Buying In: Commitment to defensive structure key to Canucks' early success

By The Canadian Press
October 21, 2016 - 3:45pm

VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks sat down after last season and crunched the numbers.

Having missed the playoffs for the second time in three years, they knew something had to give when it came to their structure.

"We gave up way too many quality chances. Not just chances, but where you're going to score goals from," said forward Jannik Hansen. "The goalies were good for us last year, but we don't want them to have to be that good."

Odd-man rushes, grade-A scoring opportunities and surrendering the second most shots against in the entire NHL were among the many reasons for a miserable 28th-place finish.

It's only been four games, but the Canucks seem to have found a system that works for them in 2016-17. They are the league's only remaining undefeated team following four straight home wins to open the campaign.

They grabbed headlines early as a comeback team with three consecutive wins after trailing through 40 minutes, becoming the first club in NHL history to accomplish that feat to start a season. But the Canucks believe it's their commitment to defensive hockey that's been the real difference.

"We realized that we had a good team," said forward Daniel Sedin. "We had to sharpen up on a few areas and I think we have so far. We're four games in. It's a long ways to go."

Former NHL player and long-time coach Doug Jarvis, who won a Selke Trophy in his career as the league's top defensive forward, was brought in as an assistant this summer to help Vancouver improve in the neutral zone.

The idea is for the wingers and centres to track back quicker to put pressure on opponents in hopes of thwarting chances against and turning pucks over to head back the other way.

That could hinder the Canucks' fortunes offensively, but the formula has worked so far with three of their wins coming by way of 2-1 scorelines to go along with a 4-3 triumph after giving up 25, 22, 24 and 27 shots against. Vancouver gave up an average of 32.5 shots last year.

"It's little subtle changes that make a big difference, but the buy-in is what's important," said Hansen, who scored the 100th goal of his NHL career in Thursday's 2-1 victory over Buffalo. "You need every guy wanting to do it. It does require a little more work, but so far it's paying off."

Lost in Vancouver's perfect start is the fact that Henrik and Daniel Sedin have combined for just three goals and two assists in four games, while the power play is an anaemic 1-for-15.

"We're going to have to play hard every night," said head coach Willie Desjardins. "We're going to get challenged and we'll see where we're at."

The Canucks are also in a different position than last season in terms of overall goals. The organization was trying to balance nurturing young players with winning in 2015-16, a formula that failed to deliver the latter.

The aim this season is much more straight forward.

"It's not about developing players," said Sedin. "We are playing to win. Every situation is important. Putting guys out there for offensive faceoffs, defensive faceoffs, everything. There is a lot more coaching and it's about winning this year, it's not about maybe developing the young guys like it was last season."

But the Canucks, who were predicted by many experts to finish at or near the bottom of the standings, know they can't deviate from what has launched them to this hot start as they prepare for a tough two game-road trip against Los Angeles and Anaheim this weekend.

"Expectations are what ever they are," said Hansen. "Every player in this league is so good, if you put your best game forward you have a pretty good chance of winning. Where we are going to get into trouble is if we start slacking a little bit, not playing to our system.

"We are going to have a hard time if we are going to rely on individual performances. This team isn't deep enough for that."

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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