The defensive zone was once a disaster zone for the Vancouver Canucks. But under coaches Rick Tocchet and Adam Foote, the team has become a much stouter entity.
And that has been a big factor in their success so far this season.
The Canucks’ shots-against rate hasn’t changed year over year, but the location of those shots has.
“I just like the way they’ve played defence. They’ve protected the middle,” Tocchet said Tuesday of the key to his team’s victory.
And the head coach is spot on — his team has been so much better keeping the puck away from the middle of the ice.
And it’s no surprise their goalies are having so much more success.
Nowhere does the Canucks’ improved defensive play show up better than in their five-on-five save percentage.
This year, it’s 93.3 per cent, third best in the NHL.
Last year, it was 90.3 per cent, fifth-worst in the league.
A lot of things go into save percentage. Randomness is a huge factor.
But environment matters too. And the Canucks’ defence is a much calmer environment this year. Tocchet talks openly about making sure the goalies don’t have to go post-to-post.
That tracks with a long-standing Ian Clark principle, that a goalie who gets a chance to set themselves against a shooter should be able to stop the puck.
Less movement means more time to get set.
And so here are the Canucks, getting outstanding goaltending.
Since his Nov. 30 trade to the Canucks, Nikita Zadorov has played in nine games.
Of those, the Canucks have yielded just 0.84 goals per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time.
That’s 10th-best in the NHL amongst defencemen who have played at least 100 minutes at five on five.
That’s a fantastic record.
But it needs some context, and the reality of goaltending is a factor in this.
In those nine games, with Zadorov on the ice, Canucks goalies have stopped 96.4 per cent of the shots against them at five on five, an outlandish success rate.
But it’s not going to continue.
Zadorov has been a handy addition to the Canucks’ lineup and you can see with his physical presence why Tocchet and assistant coach Foote like him so much.
By the way, Thursday’s game in Dallas will see the Canucks use the same six blueliners for the 10th game in a row.
That’s a statement about the consistency the team has found in its own end.
Is Casey DeSmith the best Canucks backup goalie since Cory Schneider?
Through the first third of the season, he is certainly looking like he might be. Of the obvious backups in the NHL right now, only two have a better even-strength save percentage than DeSmith: Alex Lyon (Detroit) and Anthony Stolarz (Florida).
DeSmith’s performance has given the Canucks the level of quality start that Schneider offered on a consistent basis. If DeSmith can pan out as good as that, the Canucks will be feeling great.
A good backup means more rest for your starter. More rest for your starter means a fresher goalie when you need him most — in the playoffs.
“(DeSmith is) one of the most well-liked guys in the room,” Tocchet said this week. “High-character guy.”
If you are trying to figure out what the rationale behind Tocchet repeatedly scratching Andrei Kuzmenko, a dive into the numbers reveals a couple of interesting points.
Last week, we highlighted Kuzmenko’s lack of explosive skating, as revealed by the NHL’s proprietary EDGE tracking data.
This week, a new item — the lack of scoring chances created by Kuzmenko.
According to long-time NHL data analyst Corey Sznajder, no Canucks forward is involved in fewer even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes than Kuzmenko, either by taking them himself or setting them up.
Have teams scouted him out? Does his foot speed keep him from doing what he’d like to do?
Tocchet is interested in data — and these numbers will likely confirm a lot of the frustrations he is feeling at the moment.
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