Over the last four seasons, the Canucks have been the lowest-scoring team in the NHL, leading to the perennial question: “Who’s going to score goals?”
The Canucks’ 2.44 goals per game over the last four seasons was dead last, just a bit below the Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, and New Jersey Devils. Even in the best of those four seasons — the 2018-19 seasons — the Canucks only averaged 2.67 goals per game, which still ranked them 26th in the NHL.
This season, however, the Canucks’ offence has been like Will Smith’s life: flipped, turned upside down. The Canucks are averaging 3.47 goals per game in 2019-20, good for sixth in the NHL. Combine that with one of the stingiest defences in the league, allowing just 2.33 goals per game, and it’s easy to see why they’ve won so many games.
The constant question of “Who’s going to score?” has been answered by, well, everyone. Loui Eriksson and Tyler Motte are the only two Canucks forwards without a goal this season, while seven forwards are on pace for 20+ goals. The top line is leading the way, but the entire team is pitching in.
The Canucks have been scoring in multiple different ways, but one area where they seem distinctive from previous seasons is in how aggressive they’ve been attacking in transition. It’s something clearly picked up by opposing coaches.
“They’re skating and attacking with five guys,” said Craig Berube, head coach of the St. Louis Blues. “They’re a hard time to play against. It puts you on your heels a little bit with their speed and their attack.”
When I asked Travis Green about the Canucks’ transition game, he gave me his wry smile that typically means, “I’m not going to go into detail on our systems.” All he would say is, “Our plan is to play fast. If it’s looking like [we’re playing fast], then that’s great.”
It looks like they’re playing fast.
More than half of the Canucks’ 34 goals at even strength have been scored off the rush. They’ve scored 18 goals off the rush at even strength, plus three more on special teams. Compare that to how many goals they’ve given up off the rush — just 10 at even strength — and you can see how the rush is a forte for the Canucks.
There are a couple different reasons we could point to for this dangerous attacking game. One is that the overhauled defence is designed to move the puck up ice more quickly and efficiently.
Berube specifically noted the dynamic game of Quinn Hughes, but Tyler Myers, for all his defensive shortcomings in Winnipeg, can transition the puck up ice with his passing or skating — over the last three seasons, he’s in the 75th percentile in the NHL for zone exits with possession of the puck, according to data tracked by Corey Sznajder. Even Jordie Benn has a knack for moving the puck up ice with possession rather than going off-the-glass-and-out like other third-pairing defencemen.
The defence can’t transition the puck up ice without having the puck, and that begins with the way the Canucks have defended. According to Tyler Myers, that’s the key to the offence they’ve created.
“We're playing an aggressive game, especially defensively and I think that's leading to a lot of offense,” said Myers. “I think with anybody's transition game, it starts with how you're defending the rush… What we've talked about at the very start at camp, we're a very aggressive team defensively.”
That aggressiveness in the neutral zone and at the blue line can occasionally cost you defensively — we’ve seen teams sneak in behind the Canucks’ defence when they’ve pinched up in the neutral zone — but it also leads to a lot more chances offensively, and it generally means the Canucks are spending less time defending in their own zone.
The Canucks’ aggressive transition game bodes well for the rest of the season.
The book “Hockey Analytics: A Game-Changing Perspective” by Stephen Shea and Christopher Baker goes into significant detail about how teams score and prevent goals. They try to break away from analytics’ dependence on shot-based metrics like corsi and fenwick and provide analytics that might change the way the game is coached.
Their argument is that not all possessions are created equal; some have a much higher chance of creating a goal. While this is self-evident when you watch a game — a breakaway is more dangerous than a dump-in — Shea and Baker attempted to quantify how much more dangerous each possession is.
The book uses the term “attack” for each possession of the puck to avoid confusion with other uses of the word “possession” in hockey. An attack is when a team gains possession of the puck or leaves the offensive zone with the puck and must re-enter the zone.
According to Shea and Baker, “There are about 313 attacks in a game between the two competing teams, or about 157 per team. On the average, teams score on 1.8% of those attacks. They score less than once every 50 attacks.”
Some “attacks” have a much higher chance of resulting in a goal, however, and one of the biggest is a “transition,” which Shea and Baker define as “a situation in which the defense has fewer than three skaters back and the offense has at least a man advantage.”
A phrase typically associated with this type of situation in hockey is “odd man rush,” though that can be confusing for a 3-on-1, which features an even number of players. “Transition” also includes breakaways, as zero defenders is fewer than three. Long-time hockey fans know that such chances in transition are dangerous, but also rare, with coaches doing their utmost to avoid giving the other team those types of opportunities.
“In transition situations, the offense scored on 18.0% of attacks. In non-transition situations, the offense scored on 1.5% of attacks. In other words, one transition opportunity was as valuable as 12 non-transition opportunities. (Note that this 1.5% efficiency includes other favorable situations for the offense such as power plays).”
That means an odd-man rush or a “transition” opportunity is more dangerous than a power play. The most dangerous type of transition opportunity in their findings was, unsurprisingly, a breakaway, with teams scoring on 21.9% of such opportunities, compared to 17.7% on 2-on-1s and 11.7% on 3-on-2s.
This type of data could, perhaps, influence a coach and how they design their systems with a focus on creating and preventing transition opportunities, rather than other, less efficient, methods of scoring. It could lead to more aggressive counter-attacking, with more gambling up ice to create those dangerous chances, while perhaps being more conservative while in the offensive zone, making sure to avoid giving up those dangerous transition opportunities to their opponents.
Of course, coaches are well aware that odd-man rushes are dangerous and coach accordingly.
What’s impressive is what the Canucks have been able to do with chances off the rush that don’t involve a man advantage over the opposing team. Just 7 of their 18 rush goals have come on “transition” plays as defined by Shea and Baker. Instead, they’ve been able to create scoring chances and shooting lanes via other means while on the rush.
Take, for example, the Canucks’ opening goal of their 7-2 thrashing of the Florida Panthers.
At the blue line, this is a relatively innocuous 2-on-2, complete with back pressure from two other Panthers’ skaters. There’s no way that this should turn into a goal.
Brandon Sutter and Micheal Ferland, however, are attacking with speed and make a quick give-and-go with a crossover that creates an open shot for Sutter. It starts with Sutter making a pass into open space for Ferland, who crosses to the right side to pick up the puck instead of driving to the net like the defence might expect.
Sutter, with the speed gained from driving through the neutral zone, skates past his defender as he passes the puck, leaving him wide open as Ferland’s defender follows him to the right side. Ferland’s pass is right on Sutter’s tape and he makes no mistake.
Then there’s the way Elias Pettersson likes to create wide open chances off relatively innocent looking rushes: the subtle art of cheating.
This goal from the same game against the Panthers involves a move we’ve seen several times from Pettersson. At the blue line, this is a 3-on-3, with little cause for concern for the Panthers. Pettersson has the puck, however, picking up a nice pass up the middle from Alex Edler, and that should be a concern.
Pettersson cuts to the left after passing the puck to J.T. Miller, which causes a problem for the Panthers’ defensive coverage, particularly when he runs a blocking route for Miller, subtly interfering with defenceman Josh Brown. That gives Miller all kinds of time and space to lean into a shot.
We’ve seen this a lot from Pettersson. When he makes a pass on the rush, he doesn’t just look to get into a good position for a return pass or go to the front of the net to set a screen or look for a tip. On the way to that good position, he always tries to tie up a defenceman’s stick or run some subtle interference, giving his linemate that extra moment with the puck to make a shot or a pass.
Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to get lucky as well.
This goal that was eventually credited to Sutter shows how dangerous attacking with speed through the neutral zone can be, even when the execution isn’t perfect. Note the details. Tanner Pearson is standing still at his own blue line on the breakout, which actually ends up helping: Korbinian Holzer comes up aggressively to pressure Pearson, which gives Sutter more space to attack through the neutral zone with speed.
The Ducks still have numbers back, so this shouldn’t be a problem, but Sutter plays a quick give-and-go with Gaudette, who is seemingly forgotten by the Ducks on the left side. Gaudette has space to shoot, so goaltender John Gibson is out aggressively on the top of his crease, giving him no chance to stop the puck when Gaudette sends a quick return feed to Sutter that deflects in off Sutter and Holzer’s skates.
So far, Pettersson has been the Canucks’ most dangerous skater in transition, with six points on goals off the rush, which suggests it might not hurt to give him a few more defensive zone starts to create those types of chances.
Sutter, Miller, Jake Virtanen, and Brock Boeser are right behind Pettersson with five points off the rush. For Sutter and Virtanen, the rush has been their primary source of points.
This is just a snapshot of how the Canucks have attacked opponents off the rush with simple, yet effective plays that turn 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 situations into dangerous chances.
It starts with clean passes from the defence. The Canucks’ breakout is frequently clean and crisp, with support low from their forwards, but opportunities to stretch the ice with long passes as well. That’s made their breakout hard to defend for opposing teams, who have to be cognizant of the threat of the long pass, which opens up other lanes of attack through the neutral zone.
It’s actually been somewhat frustrating to see the Canucks break out so well at even-strength when they’ve had so much trouble doing so on the power play, but that’s another topic of discussion.
If the Canucks can continue to put opponents on their heels with their play in transition, it bodes well for their chances of scoring at an elite rate for the rest of the season.