Canucks Penalty Kill & Defence Rejuvenated Under Scott Walker

It was only a few days ago that the Vancouver Canucks were in turmoil with fans ready to pack it in for the season. Now, not so much as they have won two straight under new head coach Bruce Boudreau and possess a certain confidence that was lacking in their game before the change was made. Call it a fresh and positive voice in the dressing room or a system that fits this team more than Travis Green’s, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the Canucks are playing a more structured game and are starting to develop an identity again.

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Though, you can’t give all the credit to Boudreau as he wasn’t the only addition behind the bench. Scott Walker should also be given some props as well. As was revealed in the new head coach’s opening press conference, his new right-hand man was going to help run the defence and handle the Canucks’ much-maligned penalty kill.

Brad Shaw shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle of all the changes either, as he seems to have more of a voice after Nolan Baumgartner’s departure. After two games, you can already see a difference in both the penalty kill and defence with Walker and Shaw running the show instead.

Canucks Penalty Kill Is More Aggressive

Up until two games ago, the Canucks penalty kill lacked any sort of aggressiveness. For the most part, they just allowed the opposition to pass the puck around with impunity until they got a high danger chance that ultimately led to a goal. They basically sat back and hoped that the other team wouldn’t score or that Thatcher Demko would stop everything. That didn’t work out very well, as they put up a historically bad penalty kill that landed them dead-last in the NHL.

That all changed the minute the Canucks had to kill their first man-advantage under the new regime of Boudreau and Walker. They were forcing the play, getting in the opposition’s faces and limiting time and space. Everything a good penalty-killing unit does to successfully kill a penalty.

Scott Walker
Scott Walker (Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

“Evidently, the sitting back wasn’t working, so we changed it up and gave other opportunities to do it,” said Boudreau, who added Tuesday that Quinn Hughes will also see penalty-kill time Wednesday. “I think they embraced it.” (from ‘Canucks notebook: New penalty killers get creative, next-man-up message’ The Ottawa Citizen, 12/7/21).

The more aggressive penalty kill has been relatively successful to this point, as they have only allowed one goal on six chances and that one goal came on a 5-on-3 against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday. Since Walker took over the duties, they have allowed only four high-danger chances against (HDCA) and have one high-danger chance for (HDCF). They have also generated a lot more chances shorthanded.

Pettersson & Podkolzin Finally Get Penalty Killing Time

There are a lot of teams that successfully deploy their stars on the penalty kill. Former head coach Travis Green never even entertained the idea. Now, with Boudreau and Walker at the helm, it could be the norm moving forward. They won’t get primary deployment, but they will get time at the tail-end of penalty kills. In fact, the new coaching tandem wants to regularly use four sets of units at 30 seconds of ice time each in order to keep everyone fresh.

Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I have always been a proponent of teams using offensive players on the penalty kill. That’s why it’s so exciting to see a coach finally embrace that tactic in Vancouver. In the past, when the Canucks took a lot of penalties the stars were stapled to the bench for long periods of time. With them killing penalties, that doesn’t happen as their shifts do not get disrupted.

Offensive guys put pressure on (power plays) and with a lot of good teams, their best offensive players are also their better killers, and they get more ice time and feel more into it…It’s a good thing, as long as they’re committed to doing the right things defensively.

Bruce Boudreau on putting offensive players on the penalty kill

As is the case with Pettersson and Podkolzin, they have both killed penalties in the past. Whether it be with their junior teams or for their country, their coaches have trusted them enough with that responsibility. So why not try it in the NHL? So far, so good, as they have not been on the ice for a high-danger chance against yet. They have also generated some offensive chances with Pettersson drawing a penalty shot against the Los Angeles Kings on Monday.

Was Shaw Ignored In the Green Regime?

When Shaw was hired in the offseason from the Columbus Blue Jackets, almost everyone was praising former general manager Jim Benning for the addition. The Canucks were one of the worst teams in the NHL defensively and needed a voice like his behind the bench. Except when Green was questioned about the hire, he stated that Baumgartner would still be running the defence despite Shaw’s many years of success doing that exact job with the Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues.

Brad Shaw, Nolan Baumgartner Vancouver Canucks
Is Brad Shaw more of a factor with Scott Walker running the defence instead of Nolan Baumgartner? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now only two games into the new regime, the Canucks are finally seeing the benefit of having Shaw on their staff. Now teamed up with Walker, this seemingly misfit group of defenders are playing with structure and confidence under their direction. Looking at the underlying stats over the last two games, they have only allowed one goal and 11 HDCA. Under Green, during the Pittsburgh Penguins’ game alone, they allowed nine HDCA and four goals. They also looked way more chaotic in their own zone.

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With Shaw and Walker, they are calmly clearing the zone either with a smart pass or a flip of the puck over the heads of the forecheckers. It’s eerily similar to what the Vegas Golden Knights do to clear the zone and start a counterattack.

It’s only two games in, but the Canucks look a lot more structured defensively. It can’t be a coincidence that this happened the minute Baumgartner was gone. Maybe it wasn’t only Green that was the problem?

Walker & Shaw Are Perfect Complements to Boudreau

Boudreau is well-known for his aggressive system that caters to offensively-inclined players. Shaw is known for being a structured coach that gets the most out of his defenders. Walker, while not experienced in the NHL as a coach, was known as a gritty, no-nonsense player who always came to work with a chip on his shoulder. He was also a prolific penalty killer who prided himself on a successful kill. The three appear to be a match made in heaven as they all seem to be the right coaches for the Canucks at this point.

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Just listening to the words that came from Walker’s mouth the minute he came into Vancouver was enough to convince me that he was the right choice to join Boudreau as part of the new coaching staff.

This team means more to me than people know…I was telling Steamer (interim general manager Stan Smyl) the other day, I got drafted as a 19-year-old undersized defenceman, back when that wasn’t in vogue, by Pat Quinn and George McPhee. Ronnie Delorme was on the scouting staff with Mike Penny. And they had Steamer, Thomas Gradin, Jack McIlhargey, Curt Fraser on staff. That means a lot to me. I feel like those people had a big impact on who I am in my life, not just as a player but as a person. I feel a great deal of responsibility to them, you know what I mean?

Scott Walker on joining the Canucks’ coaching staff

All in all, the Canucks have three great voices behind the bench to lead them out of the darkness and into the light. Who knows? This might be the start of something special that could lead to a playoff berth or maybe even a Stanley Cup. Stranger things have happened after all.

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