Canucks: Four ways to fix a dismal team defence
For the 13-13-3 Vancouver Canucks, defending is a team-wide problem. Here are four things they need to improve on in their own end of the rink
The story of the 2022-23 Vancouver Canucks season is becoming clearer by the day.
It’s a team whose strong offence and formidable power play is effectively cancelled by a woeful penalty kill and a chaotic defensive environment at even strength.
“It’s as good as we’ve played,” Bruce Boudreau said Friday of the Canucks’ effort, especially in the last two periods, in Calgary Wednesday night against the Flames, a 4-3 shootout victory that salvaged a result from an early, squandered two-goal lead.
And both with the eye test and by the numbers, the Canucks were good. The coach wasn’t wrong.
They gave up just nine high-danger chances against according to Natural Stat Trick, one of the lowest totals against all season. High-danger scoring chances that are just about in the crease, short-range shots that goalies can stop if they’re in position.
But the Canucks haven’t had many similar performances this season.
Of the 29 games the 13-13-3 Canucks have played this season, just a handful of other games can be considered strong defensive efforts: Wins against Pittsburgh (Oct. 28), Buffalo (Nov. 15), Los Angeles (Nov. 18), Colorado (Nov. 22) and Las Vegas (Nov. 25).
For his part, Boudreau says the message to his team hasn’t changed.
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“You just keep repeating it as a coach that that’s the way we want to play and you keep repeating practices,” he said after practice at the University of B.C.’s Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre.
“If you’re doing the same things all the time, hopefully you get to learn those habits and you do them on a consistent basis. Success breeds success.”
With that in mind, here are four things the Canucks still need to improve on if they’re going to find consistent defensive success.
Cut down high-danger chances against
Your eyes haven’t deceived you: The Canucks have been giving up tons of grade-A chances against.
Among the 70 NHL goalies who have played at least 200 minutes at five on five, Thatcher Demko has made the sixth-most high-danger saves. The club’s No. 1 goaltender, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since Dec. 1, has made 8.33 saves on high-danger chances per 60 minutes of five on five ice time.
This season’s chance-against rate is way up from the last two seasons, when the Canucks’ defence was widely understood to be porous. In 2021-22, Demko ended the season having made 7.15 saves per 60 minutes of five on five, which was up from 2020-21, when he made seven saves per 60.
The defensive environment is worse than ever.
And on top of that, Demko’s high-danger save percentage is down this year, which is as much about what’s happening in front of him as what the goalie himself is able to do.
His high-danger save percentage is just 81.5 per cent so far this season, down from 85.2 per cent last year. This season’s save percentage is even down from 2020-21, when he stopped 83.6 per cent of high-danger chances.
This is all to say the Canucks are giving up far too many chances against and it’s actually worse than ever.
Don’t blame the goalies — backup Spencer Martin has been thrown into the breach for now, as the ailing Demko is expected to miss another four weeks. Rather, blame what’s in front of them.
Reduce the danger on the PK
Another number that leaps off the Canucks’ stat page is their penalty-killing save percentage, which is the worst in the league.
The Canucks’ goalies have stopped just 76.3 per cent of shots against when they’re on the penalty kill.
That, again, is down from last year, when the Canucks’ penalty-kill save percentage was fourth worst in the NHL at 84.3 per cent.
Power plays are up across the league, but the Canucks’ penalty kill is trending worse than any other team.
Do better against the rush
Clear Sight Analytics’ data-tracking show the Canucks are 30th in expected goals-against in five-on-five rush chances.
“The numbers are what the numbers are. Anybody who watches this team know it’s a problem,” InGoal Magazine’s Kevin Woodley told Postmedia Friday.
Whether it’s stopping more cross-ice passes off rushes or giving up fewer breakaways, the Canucks need to do a better job of reducing rush chances for the other team.
Reduce shot volume against
Demko has faced the sixth most shots against per 60 minutes of five-on-five time this season.
The only goaltenders who have faced more are the two goalies in Anaheim, John Gibson and Anthony Stolarz, Detroit’s Alex Nedeljkovic, St. Louis’ Thomas Greiss and Columbus’ Daniil Tarasov.
None of those teams are very good, so that’s not exactly company the Canucks should be wanting to keep.
It’s a pretty simple lesson: If the Canucks do find away to reduce shots against, they’ll surely find themselves winning more often.
“At the end of the day, last year they were bottom 10, but this year they’re bottom two or three in terms of team defence,” Woodley concluded.
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