Brock Boeser is having a great season. With 40 points in 43 games, he’s on-pace for a career-high 76 points. While there are questions worth raising regarding his relative lack of goalscoring compared to his past two seasons, his steadily progressing two-way game and underrated playmaking ability continue to make him an essential component of the Canucks’ young core.
Eyebrows were raised, then, when Wednesday’s practice in Florida saw Boeser bumped from both the top line and the first power play unit.
According to reporters on the scene, like Sportsnet 650’s Brendan Batchelor, Jake Virtanen replaced Boeser on the first line with J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson, moving Boeser down to the third line with Antoine Roussel and Adam Gaudette.
Meanwhile, Gaudette stepped in for Boeser on the top power play unit, which would have absolutely stunned any time-travelling Canucks fans from 2018. In the 2017-18 season, Boeser saved the power play seemingly single-handedly; two years later, he’s been demoted to the second unit.
Before anyone gets up in arms, however, let’s consider a couple things. One is that the Canucks under head coach Travis Green have shown a predilection for experimentation on practice days, trying things, particularly on the power play, that don’t necessarily show up in a game.
That could be the case here — the Canucks might just be taking a look at potential combinations but could go right back to a more familiar lineup on Thursday against the Panthers. That said, it’s not uncommon to shake up the lineup a bit after a big loss, and Tuesday’s 9-2 debacle in Tampa Bay certainly qualifies.
The other thing to consider is that this might just be the right move.
The second power play unit has scored six of the Canucks’ last nine power play goals. The first unit has actually struggled to score on the power play of late, so making a change, even with the Canucks near the top of the league in power play percentage, makes sense.
There has also been an issue finding the right fit for Boeser on the first power play unit, at least when it comes to scoring goals. Using him as a one-timer option from the left faceoff circle doesn’t seem to be working — he hasn’t scored a single goal with a slap shot this season — and the slot doesn’t offer much room for him to use his wrist shot.
The Canucks saw some success with Boeser and Pettersson on their strong sides, with Boeser at the right faceoff circle, but they’ve been reluctant to return to that formation for some reason.
Bumping Gaudette up to the top unit makes sense. He’s been a big driver of the second power play unit and has a right-handed shot like Boeser. Gaudette can also really rip the puck, with a devastatingly accurate wrist shot, as he demonstrated on Carey Price earlier this season.
Gaudette patrolled the left side of the power play in college for Northeastern University. In 2017-18, when Gaudette won the Hobey Baker, he had 11 power goals and an NCAA-leading 27 power play points in 38 games. The year before that, he led the NCAA in power play goals with 16. It’s safe to say that he knows how to score on the power play.
That’s been clear this season. When you look at scoring rates rather than raw totals, three players from the second power play unit lead the Canucks in scoring on the power play.
The only player with a higher scoring rate on the power play, in both goals and points, is Jake Virtanen, whose sample is half the size of Gaudette’s. Virtanen is certainly worth keeping an eye on, but Gaudette has sustained his scoring on the power play a little bit longer.
Boeser, on the other hand, is on the lower end, with only Horvat from the first unit putting up fewer points per 60 minutes. In terms of goalscoring alone, only Josh Leivo and Brandon Sutter, who haven’t scored any power play goals this season, have scored goals at a lower rate on the power play than Boeser.
That’s a little bit alarming, but perhaps a move to the second unit could help Boeser.
The second power play unit has played a more simplified style, what John Garrett frequently calls a “shoot first mentality” on the Sportsnet television broadcasts. That might suit Boeser just fine, as he’ll likely be the primary shooter on that unit, rather than sharing opportunities with Miller and Pettersson.
If they can find Boeser more opportunities to use his wrist shot on the second unit instead of forcing one-timers as they’ve done on the first unit, this could work.
As for even-strength, it may seem foolish to break up the Lotto Line, which has been one of the best lines in the NHL this season. It’s worth exploring, however, what Virtanen brings to that line.
In a small sample of 32 minutes at 5-on-5, the line of Miller, Pettersson, and Virtanen has been outright dominant in their underlying statistics. The only issue is that the Canucks haven’t actually scored any goals while they’ve been on the ice together.
The question isn’t whether that line with Virtanen can continue that extremely high-level of play, because it’s almost certain that they can’t. If, however, the top line can out play their opposition with Virtanen, even when they’re going power-against-power with another team’s top line, that’s extremely valuable.
The question for Virtanen is his play away from the puck. The Pettersson line will face tough assignments from the opposition, so Virtanen will need more consistency away from the puck than he’s shown this season.
So, what does this mean for Boeser? With Roussel and Gaudette, Boeser will presumably get softer matchups, which could help him find more time and space to use his shot. Roussel is an underrated playmaker and Gaudette has taken big steps forward this season. With the Horvat line taking on primary defensive duties, the Gaudette line has been the second scoring line; Boeser should be a big boon to that line and it potentially creates the type of scoring depth the team needs.
And, if it doesn’t work, it’s easy enough to boost Boeser back up to the first line and top power play unit. There’s nothing wrong with shaking things up a little and it might be the best move the Canucks can make right now.