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Canucks' stubborn disrespect of the shootout impossible to make sense of

Photo from Flickr/iwona_kellie

For a team which has gone to so many great lengths in an effort to achieve every possible measure of competitive advantage, the Vancouver Canucks’ carefree and careless approach to the shootout is growing harder and harder to reconcile.

The Canucks have hired sleep doctors (even signing them to exclusive contracts so that no other team in the league can use their services) to maximize the rest patterns of each individual player. They do this because they generally have the league’s heaviest travel schedule, due to geography.

They’ve hired nutritionists and team chefs to optimize player eating habits with three-square meals a day and provide each player with take home meals if necessary. They do this because they know (some) young men might not put the effort into making highly nutritious meals on days off, or while away from the rink. 

They’ve pioneered the use of advanced stats to specialize zone deployment and utilize the very best of each player, and that's only the advanced-stat usage we know about.

But then there’s the shootout, a part of the game which they’ve perennially relegated to the status of afterthought, stubbornly refusing to build it out as an area integral to making the playoffs and securing top-seeding.

It doesn't compute. It hasn't for a long time. But this season the teams inconsistent play has made its disregard for the shootout even more pronounced.

Up a goal, up two goals, tied, down a goal, or down two goals — the final ten minutes of nearly every Canucks game this season have withered away amid the pungent whiff of a looming, terrifying shootout.

It’s a fear which says a lot about a lot things: How poorly this team holds a lead, how futile they are at taking one when the chips are down, how miraculous they are at eviscerating their opponents lead late in games, and how horrifyingly awful they are at shootouts.

Stunningly, comically, how-long-have-you-been-playing-hockey awful.

It’s a tidy metaphor for the Jekyll and Hyde character of the 2012-2013 Vancouver Canucks.

Coach Alain Vigneault takes the brunt of the criticism. His choices of shooters are anything but predictable — by way of either logic or history. On any given night some of the best shootout shooters on the team (which says little — Alex Burrows leads the pack at just over 40 per cent this season) sit while some of the unproven or long since untested get a chance to thoroughly embarrass themselves.

But it’s not all on Vigneault. He wields the tools in his toolbox, and it’s not entirely his fault that they all turn to rubber the second overtime ends still tied.

While his stubborn refusal to practice shootouts and develop the area into a type of special teams, with designated shooters and everything (crazy, out of the box ideas that they are) lies squarely on him, there’s little excuse for the types of efforts some Canucks shooters have vomited up onto the ice in front of them this year. They’ve each been playing this game for at least a few decades now, and most of the basic mechanics are fairly well known at this point on the career arc. But Tuesday night’s shootout against the San Jose Sharks would have you doubt that. 

It has to be the wake-up call. 

Jannik Hansen and Alex Burrows flew in on Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi like toddlers from Hogwarts (stick-tap to John Garret for the perfect reference). Hansen went first, waving his stick in the air like a magic wand, before pushing the puck at Niemi like he expected the goaltender to disappear in a puff of smoke.

It was a gut wrenching display.

And for some unknown reason Alex Burrows decided to copy him, apparently feeling he had a better grasp on the type of sorcery required for this sort of effort to ever work on an NHL goaltender.

One-point given away — and after a hard fought game that was one of the better, more complete games of the season for the Canucks. A game they thoroughly deserved to win.

They’ve played 22 games now, and seven of them have gone to the shootout. They’ve wrestled two extra points out of those overtime contests, while sacrificing five. They sit just three points ahead of the Minnesota Wild for first in the Northwest.

These are no small margins.

There was once an acceptable rationale for this. The Canucks were a high flying team that regularly outscored a wide breadth of the league. They poured their efforts into winning games in-game. Emphasis was placed on ending things before overtime or the shootout. They would bury teams because they could. 

Last season the Canucks goal differential was +51, good for 3rd in the league. In 2010-11 it was an eye-popping +77, first in the league by a 26-goal margin. Three seasons ago it was +50.

This season it’s +2.

Times have changed, the team has changed. This is no longer the offensive juggernaut it once was, and it no longer has the personnel needed to shut down the opponents best offensive players.

The margins for victory have narrowed for the Canucks, and more nights than not they’re actively sitting on leads or playing for overtime. Disrespect of the shootout in this picture is akin to madness. Five points have already been given away because of it, and five points is more than enough of a spread to miss the playoffs on.

With half a season still to go, the Canucks are likely to be in anywhere between seven and ten more shootouts, and with their current ineptitude in mind they’re looking at giving away five or six more. Seven weeks from now 10-12 points will be the difference between home ice advantage and reserved tee times.

Canucks President and General Manager Mike Gillis prides himself on out-of-the-box thinking, and he’s proven himself to a savvy progressive in a notoriously conservative sport. But he might want to peer back into the bottom of the box, sooner rather than later. Because this just isn’t working.

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