One of the questions we’ve been trying to answer all season is whether the Canucks miss Christian Ehrhoff. This question usually focusses in on the gap in the Canucks’ top four defence corps on Alex Edler’s right side. The Canucks struggled to find a consistent partner for Edler and it showed in the playoffs. What should have been a breakout season for Edler, as he set a career-high in points and went to his first All-Star Game, fizzled.
But when it came to points from the blue line, the Canucks did just fine in Ehrhoff’s absence. In fact, the Canucks improved. In 2010-11, the Canucks got 157 points from their defence. This season, thanks to career years from Edler, Bieksa, and Hamhuis, as well as a mostly healthy season from Salo, the Canucks got 180 points from their defence. Just looking at points, the Canucks didn’t miss Ehrhoff at all.
There was one area, however, where the Canucks dearly missed Ehrhoff, and it happened to revolve around his deepest flaw: unpredictability.
I wrote a post on fan perception and flaws at the beginning of March, where I talked about how Ehrhoff’s defensive miscues were largely ignored when he first got to town, but became more and more visible, and more and more of an issue as Canucks fans saw him game after game. Ehrhoff was, in a word, unpredictable, and it frequently got him into trouble in his own end.
The concern about his defensive ability was probably overblown by the time he left town last summer, and one of the issues with focussing so much on how his unpredictability hurt the team is that it was easy to overlook how it helped. Ehrhoff’s unpredictability is both a flaw and a feature of his game. Where I think this had the most impact on the team was on the powerplay.
That’s not really a revelation: of course the Canucks powerplay missed a player with 28 powerplay points and averaged over 3 and a half minutes per game on the powerplay. It’s easy to look at the team’s powerplay struggles over the second half of the season and see that something was missing. But that wasn’t the case at the beginning of the season, where the powerplay was on fire and led the league. No one was thinking about Ehrhoff’s absence at that point.
Then, sometime in January, the powerplay began to stink.
Daniel Sedin has suggested that the reason the powerplay struggled is that he and Henrik became too predictable. While that is just like the twins to take responsibility on their own shoulders, the truth is that the entire team became too predictable on the powerplay.
The most obvious example of this is the drop pass in the neutral zone. Early in the season, the drop pass was incredibly effective for gaining entry into the offensive zone. One player, normally Edler, would carry the puck through the neutral zone with speed, backing off the defence, before slowing and dropping the puck to another player with speed, who would hopefully catch the defence flat-footed. It worked very well for half a season.
After that, it got far too predictable. The opposing penalty killers could tell immediately when the drop pass was coming and Edler would follow the script every time. The one time he didn’t, he blew through the defence and scored a gorgeous end-to-end goal. The reason that goal happened is because Edler is predictable to a fault. No one, especially the Blue Jackets’ defence, expected him to do that.
In the playoffs, the drop pass became a terrifying prospect. Anze Kopitar jumped on one in game two, leading to a Dustin Brown shorthanded goal. Edler is good at a lot of things: being unpredictable is not one of them.
On the other hand, that was the strength of Ehrhoff’s game: he was unpredictable, which paid off on the powerplay. Opposition penalty killers could never really be sure where Ehrhoff would turn up next and the Sedins, with their superb vision, were able to take advantage of this. It added a wild card to the powerplay that made it hard to predict and, thus, hard to shut down.
Take a look at every goal Ehrhoff scored last season: he scored from everywhere on the ice. Some were one-timers from the blue line, but he found his way into the slot, the crease, the backdoor, and everywhere in between.
If the Canucks want to experience consistent success on the powerplay next season, they will need to figure out how to be unpredictable on the powerplay without Christian Ehrhoff. The most obvious answer would be to find a replacement Ehrhoff, someone with his unpredictable nature and offensive instincts. The two candidates that spring to mind are Keith Ballard and Marc-Andre Gragnani.
Ironically, the issue with the two of them is that they are even more unpredictable in the defensive zone than Ehrhoff.Tags: Christian Ehrhoff, Hindsight, powerplay