Canucks Notebook: Special teams units start to take shape on third day of camp

Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet discusses the pressure that is put on the team to get off to a strong start this season and says he wants to put an emphasis on taking the season game by game.

VICTORIA – The power play received most of the attention, but it’s the penalty killing that needs most of the work.

On the third day of the Vancouver Canucks training camp, coach Rick Tocchet unveiled his special teams Saturday in a five-on-four practice that followed the only scrimmage of camp.

Most of the questions to Tocchet afterwards were about his power play, which had Brock Boeser on the top unit with Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Andrei Kuzmenko, and far more movement and rotation by the four forwards than we saw last season.

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But that same unit, except with Bo Horvat in the bumper spot until his January trade, finished 11th in the National Hockey League last season at 22.7 per cent. Over the last three years, which were among the most dismal and disappointing in Canucks history, the Vancouver power play is also 11th at 21.8 per cent.

The penalty killing, however, is 31st during that span and last season was not only the worst in the NHL at 71.6 per cent but, until a late-season surge, was on pace to be the worst since the league began tracking special-teams efficiency in the 1970s.

Yeah, the Canucks power play should be fun to watch, but it is imperative the team gets better penalty killing.

“Well, there’s nowhere else to go but up,” Canuck newcomer Ian Cole said when informed about the historically-poor penalty kill. “Very generally speaking on PK, you’re down a guy and you’re playing against the other team’s five best players. So your reads need to be very good, your execution needs to be exceptional, and you need to be able to win battles and get pucks out of the zone.”

Cole, a 34-year-old defenceman signed as a free agent by the Canucks in July, was frequently first out on the penalty kill last season for the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

And it looks like he’ll be first out for the Canucks when they’re shorthanded. The top PK unit in Saturday’s special-teams practice was Cole and Carson Soucy on defence, with Teddy Blueger and Phil Di Giuseppe up front. Like Cole, Soucy and Blueger were also free-agent acquisitions.

“There’s some stuff that we want to obviously change. . . no disrespect to anybody else,” Tocchet told reporters. “But also acquiring some of the guys, Teddy Blueger, Ian Cole, those guys have helped just the presence. Even today, I wasn’t on their (PK) bench, but (assistant coach Adam Foote) was saying how much Cole is teaching people on the bench. That’s the stuff we need.”

Tocchet ran three power-play and penalty-killing units, with a couple of extra players rotating in, but Cole’s group went against the first power play on most shifts.

“Today was a good feeling,” he said. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself; it’s the first skate, it’s practice, and the powerplay had never worked together before. But I think in, what, a 45-minute power-play practice, we gave up one goal. . . against our first unit. The feeling on the bench was, like: ‘Let’s do our job. Don’t give up, don’t take your foot off the gas. These guys are going to try to embarrass us and we’re going to battle.’ It was a really nice first step to getting good, and taking ownership of it, too. It was a good feeling.”

MEANWHILE ON THE POWER PLAY: Boeser is being given the chance to earn full-time duty on the top unit to replace Horvat, but not in Horvat’s bumper spot.

It’s hard to say who is actually the new bumper — Miller and Kuzmenko spent the most time between the hash marks – because there was constant movement and interchange among the four forwards. The players on the flanks, which on right wing was primarily Pettersson, have been given the green light by Tocchet to take the puck behind the net to create new passing lanes.

Boeser sniped a goal with a wrist shot from left wing, his off-side, when the penalty-killing defencemen were Tyler Myers and Guillaume Brisebois. Boeser also set up Kuzmenko for a tap-in from a seam pass.

The second power play, quarterbacked by Filip Hronek and featuring Conor Garland, Pius Suter, Nils Hoglander and Anthony Beuvillier, also had a tonne of movement, but not as much as Hughes’ unit.

“I think that’s the key against some of the PK schemes,” Tocchet, who is the primary coach on the power play, told reporters. “I’m a big movement guy — filling lanes. Obviously, you want to set up certain people for the right shots. But the movement was actually pretty half-decent there for a while.

“Look at No. 97 (Connor McDavid) and what he does. He’s on the flank, he’s in the middle, he’s down low. Sidney Crosby — he’s down low, he’s everywhere. He goes to where the situation arises. You don’t always have to have your touches in your spot. I hate that, like:  ‘This is my spot.’”

Some players, but possibly none of the first-unit Canucks, will test Tocchet’s special-teams ideals in a game Sunday when Vancouver opens its pre-season in Calgary against the Flames.

CHIPPY GARLAND: Garland played with some abrasiveness in the scrimmage and special-teams practice, at one point wrestling Dakota Joshua to the ice and then trading gloves to the face with him as teammates intervened.

Garland didn’t appreciate that Joshua, who had lost his stick, simply grabbed on to him during a power play. 

On his previous shift, Joshua had slashed Hronek on the foot after an awkward fall in the neutral zone. Hronek stopped and stared back at Joshua before the two exchanged words.

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“It doesn’t matter,” Garland smiled afterward. “That stuff is over in a second. But yeah, it is what it is. Josh, we’re actually pretty close off the ice, so it’s funny. I’m probably going to have lunch with him.”

“I thought Gars played with a chip on his shoulder today,” Tocchet said. “That’s how he played for me in Arizona. I thought he played well today in the scrimmage. He’s feisty. That’s the way he’s got to play.”

ISLAND BOY: It’s rare that Elias Pettersson isn’t the most popular Canuck, but depth defenceman Matt Irwin, who is from Brentwood Bay, just up the road from training camp, is giving him a run for the popular vote in Victoria.

Irwin, a 35-year-old who has logged 461 NHL games for six teams and spent most of the last decade in the best league in the world, signed a two-way, free-agent contract with the Canucks in July and is competing in front of family and friends for a place on the Vancouver roster.

“It’s so special — something you don’t really think would ever happen,” Irwin said. “The opportunity to sign with Vancouver is one thing, and then finding out that camp is here in Victoria, I just think it’s so special. It’s kind of like coming full circle, starting playing my minor hockey and junior and stuff on Vancouver Island and then moving away, and then you get to the highest level in the sport and you come back home. 

“I know how much this camp means to the community. The whole island, especially the kids, get to see their idols come out and play, ask questions, get autographs, all that fun stuff. It’s something that I could only have dreamed of when I was their age living on the island. I think it’s cool. . . for them to realize that someone from their backyard made it and maybe it gives them a little bit of hope.”

HUSTLING TO CHANGE: Tocchet has made it clear to players he expects them to skate hard to the bench on changes. Poor or lazy changes were an embarrassing problem for the Canucks last season.

Even after whistles Saturday, players skated briskly to the benches.

“Listen, you don’t have to sprint every shift,” Tocchet said. “But there’s times when you’ve got to get to the bench to get your buddy on the ice in the right situation. Why would you come off slow and get your buddy in a disadvantage? But this has got to be done in September. I can’t wait until October. Like, you don’t just turn it on and off. It’s called good habits.”

MIKHEYEV UPDATE: Tocchet said winger Ilya Mikheyev, who left camp for personal reasons before the first ice session on Thursday, skated in Victoria earlier Saturday. Returning from ACL knee surgery, Mikheyev may practise Sunday in a non-contact jersey.

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