The Vancouver Canucks’ first real road trip under coach Rick Tocchet ended Saturday with one win and three points out of four games.
In a way, they were lucky to get that, as the Canucks trailed by two or more goals in all four games, including Saturday’s 5-2 defeat by the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings scored on their first two shots on goalie Spencer Martin and won wire-to-wire.
But were it not for their poor starts and early deficits, the Canucks actually could have had more than just three points from their three games in the New York area and Saturday’s matinee in Detroit. At five-on-five, the team is playing much better under Tocchet than it did before Bruce Boudreau was fired on Jan. 22, even with their net continuing to fill with pucks.
Vancouver allowed 19 goals on the trip and 29 in total during its 3-3-1 stretch since the coaching change.
Goaltending and penalty killing continue to crush Tocchet’s team the same way it did Boudreau’s. The Red Wing power play went 2-for-6 and the Canucks goaltending tandem of Martin and minor-league callup Collin Delia saved only 82.6 per cent of shots in all situations while splitting the four road starts. That is unsurvivable at any level of professional hockey.
And although shot quality, the number of high-danger scoring chances the Canucks continue to surrender, is a factor, five-on-five scoring chances in Detroit were 23-13 for Vancouver and high-danger chances 11-3, according to naturalstattrick.com.
Reverse the goalies — putting Ville Husso in the Canucks’ net and Martin in the other — and you might have reversed the score.
Spencer Martin was a good story, but it has been a while since he’s been a good goalie for the Canucks.
A career minor-leaguer who dazzled as a third-string callup last year to earn his first one-way contract (two years at $762,500), Martin finally became an NHL regular this season at age 27.
He was signed to back up Thatcher Demko, and until the starter got hurt Dec. 1, did a solid job while benefitting from a lot of run support. The Canucks scored 4.33 goals per game during Martin’s first nine starts, when the team’s record was 6-2-1.
Martin came into this season trying to prove that he could be an NHL backup. Nobody expected him to be an NHL starter, and nobody should be surprised that Demko’s injury has shown Martin incapable of that responsibility at this stage.
But since a 6-2 win against the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 27, Martin has lost 10 straight games and his save percentage over that period, .840, is worst among 57 goalies who have made at least five NHL appearances.
Delia hasn’t been great over the same period with a save rate of .882. But he has been far superior to Martin. In simple terms, for every 25 shots the Canucks surrender, Martin is a full goal worse than Delia.
Martin was not wholly culpable on any of the Detroit goals, but neither did he look good on the three that beat him at even strength. He plays aggressively above his crease, which allowed Jonatan Berggren to steer a redirect behind him to make it 2-0 just 2:35 into the game. And the goalie was off-centre and looking the wrong way around traffic when Filip Hronek scored from distance in the third period.
Which brings us to the question: Why do the Canucks keep playing Martin?
Tocchet said this week that he’s deferring to goaltending coach Ian Clark. Maybe it’s time for the team to just play their best goalie until Demko returns sometime before the end of February.
TOCCHET VS. BOUDREAU
On the surface, not much has changed for the Canucks statistically. They still bleed goals against, can’t kill penalties and scuffle in the standings. But at five-on-five, they have improved immensely.
According to naturalstattrick.com, the analytics site, five-on-five shots-per-60 minutes are 32.9-24.9 in the Canucks’ favour under Tocchet. Under Boudreau, the Canucks were outshot under this metric 31.7-28.7. So they’ve gone from minus-three shots per 60, to plus-eight. An 11-shot turnaround is massive.
Across the board, the Canucks have improved dramatically at five-on-five in shot attempts (55.4 per cent vs 47.2), shots on goal (56.9 vs 47.5) and expected goals (55.1 vs 45.7).
What the Canucks need are more saves and more penalty kills.
THE BEST LAST CHANCE
After falling behind 2-0 and struggling for much of the first period, the Canucks dominated for large stretches over the final 40 minutes, outshooting the Red Wings 28-15. They trailed 3-1 early in the third period when Vancouver, whose superior five-on-five play was not reflected by the officiating, was awarded a penalty shot at 1:38 when Ethan Bear had his feet swept out from him by Hronek on a breakaway out of the penalty box.
Since Bear was injured on the play, crashing tailbone-first into the end boards, the Canucks were able to select their shooter from anyone who was on the ice. Tocchet went with defenceman Quinn Hughes, who had come on for a change as Bear was skating in on alone from Dakota Joshua’s pass. Joshua and fellow penalty-killer Phil DiGiuseppe were the only Vancouver forwards on the ice.
Hughes had never taken a penalty shot and was 0-for-3 on shootout attempts during his 3½ seasons with the Canucks. But he had Husso beaten on a forehand deke before the puck rolled over the defenceman’s stick.
$11 MILLION, 10 MINUTES
Rookie Andrei Kuzmenko, whose $11-million, two-year bridge deal was announced four days after Tocchet replaced Boudreau, started the road trip with 18:04 of ice time in New Jersey and finished it with 10:35 in Detroit.
Tocchet expressed frustration with Kuzmenko “spinning everywhere” in Wednesday’s 4-3 loss at Madison Square Garden and, obviously, wasn’t any more impressed with the winger during the two games since when the 22-goal scorer averaged 11:26 of TOI against the Islanders and Red Wings and managed only a single shot on net.
One way or another, Kuzmenko will be a story next week when the Canucks play a three-game homestand starting Monday against the Wings.
Rick Tocchet: “There’s a history here of giving up a lot of freebie goals and we have to clean that up. There was a lot of good things (on the road trip). But if you want to play a fast style of play, you’ve got to be in shape. I think this team has another level of fitness. Overall, I thought the trip was lot of positive things, for sure.”