There will be a major upheaval on the Canucks’ power play. That much was certain as soon as Daniel and Henrik Sedin announced their retirements at the end of last season. Their perennial presence on the power play was suddenly gone and the Canucks’ youth would need to step in to take over.
While forwards like Elias Pettersson, Sven Baertschi, and Nikolay Goldobin angle for spots on the new-look first unit, there may be some change on defence as well.
Throughout the preseason, Travis Green and power play coach Newell Brown have experimented with three different defencemen on the first unit: Alex Edler, Ben Hutton, and Derrick Pouliot.
Green refused to say which of those three defencemen was most likely to play on the first power play unit — “I probably wouldn’t say it if I knew,” he said — so it’s still up in the air.
“I’d love to have a big shot from the point. That would be nice,” said Green, but said you have to weight that element with other aspects of a defenceman’s game. “I don’t think all three of them have a shot that’s devastating. I think they can all shoot the puck hard. It’s the NHL, most defencemen can, or a lot of them.
“There’s a lot of different things you’d love in a power play quarterback. All three of them bring different things and you might see all three of them on the power play at different times.”
Edler is the incumbent, with years of experience quarterbacking the first power play unit. Last season, 15 points on the power play propelled him to his highest point totals since 2012. He played the point on one of the better power plays in the league, but with the Sedins gone, that power play will look very different.
“It’s tough to replace those two,” Edler affirmed, “but I think with the guys that I’ve been on there with and what I’ve seen in the other games that I haven’t played, we’ve been looking good.”
Edler simplified the power play to its most basic elements: “It’s simple: you get the puck to the net, then you get the puck back. Then you do it over again.”
Put like that, it sounds so easy, but there’s a lot that goes into those two simple elements. Getting the puck to the net requires the creation of shooting lanes, which a defenceman contributes to in a couple different ways: lateral movement on the blue line and puck movement to the rest of his teammates.
Then there’s getting the puck back. Forwards have to win battles along the boards and around the net, but for defencemen, getting the puck back is more about holding the blue line to prevent a clear, then moving the puck back up ice to regain the zone if it is cleared.
Then you do it over again.
“It’s not an easy job being the quarterback on the power play,” said Hutton, but notes that having two shooters like Elias Pettersson (Petey) and Brock Boeser (Boes) certainly helps. The challenge is opening up opportunities for them to get shots, with puck movement or establishing the threat of a shot up the middle to create space.
“Obviously they know there’s a couple powerhouses there,” said Hutton, then talked about the challenges of setting up a big shot. “Everyone likes to hit a one-timer different, whether it’s off their back foot, off their front foot, like to have one step in on it, or whatever.”
Hutton is already familiar with how Boeser likes to shoot the puck, but it’s taken some time to get to know Pettersson’s tendencies.
“In practice, you ask him and he’s a little on the shyer side right now,” said Hutton. “He said to just put it anywhere, really… it’s just getting to know the players and getting the chemistry.”
For Pouliot, getting a chance to build a little chemistry on the power play has been a highlight of the preseason.
“It’s good to get that opportunity,” said Pouliot. “Through last year, the first power play, they were so good, often they were out there for almost the full two minutes. Sometimes throughout the year the second unit doesn’t get a lot of time. But there’s a reason those guys are out there for the first unit.
“To get the opportunity to show that in some preseason games, show that you can maybe help those guys contribute, create chances...it’s good to build some chemistry with those guys to maybe play down the road.”
The power play was a staple of Pouliot’s game in Junior and the AHL and relishes the chances to show he has the skill set to produce in the NHL. Asked about his strengths, Pouliot was quick with a list.
“Seeing the ice, reading the ice, knowing when you have a shot lane, being able to get the puck to the net, then dishing it off to the guys on the flanks, who have tons of skill,” he said. “Especially with Petey and Boes, who can shoot the puck like nobody else. You get the puck to those guys, and if you can get it in their hands with a little bit of time, they’re going to make plays.”
The Canucks don’t have a clear number one option to quarterback the power play, and likely won’t until Quinn Hughes establishes himself in the NHL. Between Edler, Hutton, and Pouliot, along with Troy Stecher and Michael Del Zotto, they do have some good options.
Edler has a heavy shot, when he gets the chance to use it, and has plenty of experience manning the point. He passes the puck well and his ability to keep the puck in at the blue line is underrated. What might be missing is offensive creativity; he rarely makes an unexpected play. That makes him reliable, but also potentially predictable for an opposing penalty kill.
Hutton is one of the better Canucks’ defencemen at walking the blueline and is also very effective at keeping the puck in the zone. Where he lacks is in his shot and, while he moves the puck quickly and with good pace, his passes have been a bit off the mark in the preseason for creating one-timers from Boeser and Pettersson.
Pouliot is a great skater and moves the puck well, but, like Hutton, lacks a heavy shot. He’s a bit more effective at getting his shot through to the net than Hutton, however. The issue with Pouliot is that he seems like a better fit in a rover role on the power play, rather than a quarterback at the point. A few times in the preseason, Pouliot has been victimized as the last man back, giving up a shorthanded chance to the opposition.
All three have significant positives when it comes to the power play, but also areas of weakness. It’s currently unclear who the best option is for the first power play unit.