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( Late ) Summer Reading: Something Special

The Canucks had a very good penalty kill last year, and the power play had a solid year too. In the Pacific, indeed the entire NHL, special teams are the key to winning. At least in the regular season, before the whistles go into hibernation for the playoffs. Then it's "Katie Bar The Door" time.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

It is hard enough to score in the NHL these days, what with super fast twitch reflex freaks ( all legs and torso with the flexibility of a Cirque Du Soleil acrobat ) inhabiting the creases.  The average in the NHL is three power plays per game.  With the best team scoring once every four opportunities ( Capitals at 25.3 %.  The Canucks were about one in five, and the worst was the Sabres, who were almost half as efficient ), the math says you may not see a power play goal for your team every game anyhow.  So, why does it seem that the "refs hate us", and the power plays that really hurt ( or the penalty kills that preserve the victory ) are always the turning points in games ?

That is why I was a bit more circumspect than the TSN1040 callers and "experts" ( "Hi Matt, it's ...... from Surrey, thanks for taking my call...") . That is no offense to I am sure many of the knowledgeable and passionate fans who live on the other side of the Fraser River. btw. ;-) But a few of those types lost their minds when Brandon Sutter signed long term here for what I thought was a fairly reasonable Cap hit of 4.375.  Here's a guy that is already an elite penalty killer coming to a team that was second overall on the PK, while drawing the 9th most minors last year, and who is going to play second and third line minutes as well.  His production is at least acceptable for the financial compensation.  What's the big deal ?  Having that skill, whether it is Sutter on an already very good penalty kill, or the Wonder Twins making the puck dance on the power play, is what every team wants in the NHL.

That aside, before we get to the two sides of the special teams coin below, let's ruminate on the penalties taken last year.  Check this stat page here, and click around a little.  You can discover and infer a lot by just seeing who gets called for what.

There are ten columns, and you can further break them down into the "type" of penalties they are.  Hooking and tripping, and holding as well ( though that also happens along the boards ), are the kind of calls that happen because player A has been beaten by player B.  There are the "intimidation" penalties, like, of course, roughing, as well as slashing and crosschecking.  High sticking can fall into that subset, although sometimes it is just a careless player with a stick.  Lastly, there are the "cheating" penalties.  I include interference here ( though sometimes this is just a catchall for referees, interference has a lot of grays ), as well as the holding the stick and goaltender interference calls.

The Jets are by far and away the most penalized team in the NHL, powered by their lead in slashing and roughing calls.  The Pens like to play that style in the East, and they are right behind them in those categories as well.  The Jets are also undisciplined when they are beaten, at first place in the tripping column as well.  Or, the Canucks, while being around their average of 9th / 10th in most the categories, are 3rd in the NHL in goaltender interference calls with ten, just one behind the Bruins and Penguins.

You can get lost in the numbers ( and no way the Flames can draw the second least penalties while playing the way they do. Conspiracy ! ), but I am sure coaches and staffs let their teams know who plays on the physical edge and who is a speed team.  Reminding them to "keep the heads up" against one team, and "keep the ******* sticks down boys, and keep the legs moving" against the others. Now, on to the music !

There is no "inspiration" here in the literal sense.  Maybe the band and the sport of hockey share an energy ( and arenas all over the NHL use riffs from many of their songs between periods and during breaks ), but I just wanted to share with the kids ( and let those closer to my age smile as they remember ) the Rock God majesty that was Van Halen in the late seventies and early eighties.   I mean, look at that magnificent mane David Lee Roth is rocking !

This clip is twenty minutes long, but well worth it.  Like hockey is the best sport, as far as American rock bands go, this California quartet are on the podium for best ever from our neighbors to the South.  Maybe on top.  They are certainly something special.

Power Play

The Canucks power play was indeed ninth overall in the NHL last year.  I know we may raise an eyebrow there, as it always seems to light up twitter with pithiness when it is not successful.  Perhaps that has something to do with a second unit that did not score a lot.  Of the ten skaters who scored for the team last year ( see here, thx TSN , and Sutter is included on their list, so discount his 3 tallies in Black and Gold last year ), only Linden Vey, a tweener between the two units, scored all that much for the second unit.  There is not a lot of argument that the second unit could use a boost.

So, no pressure Bo Horvat, but you will probably get your minutes increased on special teams a bit too. Produce sophomore !  Aside from yet another expectation for him, the projected roster next year will also feature Brandon Sutter, probably as the second unit centre, while Bo plays off to the side in the shooter spot.  Let's hope he was watching how Radim Vrbata did it as he went about getting his team leading 12 power play goals.  He'll probably be cycling into a half boards spot as well ( where both the Twins excelled last year. Daniel Sedin had 21 assists, and Henrik Sedin had 20. Far and away the most on the team. No surprise there ) .  But what if Jake Virtanen makes the team ?  One of his best skills is shooting,   With Vrbata inhabiting that spot on the top unit, young Jake would be the second unit sniper on the right side.

Willie would have a more balanced power play with those guys ( although if Bo moves into the "tweener" spot Vey inhabited last year, and he rotated in various net front  folks instead, that could be another option ).

The Point

Yannick Weber; The most successful defenseman last year, he had 5 of his 11 goals on the power play, and is that right hand shot that the Twins can get those prime shooting opportunities. Has the right handed shot that is not "Salo" heavy, but still pretty good !

Alexander Eder; The Left handed bomb.  Sure can shoot it, but consider his 4,6% shooting % is half Weber's 9.4.  Perhaps because he led the team with 64 missed shots ?  If this guy ever gets the right stick pattern...

Dan Hamhuis: He had 1 goal on the PP last year, his only tally all year, and his 1.2% shooting % was ghastly.  Will Willie keep the vet, or go with a kid ? Like.....

Frank Corrado: In the AHL, playing the point is one thing, in the NHL the other, but Frankie has scored at this level, and does seem to be able to get the shot through.  Which is a skill in itself.

Christopher Tanev: The Iceman.  The thing with him is, he does things right at a very high percentage.  Just that.  He does the right thing way more often than not.  Has the defensive side on lock, but may need to give a little to get more of that offensive game that is hibernating inside.  He was a forward at a high level at a young age, with guys like Stamkos, in Toronto.  It's there. Oh yeah, has an almost Gumby like ability to avoid the big hit.  Let's hope that continues.

Matt Bartkowski: The Boston castoff did play a little second unit now and again with the Bruins.  Honestly, I don't know enough about him, myself.  The one I am looking forward to watching the most though.  No pressure new blood, but we kind of like bitching about the blue line in this city. Enjoy and welcome...

The Numbers

We realize in Vancouver how important the special teams are  in our sport.  In 2011, the Canucks rode a power play and penalty kill that were both in the Top 5.  Last year, the penalty kill was second, and the power play was ninth.  That is getting there, as far as things go.  The trick will be sustaining the one, while making the other a little bit better.

Click around there a bit.  The great thing about the ESPN tables is all the headings are clickable, making it easy to see how teams have done.  You can see there is room for improvement, even in the second penalty kill by percentage.  They were only 6th best on the PK at home, ( while 2nd to Carolina on the road, where they had 49 more penalties than the 100 Carolina faced on the road, at 86.6 % to the 87% of the Hurricanes ).  They were the 12th best power play at home, and the 16th best on the road, yet 9th best overall.

The power play and penalty kill is not where a lot of line match ups happen, but there are times here and there where the home coach has the advantage.  But mainly, it is effort and execution.  We know they put in the effort on the PK.  Perhaps some new blood ( as discussed in earlier posts ) like Horvat and maybe Virtanen in that "magic shooty spot" will bring those percentages a little higher.

The Penalty Kill

When you have the second best penalty kill during the regular season, you should be able to repeat that the next year.  The Canucks have a great many of the same cast of characters.  Higgins, Burrows, Hansen, Dorsett, Horvat, will be joined by Sutter, and the Twins taking that last 30 seconds.  That is a pretty formidable bunch, if last year's results are to be believed as repeatable.  The other forwards that will be a part of the team this year, they may, or may not get time on the PK.  But the will realize it is a high standard.  The penalty kill is different than the power play.  The former is all about effort, the latter is all about the systems used and executed.

Some might say that Casual Kev' being gone is a good thing, but he was a regular part of the Number Two penalty kill in the NHL last season.  Those numbers will have to be replaced.  Also, for the many Sbisa fans out there, he was also a part of that very good PK last year.  He will have to find another partner, while the first pairing of Edler and Tanev will be getting a bunch of the minutes as well. Yannick Weber will be on the third pairing again, probably...

But none of that compares to the penalty killing machine that is Dan Hamhuis.  I mentioned him being replaced above, but if he is traded, or decides to continue his work elsewhere, ( or if GMJB decides to replace him ) , then the penalty kill will take a serious hit.  His stick, positioning, and the way he thinks the game are so noticeable on the penalty kill, where it seems that sometimes he is at the place the opposition forward is sending the puck around the boards before the guy even realizes it, and down the ice it goes again.

For now though, Hammer is here, and a big part of the penalty kill that will once again be counted on to kill them off at a high percentage.  The power play still has, and will for a few more years, two of the most gifted and imaginative offensive players in the NHL setting up a dead eyed sniper like Radim Vrbata for pretty, pretty goals.  There is plenty to build on to make the "teams" even more special.