Upon Further Review: How the Canucks’ forwards are failing the defence

Halford & Brough go off on Canucks after another poor effort vs. the rebuilding Habs, wondering how long it will take ownership and management to recognize this core is not good enough or good together, and they need to start blowing the team up.

It’s easier to play certain positions on certain teams based on the skill sets of a given roster, the style of its players, and the systems provided by the coach (and the related adherence to those systems). It was easier to have success goaltending for the Islanders or Hurricanes than your average NHL team in previous years, and it was easier to pick up power play points if you got out there with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, which is just to say, the opportunity to have success is not distributed equally around the NHL.

Playing defence in the NHL is hard in the best of circumstances, which are decidedly not the circumstances being provided to the defenders on the Vancouver Canucks.

It’s a position where, name by name, the Canucks aren’t outright awful, but as a collective group, they often appear to be. They are currently the third-worst team in the NHL by goals against, allowing a staggering, 4.07 goals against per game.

But here’s the thing: on a nightly basis the opposition is flying at them through the neutral zone with speed, which calls to mind the moment when Alex Pietrangelo was flat-footed while Nathan MacKinnon skated at him unimpeded through the neutral zone in an outdoor game.

Pietrangelo is forced to back-in while saying “Oh boy,” knowing he’s dead to rights, because even one of the league’s best D-men simply can’t do anything about stopping a rocket ship once it’s already launched. You can’t gap up in those scenarios.

The issue shown above isn’t just a failing of the defender, but the forwards, too. Forwards are tasked with doing a lot of “defending” in the offensive zone, where they’re given a few responsibilities.

One of those is when the opposing team goes back on pucks, F1 needs to get in hard and get the breakout stopped. His job isn’t to go get the puck, it’s to get the other team to stop skating and passing so his teammates can get in and close and take away options — and then collectively win the puck back.

I worked the Canucks/Canadiens game on Wednesday Night Hockey where Anthony Stewart broke down the Canucks’ forecheck. He showed a half-dozen instances where they didn’t get contact on the puck carrier, which meant the Canadiens D were allowed to keep moving, and so the puck would come back the other way.

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That’s task one for forwards, but another (for the next two forwards in) is getting above the opposing breakout, and this is the biggest part of their role once the opposition clearly has the puck and is moving Vancouver’s way.

F3 should be above the opposing centreman, and the trailing Canucks forwards should find either an opposing forward or D coming up late and get above them, which just means “get on the defensive side between the attacker and the Canucks net.” In this position they can stay with them, and as most coaches will say, they can “cut them off” — AKA run interference. You want to take away the opposition’s speed before they ever get it, because like in the MacKinnon example, once they have their speed a little cut-off and crosscheck has no effect. You need to get on them early.

This poor forward play (related to forechecking and positioning) leads to an inability to slow the opposition down through the middle, and bears itself out statistically in the following categories (courtesy SportLogiq). At even strength (ES) Vancouver’s success rate in keeping the opposition from getting to the neutral zone is 30th in the league. Their opponents get set up in their end following a break-out way too often, and this issue is related to their terrible defensive metrics through the neutral zone, where they rarely influence the play as a team:

Worse still, since the forwards aren’t above the opposition and slowing them down, they get left in the dust, and the opposition then has space to make plays off the rush. That leads to good looks from the slot, a stat where the Canucks are again near the bottom of the league.

Thatcher Demko hasn’t had a great start to the season, I’m aware, but geez, you can’t be dealt more of a 2-7 off-suit than “fast rushes against followed by shots from the slot” as a goalie.

The worst part is that this is not just the case in Vancouver’s more aggressive forechecks. In “set forechecks,” which is when the opposition has time to set up (and you have time to get in your exact defensive structure), this should almost never happen. Yet players are too often defending an area of the ice, rather than a player who happens to be near said area, and their neutral zone forecheck gets picked apart like hyenas on a carcass.

Seattle looks like they’re flying up the rink there, because they are.

They’re allowed to. In the next clip, nobody attaches to Montreal’s speed out of the D-zone, and so the D-man “gets burned,” but there’s no reason Montreal should be so unimpeded all the way up the rink.

Below, it’s not just the D-man having to contend with a player at near-top-speed that’s the issue, it’s that the second player back is on the wrong side of the Sens forward. This is not “above,” it’s chasing because you’re not proactive.

Watch the forward in front of the net on this next clip (this is really bad), poaching for offence as his teammate is clearly in duress and in a dangerous spot on the rink. It’s a hope play (“If it gets through I’m alone for a scoring chance!”) rather than a smart team decision (“Oh no what happens if this gets turned over with no F3”). He doesn’t take a stride until … well, we don’t know, because the camera follows the play.

Below, taking this shot and carrying on deep rather than recognizing you’re the highest forward and in heavy traffic leaves the Canucks D to again face a rush at full speed with little pressure.

In this next clip we’ll watch F3, the third forward into the pile on the right side of the screen who just absent-mindedly follows the play in deep, then fails to take quick strides back when a turnover becomes possible.

In the example above, F3 wouldn’t have caught the goal scorer, but there should be some concern over the second wave that may come behind it. You know, in case of something like this (which is just a lost battle):

The opposition always just looks so fast based on the positioning of the Canucks forwards. Here, in a neutral zone regroup, the Kraken have their “speed” guy (a forward) flying up the wall, but again, this isn’t on the Canucks defence. J.T. Miller should likely either attach to that speed, or cut the rink in half and take away the pass to that lane.

Last but not least are plays coaches call “dive-ins,” where F3 doesn’t recognize the danger of a rush coming back towards their net, instead choosing to skate nose-to-nose at an opposing player who has the puck and can make a play. Sometimes you need to back out, as Brock Boeser should here:

I think it’s been unfair how publicly Jim Rutherford has criticized Bruce Boudreau, but those criticisms are accurate. Whether the players don’t understand their roles, or don’t care to execute them, part of that certainly falls on the head coach.

Playing like this is a fine way for the forwards to come off OK. They cheat a bit and still get their points (the Canucks are top-10 in goals for per game), and so the public blames the obvious: the D-men getting burned, and the goalie getting lit up.

But they’ve been made to look bad, set-up by their own teammates. Vancouver’s forwards aren’t making life easy for those on the back-end, and so if they hope to turn this thing around without major trades and firings, it needs to start there, with them.

The Canucks do need better defending … but at least part of that is from their forwards, out of the offensive zone.

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