Alex Edler has been the point man on the Canucks’ first power play unit for almost his entire career. From his second full season with the Canucks, he was either with Kevin Bieksa or Christian Ehrhoff on the first unit, or manning the blue line by himself.
It’s not hard to understand why: he’s good at it, even if some Canucks fans might disagree. He is a steady presence, moves the puck well, and, though it seldom sees use these days, has a bomb of a slap shot. He also knows when to be cautious and get back defensively to prevent shorthanded goals, which is a somewhat underrated aspect of being the lone defenceman on the power play.
For instance, over the last three seasons, just one Canucks defenceman has been on the ice for a lower rate of shorthanded goals than Edler: Ben Hutton. Michael Del Zotto, for the record, has been on the ice for the highest rate of shorthanded goals.
The frustration with Edler on the power play, for some Canucks fans, seems to stem from him not being a prototypical power play quarterback. With the Sedins running the power play, he never really had to be. Edler isn’t particularly dynamic and doesn’t make unexpected creative plays, but he’s good at reliably getting the puck to those that are and do.
Of course, a big reason for Edler remaining on the first power play unit for the bulk of his career is that the Canucks have never had anyone more qualified for the role. That remains true this season: Edler is still the most qualified candidate on the team, though Quinn Hughes should challenge for the job next season if Edler is still in Vancouver.
But that’s in the future, and the present reality is that Edler is injured and someone has to step up to do the job.
“It’s easier said than done,” said Canucks head coach Travis Green earlier this week. “Number one point men, power play D-men in the league, they’re hard to find. Eddy’s been in that spot and we’re going to give some of our young D, they’re going to get an opportunity now: Derrick [Pouliot] and [Ben Hutton].”
So far, Pouliot has been the first choice on the first unit, with Hutton on the second unit, though that has occasionally shifted in-game.
While the power play is a big opportunity, it’s also a big challenge — “It’s not an easy job,” said Hutton during the preseason — and the power play has looked shaky in the games since Edler was injured. They’ve scored just one power play goal on 11 opportunities since Edler left in the first period against the Vegas Golden Knights, and that goal wasn’t on a typical power play setup: Jake Virtanen scored on a long wrist shot after stepping over the blue line, immediately after a 4-on-4 situation ended and the power play began. Further cementing its atypical status is that the defenceman who assisted on the goal was Alex Biega.
While Pouliot and Hutton have struggled thus far to fill in for Edler, Green isn’t expecting perfection from either of them.
“I’m expecting them just to give us their best, their individual best,” said Green. “They don’t need to be Eddy, they don’t need to be Doughty, they need to be the best they can be — nothing more, nothing less.”
“This isn’t the first time they’ve played the power play,” he added. “We’re not asking them to all of a sudden do anything that they weren’t doing last week. It’s the same thing. Derrick will play with a different unit. The big thing is confidence, and if you’re confident, you make the right read, it’s natural. And if you’re trying to think too much, usually you’re a half-second late.”
While it’s still early in the season, the initial results from Pouliot and Hutton haven’t been encouraging. The Canucks have actually been out-scored 2-1 with Pouliot on the power play, though one of those shorthanded goals was into an empty net. Meanwhile, the Canucks have yet to score at all with Hutton on the power play, though he’s only played just over 9 minutes with the man advantage.
The Canucks seem intent on sticking with Pouliot and Hutton on the power play, however, and giving them a chance to develop that confidence to make the right play. When asked if the coaching staff had given any consideration to someone like Troy Stecher, Green was dismissive.
“Not really,” he said, then circled back. “We think about a lot of things. Like, I’m being a bit of a smartass, but trust me, we’re trying to squeeze anything we can out of everything. We’ve thought about Stech, we’ve thought about [Michael] Del Zotto, we’ve thought about all our D. We’ll try to make the best decision we can.”
It’s the job of the coaching staff to consider every option and of course they’ve thought about other defencemen on the power play. It’s hard to say that they’ve given Stecher an opportunity to earn a spot on the power play, however.
Stecher played just over 17 minutes on the power play all of last season, and has played 4:31 on the power play so far this season, mostly incidental minutes when they want to have two defencemen on the point as a power play expires.
Even during the preseason, Stecher didn’t get a tryout on the top power play unit: Edler, Pouliot, and Hutton were the primary point-men on the first unit.
Stecher’s name was bound to come up in the power play discussion for several reasons. First, he’s a right-handed shot, which would seem to make him a natural fit for a power play that sets up on the right side. A right-handed shot can be available for a one-timer and get shots away quicker on passes from the right side, as they don’t need to take the time to rotate their hips like a left-handed shot.
The Canucks’ other right-handed shots aren’t ideal for the power play for multiple reasons: Chris Tanev doesn’t have an offensive-minded game. Erik Gudbranson has a big slap shot, but lacks the lateral mobility to create shooting lanes to use it, and is not a very good puck distributor. And Alex Biega, though he had that power play assist on Virtanen’s goal, just isn’t cut out for the job.
Stecher, however, has the hockey IQ, the lateral mobility at the blue line, and the passing ability to make some sense to play on the power play. On top of that, he played the power play at the University of North Dakota with Brock Boeser, so there may be some leftover chemistry there.
On the latest Black Aces podcast, we discussed Stecher on the power play, with Ryan Biech and Harman Dayal weighing in on why they think Stecher is a good fit.
“I would be 100% down with that,” said Biech. “It’s been something that’s rattling around in my mind for awhile...I think the power play would be ten times more effective with Stecher.”
“I’ve been a big supporter of that too,” said Dayal. “In January...I wrote about the idea of having Troy Stecher on that top unit...his ability to get that shot through traffic, especially as a right-hand option, it’s a nice bonus to have.”
“In terms of his lateral movement,” he added, “I really like how he’s able to draw defenders to the outside and what that does is it creates just a little bit more space and those are just small subtle things, but they help with distribution as well. Even if Troy Stecher isn’t the best passer, per se, because he has that skating ability to roam the blue line east-west, it makes it a lot easier in terms of creating space for a lot of the other players on the ice.”
So, why haven’t the Canucks tried Stecher on the power play, either last season or this season. Green wasn’t exactly forthcoming, so we’re left to speculate.
One thing to keep in mind is that Stecher wasn’t particularly productive on the power play in his NCAA career. He had 4 power play points as a freshman, then none as a sophomore. In 2015-16, his junior and final year, he managed just 8 points on the power play. North Dakota had a middle-of-the-road power play, connecting on 19.14% of their power plays, a far cry from the NCAA-leading 32.00% of Michigan that season.
While that makes his overall production — 29 points in 43 games — more impressive because the bulk of it came at even-strength, it does suggest that Stecher didn’t have a reputation as a power play quarterback.
In his rookie season in the NHL, Stecher got plenty of power play time under head coach Willie Desjardins. In fact, he played more than Edler — over 52 minutes more — despite playing a similar number of games.
The power play was awful that season, converting on just 14.1% of their power play opportunities, ahead of only the Colorado Avalanche. The blame for that doesn’t rest solely on Stecher, of course, and he was just a rookie, but it doesn’t bode well that the one time Stecher got significant time on the man advantage, it was the worst Canucks power play since the late 90’s.
Perhaps when the coaching staff looks at their options, these are the statistics that give them pause when considering Stecher on the power play. Perhaps it’s for other reasons that they see on the ice in games or at practice.
That said, the Canucks are in a position to experiment this season. It’s certainly possible that Stecher, with a couple years of NHL experience under his belt, would be more effective on the power play than in his rookie year. If Pouliot and Hutton continue to struggle on the power play, it’s tough to imagine the harm in giving Stecher an opportunity in that role.