The 2013-14 campaign was disastrous for the Vancouver Canucks. It ended in the dismissal of the team’s GM, the firing of a head coach who was one season into to a five-year contract, and the departure of both the featured players in the club’s long-running goalie soap opera.
Not on the long list of vanished personnel is the team’s long-time top duo of Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Both had miserable offensive campaigns but are pivotal to Vancouver’s hopes of rebounding from last season’s debacle. What happened to the twins, and can incoming coach Willie Desjardins right it?
As odd as it sounds, in at least one area he would be well-advised to follow Tortorella’s lead. Vancouver’s power play imploded the season before Alain Vigneault left for New York, dropping from fourth in the NHL in efficiency down to 22nd. The group finished 26th in the league in 2013-14, but the circumstances behind that lousy finish (and the Sedins’ mediocre numbers) were radically different than they had been the previous year.
For some reason, the Canucks stopped shooting the puck on the power play. From 2010-12, Vancouver averaged 112 shot attempts per hour of five-on-four play with Henrik Sedin on the ice. In 2012-13, that number fell to 83 attempts. Under Tortorella in 2013-14, the power play was once again averaging 112 attempts per hour when Henrik Sedin was out there, but his scoring numbers remained firmly in the toilet. Why? Because Vancouver’s shooting percentage collapsed just as its shot rates rebounded.
A monster shooting percentage year helped fuel the Sedins’ brilliant 2010-11 seasons, but that ultimately proved unsustainable and the Canucks settled in near the NHL average with the twins on the ice. Under Tortorella, the shooting percentage imploded, making the unit look worse than it actually was. This isn’t something that just happens to Tortorella’s teams, either; from 2010-13 the New York Rangers’ five-on-four shooting percentage hovered right around the middle of the NHL pack.
Assuming that Desjardins can keep the man advantage firing at the same rate that it did under Tortorella, the shooting percentage should correct itself. On that note, in his two seasons as an AHL head coach, his Texas Stars ranked either first or second in the league in power play efficiency. It’s a nice combination for Vancouver: a man who understands the power play joins a team with a unit that’s better than it looks at first glance. It’s not only good for the Canucks, but a revived power play could add 10 points to each Sedin twin’s season totals all by itself.
What about elsewhere? Tortorella certainly handled the players wrong, but not in the way the traditional narrative dictates. There’s a story that the extra ice-time damaged the Sedins and wore them down, and that the new coach stopped giving the players the offensive zone push they got under Vigneault. It’s mostly hokum.
To begin with, Tortorella didn’t abandon Vigneault’s well-known strategy of giving the Sedins a push in the offensive zone. In 2012-13, they started two shifts in the opposition’s end of the rink for every one they started in their own end; in 2013-14 the ratio was three to two. That’s a drop from a 65-percent offensive-zone start down to 60 percent. It’s a tweak, not a wholesale change, and it isn’t what caused the Sedins’ offensive totals to fall off.
The well-worn story about too much usage wearing them down sounds good but has some problems. It’s true that Henrik and Daniel slowed as the season went on, but the weird thing is that the collapse wasn’t across the board. If the players were really worn out, we would expect to see problems show up in areas aside from their point totals; for example, to see the team get out-shot as player performance collapsed. Here’s what happened:
We do see a Corsi drop in Henrik’s case, but Daniel’s possession numbers actually improved in the latter half of the season—despite a slightly tougher zone start. The common thread was a dramatic drop in on-ice shooting percentage in the second half of the year. Prior to Jan. 1, pucks were going in at the same rate they always had with the Sedins on the ice; afterward they were down by roughly one-third. Some of that might be related to workload, but most of it is likely just an unfortunate cold stretch; after all, the twins were still out-shooting the opposition.
That doesn’t mean Tortorella should be allowed to get off the hook entirely. The Sedins did see a massive reduction in their on-ice effectiveness, with the Canucks out-scoring and out-shooting by lesser amounts.
It’s true that older players see a gradual erosion in their skills, and the 33-year-old Sedins aren’t likely to be exceptions to the rule. But that’s a fairly big year-over-year drop, and it coincides with the arrival of a coach with a self-stated mission to really focus on defensive play. “What I am talking about is creating a culture and an identity,” Tortorella said at training camp. “It’s about little things, protecting a puck, eating a puck on the wall when you can’t get it out instead of turning it over. Blocking shots, I know that just lights a fire… develops a culture, and when you have a Sedin blocking a shot, watch what the bench does. It’s 10-feet tall.”
The goal was to help the Sedins individually and the Canucks as a collective to be more effective in the post-season after two consecutive first-round exits. Instead, Tortorella kneecapped the Sedins’ creativity (even prior to their second-half slump, both were trailing their offensive averages from theplast few years at even strength) and reduced the margin by which they out-shot and out-scored the opposition. The Canucks went from first-round exits to missing the post-season entirely.
The good news for Vancouver fans is that this should be reversible. There’s no reason that Willie Desjardins has to follow Tortorella’s example; instead he can allow the Sedins to do what they do best. As the coach of a highly offence-oriented (and ultimately championship-winning) AHL club, up-tempo is right in his wheelhouse. “I’ve had teams that have always scored,” Desjardins told reporters earlier this month. “I think part of that comes from the style and allowing your players opportunities. I think we have talented players. I do. I look at the lineup and I think we have guys who can score. That’s what I believe—that we’re not going to be a team that can’t score. We have lots of talent, lots of skill.”
It’s a strategy that should get the most out of the Sedin twins. Combined with the expected shooting percentage bounce for the duo on both the power play and at even-strength, 2014-15 should be much brighter for both them and the team as a whole.