Canucks turnaround under Boudreau not as complicated as it might seem

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The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2021-22 season by former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. Rocky Thompson and Dave Barr will take turns providing insight.

In this edition, Thompson, who was an assistant with the Edmonton Oilers in 2014-15 and an associate coach with the San Jose Sharks in 2020-21, takes a closer look at the early success of new Vancouver Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau.

 

The Vancouver Canucks have made a sharp turnaround since Bruce Boudreau was hired to replace Travis Green on Dec. 5.

What’s behind their six wins in a row, five of those at home, four by one goal and two in a shootout?

What I’ve been watching tells me a few things. One of the first things is that they have steady defensive structure. The Canucks do a good job of being above the puck in the offensive zone. They backcheck well, protect the front of their net really, really well. And that’s something, in my opinion, that Green gets credit for because defensive play is not something that gets implemented overnight with a coaching change. It takes time and practice and I do believe coming out of last season, when they allowed an average of 3.34 goals per game (26th in NHL), it was such an issue for the Canucks that they addressed it thoroughly this season.

At Green’s dismissal, the Canucks had allowed 3.16 goals per game this season (23rd in NHL).

The problem, sometimes, can be when you put a focus on one thing, there becomes a neglect with another. That could be the case with the Canucks, who went from 2.64 goals per game last season (24th) to 2.36 goals per game this season (27th) until Green was fired.

Still, their structure without the puck has looked pretty solid to me and their No. 1 goalie, Thatcher Demko (13-11-1, 2.63 goals-against average, .919 save percentage), has also been strong.

And that makes this a great situation for Boudreau to come into. In the games that I’ve watched, the biggest thing is the change in their transition game.

I didn’t see them go D-to-D but a handful of times in quick-up transitions. It’s something that really popped for me with Vancouver, and it has led them to getting into the offensive zone.

Another thing with Boudreau that I see is that they’re really trying hard to penetrate the middle ice, and do it quickly. That can be problematic depending on the opponent, because if the opponent is good in the middle ice and pucks are going there, there is risk for turnovers and transition against.

But scoring is up under Boudreau (3.17 goals per game, 13th in NHL), and I’d suggest that the ends are justifying the means in that they’re creating better opportunities offensively. And their defensive structure has held, allowing 1.67 goals per game (tied for second in NHL).

Some have pointed to the Canucks forechecking game getting better with the coaching change. I can tell you this, it’s not physical at all yet but what I see is pretty good. Often with a good forecheck, it’s actually forechecking the body, and they can retrieve the loose puck. What the Canucks are doing is forechecking the puck by sweeping across the player and coming at the puck more and more. It’s been quite effective.

They’ve also been good winning the loose-puck battles, and here’s where some of their elite individuals are beginning to stand out.

Brock Boeser, on a line with J.T. Miller and Tanner Pearson, has seven points (five goals, two assists) in the six games. He had 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 22 games prior to Boudreau’s arrival. He’s put himself into position to be productive, certainly helped by his teammates. Some correction there was inevitable but clearly he’s got his shooter’s eye going now and he’s been hitting his great shot.

Elsewhere among their forwards, I’m also seeing a kick-start with Elias Pettersson, another talented player who was clearly underperforming. He’s got four points (two goals, two assists) and is plus-4 in the six games since the coaching change. Before Boudreau arrived, he had 12 points (four goals, eight assists) and was minus-6 in 25 games.

I see more trust in him. In the last six games under Green, Pettersson’s ice time had declined, averaging 14:55 per game, and he wasn’t playing that well. In the first six games under Boudreau, it’s up to 17:23 per game. The coach is showing some confidence in him and it looks to me like Pettersson’s been given a clean slate here and asked to prove himself worthy of the opportunity.

It’s a work in progress as Vancouver heads toward the second half of the season, but there’s been an obvious effect on the players’ confidence after the change.

It’s really challenging for a coach to preach defense. To the players, that can certainly be a downer to hear because it’s not the fun part of the game. This is complete speculation, but if what was being preached was a defensive mentality, and somebody new comes in who’s talking about, ‘Bang, we’re going to play fast, we’re going to be up ice, we’re going to be attacking with the puck, looking to score,’ well that’s music to a player’s ears. So if those good defensive habits are already instilled as Vancouver’s were, then the new coach comes in and preaches offensive ideas, he instantly becomes the good guy and the players respond accordingly.

Boudreau is going to be keeping an eye on the defensive aspects so they don’t slip, but really, if the messaging has in fact changed to a different philosophy of offense while still having that defensive structure, that’s potentially a recipe for success.

And, not to be understated, Boudreau knows what he’s doing. Look at his record (573-302-115). He’s an excellent coach. Players like playing for him. He’s an upbeat person, is direct, sometimes emotional and honest, and that’s fun to be around. You have to give him credit. It’s who he’s been, and he’s always gotten results wherever he’s gone, and that looks like it’s continuing.

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