VANCOUVER – In a typical playoff year – remember those? – National Hockey League teams have four or five days to get ready for the Stanley Cup tournament.
If the NHL successfully restarts its season this summer, the 24 teams still playing will have been off nearly five months. That’s longer than a normal off-season for some playoff teams.
With all this time since the Vancouver Canucks last played a game on March 10, coach Travis Green isn’t viewing July 10 as merely the opening of a playoff training camp. He sees it as the start of next season.
A fascinating aspect of this extraordinary schedule break between the regular season and the modified playoffs is the time it allows NHL coaching staffs like Green’s to impact the way their teams play. In terms of tactical progression, whatever we see this summer could really be like “next season,” especially for teams like the Canucks whose young core players develop by the month.
“It’s almost like going into a new season,” Green told Sportsnet. “I think from year to year, the past three years, we’ve kind of spent months at the end of the year watching how our team played and trying to think about what kind of changes we should make and if we should make them. . . both from the players and the coaches.
“That’s pretty well what we’ve done. We’ve gone through every part of our game. I think we had a really strong understanding before we started (the shutdown) about the areas we had to get better. I think we had an understanding even during the season, to be honest. But now, can we make a change to help those areas become better but still not be at a risk of losing what we’re good at either?”
The Canucks, who lost more games than everyone except the Buffalo Sabres the last four seasons, were the seventh-best team in the Western Conference when hockey halted for the novel coronavirus on March 12.
They were generally better across the board, statistically, in 2019-20, although their improvement offensively outpaced the progress on defence. This isn’t surprising considering the dramatic uptick this season on the power play – to fourth (24.1 per cent) from 22nd (17.1 per cent) – the arrivals of culture-changing winger J.T. Miller and dynamic defenceman Quinn Hughes, the ongoing ascension of Calder Trophy winner Elias Pettersson, and a handful of forwards establishing new scoring highs.
The power play alone produced an additional goal every three games this season compared to last year, as Canucks team scoring rose to eighth (3.25 goals per game) from 26th (2.67). But even with a superb season from starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver’s goals against dipped to 19th (3.10) from 17th (3.02) last season.
In nearly all advanced statistics, the Canucks were slightly below average in possession and Green told Sportsnet a month into the shutdown: “That’s an area where I don’t think there’s any way to hide, I’d like to see our team be better defensively.”
He and assistant coaches Newell Brown, Nolan Baumgartner and Manny Malhotra have spent the spring figuring out how to achieve this. And they’ll have enough time during a three-week training camp in July to implement change.
“For me, the analytics validate things I see,” Green said. “There’s a reason the team with the best players have the best analytics, as well. (But) you have to be careful you’re not just coaching by analytics.
“There are certain things I notice in our team that I’ve wanted to do for a while. The skill in our group is getting to a level now where I can do that. And I don’t just mean offensively, but defensively. And work ethics and habits. All the top teams have a tremendous amount of skill, but a tremendous amount of work. To change things, you need guys who are smart and guys who will work and have the skill to do it.”
Green believes he has the players he needs. What he doesn’t have, after all these months, is a regular runway back to playing. There will be no pre-season, his players remain scattered across North America and Europe partly due to quarantine issues in Canada, there are strict limitations on how and how many players can skate together before training camp, and a mountain of issues for the league and its players’ association to negotiate for everything that happens after July 10.
There are a lot of challenges for coaches trying to prepare their teams.
“I think you can look at it that way or you can look at it like everyone is starting even,” Green said. “I don’t really look at it like a challenge, to be honest. I look at it like: This is the way it is and how are we going to get our team best prepared to play Game 1? I have confidence in our guys. I’m not worried about that. We’ll be ready to go.”