As the Vancouver Canucks practiced this past Friday, the club’s top power play unit was huddled around their primary triggerman, Radim Vrbata.
Vrbata, with the whiteboard in hand, was observed drawing up sets.
His challenge: stay ahead of the increasing legion of NHL scouts, video coaches and sharp penalty killers.
“In today’s game everybody is watching video and scouting everything,” Vrbata told Sportsnet.ca during a telephone conversation immediately following that practice. “If you have success with something after a while teams start taking it away and you have to find new ways to score and create chances.”
For the Canucks’ first unit power play, staying ahead of the curve has been a challenge all year.
When the season opened the Canucks power play was firing on all cylinders. The club scored eight power-play goals in their first 11 games with Vrbata occupying the so-called ‘Ovi spot’ at the top of the left circle, the Sedin twins creating confusion down low and along the right-side half wall, and Linden Vey facilitating from the high slot and Alex Edler manning the point.
Then the opposition’s penalty killers adjusted.
“Early on, that back-door on the power play was wide open,” Vrbata told the Vancouver Sun at the time.“ I was so surprised how open it was. I was hoping it was going to be like that the whole season, but the teams watch video and they adjust to it.”
Opposing penalty killers left a man to cover the backdoor pass and found a way to negate Vey’s impact in the middle of the ice. The club struggled to get inside and the goals and the chances dried up.
So the Canucks searched for answers as a dry spell ensued and their 5-on-4 scoring chance rate atrophied. Eventually the club found some success by removing Vey from the top unit and installing Alex Burrows at the net front.
That success was short lived.
Recently, the first unit took on another new look with Vrbata — liberated from his usual spot at the top of the left circle — joining the twins down low, while Yannick Weber and Edler play their respective strong sides along the offensive blue line.
That group has had some success but their scoring chance rate has — once again — begun to fall off somewhat.
Seemingly every time the Canucks figure out something that works, the opposition finds out how to take it away.
The Canucks have had some success of late with the man advantage with seven goals in their past 10 games thanks to the point shot. Though Weber is playing his strong side, the club has looked to work the puck between Weber, Edler, and Henrik up high, with Weber moving into the centre of the ice for the one timer. When it works, it looks like this:
“Creating point shots and rebounds, and after that attacking with Daniel and Hank,” Vrbata summarized, when asked to explain the key focus of the first power-play unit. “I think we're skilled enough to find those seams. But it all starts with a really good shot from the point. Against most teams that seems to be open, and you can create some backdoor plays after that.”
Of course, like the backdoor play before it, teams are focusing in on taking away that point shot.
A few weeks later the Winnipeg Jets and the Canucks would play again. Watch in the below .gif how Jets centre Bryan Little – secretly one of the league’s best penalty killers - keeps a stick in the passing lane between Henrik and Weber, determined to cut off the top and negate the play that burned his club in late March.
Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me and all that:
With teams now cheating to cut off the top and prevent the point shot one-timer, the old backdoor play that the Canucks dined out on early in the season is occasionally open now, though unfortunately Vrbata’s no longer in that spot:
Or at least Vrbata wasn’t in that spot on that occasion, though one new look that the Canucks have been implementing of late is having Edler – a defenseman – go to the netfront, which enables Vrbata to swing back up high. In Monday night’s shootout victory against the Kings it happened a couple of times, most notably in the moments that preceded Daniel Sedin’s game-tying goal:
Do we credit Radim’s whiteboard doodles for that one? He wouldn’t divulge what he drew up late last week of course, but he did re-emphasize the importance of keeping it fresh with the man advantage.
“It's a long season so you to have more (wrinkles) that hopefully will work,” said Vrbata. “For me it's just more about finding the open spots. If it's down low or more on the top, finding ways to get open and ways to give options to Daniel and Hank."
For now Vancouver’s power play is cooking with oil, though it’s perhaps inevitable that opposing penalty kills – particularly over the course of a seven game playoff series – will work out precisely how to counter it.
Then it will be back to the whiteboard for Vrbata and the Canucks.