The Vancouver Canucks, the best regular season team the past two years, stumble to the halfway point of this truncated campaign in an unfamiliar place, sixth in the Western Conference, yielding its long-time lock on the Northwest Division to the Minnesota Wild.
What's gone wrong is special teams, a power play that can't score, because it doesn't generate shots, and a penalty kill that yields too many goals, as the team's goaltenders struggle with the man disadvantage. At even strength, Vancouver is mostly the same team it has been in the recent past.
Sunday night, when the team's division lead was usurped by the hot Wild, was a prime example. The Wild scored a power-play goal in three attempts, while the Canucks failed in all three of their chances. It was Vancouver's eighth-consecutive game – eight games being one-third of the season so far – without a power-play goal, and the team has gone 0-for-22 since Alex Burrows scored with the man advantage 2 ½ weeks ago in Dallas.
The performance leaves the power play ranked 24th in the league, and the penalty kill at 17th, which is a huge come down from last year, when they were 4th and 6th, and 2010-11, when they were 1st and 3rd and the team almost won the Stanley Cup.
What's missing is pretty easy to identify: Ryan Kesler. He's missed all but seven games of the season. And, yes, there is never a single answer to anyone's woes, but Kesler's impact is central, whether it's getting shots on net on the power play, or being a fulcrum of the penalty kill.
Using numbers compiled by Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com, the following charts illustrate the ebbs and flows of the Canucks as the Sedins age and Kesler struggles with injuries
In the first chart, the red bars measure even-strength, 5-on-5, results, the differential between goals for per 60 minutes and goals against per 60. The blue bars are a figure based on 4-on-5 goals against subtracted from 5-on-4 goals for, divided by games played.
The result is clear: special teams have become an anchor.
Even strength steady, special teams implode
To understand why, the next chart provides some detail. On the power play, the Canucks simply are not getting shots on net. The red bars are 5-on-4 goals per 60 minutes, and the blue line is the number of shots. The power play that once was among the best in the league produced a top-tier number of shots. It seems dumb, almost cliched, to evoke Foster Hewitt, "He shoots, he scores!" – but it is without doubt true. This year's shots on the power play rank third last in the league.
Daniel Sedin is the single-biggest missing piece. He's just not shooting. Against Minnesota, he registered his first power-play shot in two weeks. He has seven shots on the 5-on-4 power plays this year – a huge come down from last year, as he's producing shots at one-third the rate. The result: one 5-on-4 power-play goal in 24 games. (He has two power-play goals in total.)
The Canucks power-play goal scoring has slid as they fail to get shots on net this season
The final chart looks at the penalty kill. The red bars are goals against per 60 minutes, and the blue line is save percentage. One figure not on the graph is shots against per 60 minutes, but that figure has been fairly steady over the past four seasons (from 2009-10 until this year: 48.8, 49.2, 51.4, 48.4).
While the Canucks power play struggles, so does their penalty kill
The team, and its goaltenders, is giving up more goals, which cannot be solely laid on the men in net. But if shots yielded is a proxy for the defence, then the defence remains mostly the same. Perhaps the defence is giving up bigger scoring chances, but it's clear the goaltenders are struggling. On Cory Schneider's side, he's fallen to earth. Last year, he recorded an otherworldly save percentage of 0.959 on the penalty kill, giving up just seven goals (on 170 shots). This year, he's already given up nine goals (on 73 shots) for a save percentage of 0.877.
Take a look at the goal that put Minnesota up 3-0 on Sunday night. Schneider gets a pretty clear look at it, but Jared Spurgeon's one-timer squeaks in under Schneider's right pad. It's the type of shot Schneider would have easily stopped last year.
Meanwhile, Roberto Luongo has booked his worst save percentage on the penalty kill in his career as a Canuck, 0.826, much weaker than his 0.870 last season and still notably lower than his previous worst of 0.858 in 2008-09.
The final problem? Kesler isn't necessarily the answer, even if he is a key missing piece on special teams. Vancouver is 9-4-4 without Kesler this season, and fared worse, 2-3-2, when he was on the ice. Granted, Kesler played hurt, a fracture in the right foot, during the short time he was around, and he came in cold at the season's quarter-way mark. Still, given he's not going to be back this month, the Canucks will have to figure out special teams without him, if they're going to win their fifth consecutive Northwest Division title.