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Accelerated learning curve

by Thomas Drance / Vancouver Canucks
Development isn’t always linear for elite-level hockey players.

This isn’t a new thing, there’s a reason the term ‘sophomore slump’ is common in the lexicon of hockey fans and media. Improvement occurs in fits and starts, especially for young players in the toughest hockey league in the world.

As the Vancouver Canucks integrate a host of young players into everyday NHL jobs, this will be a story worth watching, as it was last season for Bo Horvat.

Horvat got off to a slow start in his rookie season. It seemed to him a bit to figure out the NHL game.

Once things clicked in about January though, Horvat was off to the races. His ice time increased precipitously, as did both his underlying and offensive results. By playoff time, Horvat was arguably one of Vancouver’s best skaters.

It’s been something of a different story for fellow OHL alum Jared McCann. Though McCann also managed to break into ‘the show’ at 19, his rookie campaign got off to a much hotter start than Horvat’s did. At the end of October, McCann was leading all Canucks skaters in goals. It seemed like every shot McCann took found the back of the net.

Things have slowed down a bit for McCann offensively, as the rookie centre has managed just one goal and three assists in 12 games in November so far. As quick and deceptive as McCann’s release is, he wasn’t likely to shoot 30 percent forever.

Though McCann’s blistering offensive pace has slowed down in November, his play away from the puck is coming along nicely. It sure seems like the 19-year-old pivot’s two-way game is on an accelerated learning curve.

Early in the season the Canucks were extraordinarily permissive when McCann was on the ice at even strength. Of late, that hasn’t been the case, which is doubly impressive when you consider that McCann has been thrust into an expanded role as a result of Brandon Sutter’s injury.

Just in terms of the Canucks’ performance suppressing shot attempts with McCann on the ice, the improvement over the past few weeks has been dramatic. Using a rolling 10-game average, here is what’s occurred to the rate at which the Canucks surrender shot attempts against at 5-on-5 with McCann on the sheet:

(Courtesy: War-on-ice.com)

It was well known that McCann possessed a high-end wrist shot, but the defensive side of the game was one of McCann’s major calling cards when he was in major junior with the Soo Greyhounds.

“He played versus the opposition’s 1st or 2nd line,” said former Greyhounds general manager and current Toronto Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas in an interview with CanucksArmy.com following McCann’s draft.

“The other thing that hinders Jared (and all of our centres production) is the system we deploy in the defensive zone,” Dubas said later in the interview, referring to McCann’s pedestrian counting stats in his first-time draft eligible season. “The centres must come very low (to the goalie) to provide the D a controlled option low in the zone. He cannot cheat ever or leave the zone, thus you will never see him slide behind the opposition D for easy chances and often has the puck with 5 members of the opposition in front of him versus 2 or 3 if he got the breakout pass from the winger off the wall as many others do.”

No one is worrying about McCann’s offensive production anymore, but it seems notable that the 19-year-old’s two-way abilities have come to the surface so quickly. It sure seems like he’s figuring out how to be effective away from the puck at the NHL level at a rapid pace.

With improved defensive play generally comes enhanced responsibility and ice time, which is consistent with what we’ve seen over the past month for McCann:

(Courtesy: war-on-ice.com)

November has been a tough month for the Canucks, which is probably to be expected for a team with so many injuries and so many young players holding down key supporting roles. There will be growing pains. Remember: development isn’t a linear process.

There will also be incremental improvement though. McCann’s play away from the puck, for example, appears to be maturing rapidly in his first two months as an NHL player.

For a Canucks club in the process of an unconventional hybrid-type rebuild, that’s an enormously positive sign.

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