Chicago Hawks 2 at Vancouver Canucks 5 – 2023-01-25 recap

The beginning of the Rick Tocchet era showed some promise with the team creating lots of scoring chances off the rush, but there’s an incomplete grade when it comes to defence, because the Canucks really didn’t get a chance to defend and show Adam Foote and Sergei Gonchar exactly what they were doing wrong before.

Lost in the story of Bruce Boudreau’s firing is that the Canucks have a lot of bad structural habits to clear up. It isn’t just the defence–anybody can point to the defence as a failing of the roster and the tactics. The offence in the months and weeks leading up to Sunday’s firing was also dangerously close to shooting blanks. The Canucks are a top-10 team in 5v5 scoring thanks only to the fact that their best player is having a career season and whoever is playing on his line, mostly Andrei Kuzmenko or Ilya Mikheyev, is experiencing a boost in shooting percentage, both individual and on-ice.

(I should note here that I’m jumping the queue in my tracking and reporting: I’ll be doing my best to get more recent games up the day after they happen and catch up elsewhere, just so there’s something current to read. The missing games will be up promptly, but it does take a lot longer to write about them that I anticipated going into the season.)

So there were two things I’d be looking at: how were the Canucks going to improve their in-zone defending under the tutelage of Foote and Gonchar, and how the Canucks were going to improve off the rush. Clearly, the team has made defence the priority, having retained Jason King, who handled the powerplay and more forward duties. The Canucks rush offence has been bad. Per my last update, just 40% of their shots off the rush qualify as scoring chances, compared to league average of about 50%. The Canucks also don’t enter with control much, so not taking advantage of the rare times they do create space can have a doubly-negative effect on offensive production.

Either way, it was a lot better in Game 1, but I’m not sure how much to read into it.

First, it wasn’t until the third period that the Canucks really started to generate scoring chances off the rush. I’d checked at the 2nd intermission and had counted just three rush chances to that point (tied with Chicago! Despite the massive shots advantage, they were not shots taken from the most dangerous situation), despite the team generating so many controlled entries (22 of 40). Two of those chances were on Luke Schenn’s first period breakaway.

I made it a mission to clip the next Canucks rush chance, should they get another. Here it is:

A rush shot is defined as a shot within six seconds of a controlled entry and eleven seconds of a controlled exit. The Canucks work the puck out of the zone and Ilya Mikheyev finds some space down the left wing. Mikheyev sees two defenders pulling to him (#17 Jason Dickinson and #5 Connor Murphy) and stops, looking to throw the puck into the middle where there may be some odd-man opportunities. His pass into space turns into a retrieval race, and while it’s easily won by the Canucks, they are so poorly spaced in the offensive zone.

Here is what they look like 2.5 seconds after the entry:

Eventually, JT Miller is able to work the puck to the slot and take a contested wrist shot, within 6 seconds of the entry, but this “rush” certainly doesn’t look like that of a team running at all cylinders. It’s sloppy and nobody really knows what they’re trying to do. It looks like the first training camp practice for the LA Lakers in Winning Time.

The Canucks did put together a few more rushes later on, but they weren’t clinical uses of space or showed any ability to isolate one defender and create small 2-on-1s at various spots on the ice. They were a bit like this, where the Canucks kind of struggled to do much with the space a bad Hawks defence did. I haven’t tracked the Hawks yet until this game (the last of the 30 teams to play either Vancouver or Toronto during my tracking project), but I’d be willing to bet they’re the league worst team in defending controlled entries against, and bottom-ten in allowing chances against per entry.

And second, (there’s a point to all this) it’s tough to find out how the Canucks will defend in the zone against teams that are better at offence. While the shot count was elevated thanks to the number of powerplays the Canucks had, they also controlled the game pretty convincingly at 5v5 and Chicago didn’t have much of the puck. Having the puck all game is a good way to play defence, but the Canucks will have tougher games against better opponents (they’re in Seattle tonight) that may still expose weaknesses.

This is about what you could ask for if you’re Tocchet. A softer schedule allows the staff to instill good habits that hopefully come more naturally. If a defender gives you space, take it, and the Canucks were at least doing that. But this is still a team that lost a lot of games under one of the winning-est regular season coaches in league history. A new coach doesn’t solve all the issues, as we found out a year ago.

I’ll be watching for the same things in tonight’s game.

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