power play? Apart from the strength of their opponents’ penalty kills, what common factors have led to more power play goals for the Canucks? From that, can we learn how the Canucks might get more shots and goals on the power play?

I looked at all 21 goals the Canucks have scored on the power play this season and took note of how they were scored, what formation the Canucks were using at the time, and any other pertinent information.

For instance, the Canucks’ goals on the power play have been scored with a variety of shot types: 8 wrist shots, 6 snap shots, 3 tips or deflections, one backhand, and one slap shot.

You might notice a distinct lack of one type of shot: the Canucks haven’t scored a single goal off a one-timer this season. The one slap shot goal was the Canucks’ first power play goal of the season and the first career goal for Quinn Hughes, but it wasn’t a one-timer.

That may come as a surprise. After all, a good chunk of Elias Pettersson’s goals last season came off one-timers from the PetterZone, ie. the top of the right faceoff circle.

Here’s the problem: the rest of the league is well aware of the danger of Pettersson’s one-timer and are giving him very little space to use it. Pettersson is finding it harder to get open than the wrapper on a Double Lolly.

On the other side of the ice is Brock Boeser, who has always been more dangerous with his wrist shot than with a one-timer. His shooting percentage in his career is 9.1% on slap shots (not all of which are one-timers) and 18.2% on wrist shots. 45 of his 68 goals in his career have been scored with his wrist shot, as opposed to 7 with a slap shot.

That’s part of what makes it so frustrating to see the Canucks’ 5-on-3 formation seemingly designed to set up one-timers for Boeser, not just against the Stars on Tuesday, but all season. It plays away from his biggest strength, as well as one of Pettersson’s biggest strengths. But I digress.

On the first power play unit, the Canucks have used several variations on the 1-3-1 formation. The 1-3-1 has become a standard formation across the NHL, but there are different ways to deploy it.

The usual formation for the Canucks, and the one they used pretty much all of last season, is the 1-3-1 with Boeser and Pettersson on their off sides. In other words, their sticks are pointing towards the centre of the ice, with their bodies facing towards the middle. This formation is ideally suited for setting up one-timers, but, as noted, those types of goals have eluded the Canucks so far this season.

Six of the Canucks’ power play goals have come from setting up in this formation, but just one from Boeser or Pettersson. That was this fantastic play from Pettersson: after his one-timer was blocked, he used the threat of another one-timer to set up Boeser on the opposite side of the ice.

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This is the ideal type of play if opposing penalty kills are going to over-commit on Pettersson’s one-timer. When they do so, that should open up opportunities elsewhere. The issue is that the Canucks haven’t been able to move the puck quickly enough to take advantage of those opportunities. Too often, this off-side formation leads to the Canucks standing around, trying to set up the perfect one-timer.

Around the Canucks’ seventh or eighth game, they introduced a variation with Boeser and Pettersson on their strong sides. That’s with the right-handed Boeser on the right side and the left-handed Pettersson on the left side, with their sticks pointed towards the boards. The Canucks have scored five power play goals from this setup.

What this formation loses in the one-timer threat, it gains in mobility and options. Pettersson and Boeser are both able to move “downhill” — ie. towards the net with speed — while protecting the puck from a defender with their bodies. It also allows for quicker puck movement, as it’s easier to pass the puck across your body then to push the puck away from your body.

We see an example of the motion and passing options in this goal from Bo Horvat.

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After Boeser couldn’t open up a passing or shooting lane, he moved the puck to Quinn Hughes, who relayed it to Pettersson. On his strong side, Pettersson was able to protect the puck while skating in on the left side, looking for options: as the penalty kill adjusts to take away his shot, that opens up a passing lane to Horvat in the slot and Pettersson is able to find him with a quick pass.

Harman Dayal at The Athletic has a great breakdown of how this formation works and why it’s so dangerous, if you have a subscription there.

What’s odd is that the Canucks have basically stopped using this formation entirely over the past several games. Instead, they’ve introduced another variation on the 1-3-1, with Pettersson on his off-side, Boeser in the slot, and Horvat on his strong side on the left.

So far, this formation has yet to result in a goal and it’s largely looked awkward. The intent seems to be to set up Boeser for quick shots on the inside, but it takes Horvat away from the front of the net, where he’s at his most effective. The puck rarely comes to Horvat’s side and he’s not a shooting threat, allowing the penalty kill to overload on Pettersson’s side of the ice.

The Canucks’ remaining power play goals have come in other situations: five off the rush before the team settles into a formation, three from second unit setups that haven’t shown a lot of consistency, and two with their 5-on-3 formation that inexplicably includes Josh Leivo on his off-side on the left. Presumably this is to provide a shooting option down low or someone to clean up rebounds, but Leivo has largely been left unused: he has just one shot attempt at 5-on-3 this season and it didn’t reach the goaltender.

What’s notable is that the Canucks’ first unit hasn’t scored a goal from a proper power play setup since November 7th against the Chicago Blackhawks, when Pettersson chipped a goal in off J.T. Miller’s leg.

Since then, the first unit has scored two goals off the rush, and the second unit has scored four goals — two off the rush and one each from strong-side and off-side setups. Adam Gaudette has scored the last three power play goals for the Canucks.

From watching these goals, the biggest difference between their successful power plays and how they’ve been playing recently is how they move the puck down low. In October, they saw success using J.T. Miller down low: he would peel out from in front of the net and provide an additional passing option below the goal line.

We saw one way this worked early on when Alex Edler was still on the first unit. Moving the puck down low to Miller closed the Red Wings’ penalty killing box, providing more room up top for Edler to unleash a one-timer that Miller, back in front of the net, tipped in.

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Another way this has worked is that Miller has rotated from below the goal line to the right side boards, which moves the entire formation, creating a little extra chaos for the opposing penalty kill. This goal from Horvat is a good example, as Pettersson cuts into the slot and no one ever picks him. The slap shot from hughes doesn’t get through, but Pettersson is first to the loose puck and Horvat cleans up the rebound.

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While I’m no power play expert, potential solutions for the first power play unit seem clear: they need to get back to mixing in the strong-side formation along with the off-side formation. They could even switch between the two during a power play when the opportunity presents itself, such as after a clearance by the penalty kill.

Along with bringing back a successful setup, the Canucks need to start moving the puck down low again. Too often, the puck just moves across the top of the 1-3-1 formation, with Boeser, Hughes, and Pettersson each taking turns with the puck. Using Miller and Horvat down low more often will force more movement out of the penalty kill and open up passing and shooting lanes.

On top of that, the Canucks need to get away from repeatedly setting up Boeser for one-timers when they have a 5-on-3 and mix in some different looks. Again, they don’t move the puck down low often enough 5-on-3, which is a shame, as there are multiple ways to set up shots from the slot or backdoor plays by moving the puck down low, below the goal line.