Second line candidates: Chris Higgins

Herbert Vasiljevs
July 22 2011 11:59AM

     

At first glance, Chris Higgins’ career looks like a classic case of offensive production gone awry, of potential gone unrealized.

How do you look at a guy who tallied 52 points in 2007-08 and followed that up with just 68 points combined in his next three seasons as anything other than a regressing talent?

The left winger’s best offensive seasons are probably behind him, but, upon further review, Higgins has quietly found a niche as one of the better checking forwards in the NHL. In some ways, Higgins’ path from first round draft pick with middling offensive success to defensive stalwart is analogous to Manny Malhotra’s, though the former showed more of a scoring touch early on than the latter.

Whether or not Higgins fits on the Canucks second line with Ryan Kesler, a position that needs to be filled by a winger who can take some of the offensive burden off the reigning Selke Trophy winner, is the issue at hand.

The battle to fill in for, and potentially replace, Mason Raymond on Kesler’s left wing will likely be between Higgins and Marco Sturm. Both players bring similar two-way attributes to the ice. Here’s a look at their advanced stats in the last four seasons.

Higgins:

 

O-zone %

Fin O-zone %

Corsi On

Corsi Rel

Corsi Rel QOC

G/60

2007-08

48

49.9

-7.75

1.3

0.450

0.82

2008-09

42.6

49.5

-4.74

-0.1

0.438

0.69

2009-10

50.6

50.9

0.6

-2.5

0.615

0.47

2010-11

46.3

52.9

11.7

13.1

0.539

0.90

Sturm:

 

O-zone %

Fin O-zone %

Corsi On

Corsi Rel

Corsi Rel QOC

G/60

2007-08

50.7

50.8

9.39

9.9

1.092

0.87

2008-09

42.3

38.9

0.0

1.1

1.159

0.90

2009-10

52.4

50.1

9.86

6.3

0.781

0.94

2010-11

52

54

3.66

-0.9

0.385

0.56

*Note that Sturm played less than 40 games in 2008-09 and 2010-11 and his stats from those seasons should be taken with a grain of salt.

Higgins only amassed 28 points in 2010-11, but actually tied a career-high with 26 even-strength points last season. His offensive zone starts and offensive zone finish rates are quite fantastic and clearly illustrate his propensity for moving the puck up the ice. His corsi rating in 2010-11 is all the more impressive, when considering he started less than half his shifts in the offensive zone. In Sturm’s last season of relative health, 2009-10, he produced a respectable corsi while facing strong competition. If you compare Higgins’ goals per 60 minutes rate last season with Sturm’s G/60 in 2009-10 and 2007-08 there isn’t much to choose between them. Hey, I told you they were similar players.

Despite Higgins’ superb underlying numbers, his solid possession ratings haven’t translated to much offensive production. The American winger has just 33 goals in his last 186 games. His shooting percentage had decreased every season until 2010-11, when he scored on 8.1 percent of his shots on goal. To put that in perspective, Sturm’s worst shooting percentage is 8.5 percent which he attained in 1997-98, his rookie season. Since 2007-08, Sturm has scored 61 goals, just edging Higgins’ tally of 59. The difference is Sturm put up those numbers in 58 less games.

Playing alongside terrific power-play quarterbacks in Andrei Markov and Mark Streit with the Montreal Canadiens, Higgins notched an impressive 25 points on the man-advantage in 2007-08. Since then, the left winger has tallied a paltry five power play points in three seasons combined. Granted, his power-play ice time has gradually decreased, but that’s five points in over 319 minutes of power-play time. You can’t stop Higgins on the power-play; you can only hope to contain him. Thankfully, the addition of Marco Sturm should remove Higgins from Vancouver’s second-unit on the man-advantage.

Higgins did yeoman’s work in the playoffs, playing through a broken foot suffered in game five of the Nashville series. He and Kesler did an excellent job of stifling opposing lines and creating their own opportunities on the offensive end. As the post-season went on the line’s scoring really dried up, though some of that can be attributed to injury. One of my most vivid memories of the Stanley Cup Finals is of Chris Higgins whiffing on three breakaways, using a different deke and shot on each attempt. Clearly, Thomas was in his head and Higgins lacked confidence when faced with clear cut scoring chances. As much as I loved Higgins’ warrior spirit on the second line, he was not productive enough to justify a guaranteed spot next to Kesler in 2011-12. He’s going to have to earn that spot in training camp.

Verdict:

Sturm has a slightly better pedigree on the offensive end than does his Higgins, though the latter has proven, in recent years, to have an ability to excel while playing tough minutes against top competition in defensive situations. In truth, Higgins and Sturm are probably interchangeable players on the left wing slot on the second and third lines, but for the reasons listed above I would prefer Higgins to play with Malhotra and form one of the best checking lines in the NHL. 

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Not the Latvian superstar who captured the hearts of Vancouver fans during a sublime 18 game run in 2001-02. I'm a sports reporter and freelance journalist raised in Vancouver and now based in Alberta. Follow me on twitter @remygreer
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#1 Thomas Drance
July 22 2011, 12:28PM
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Fantastic stuff. I see Higgins as a dark-horse candidate for second line winger duty. Realistically he's replacing Raffi Torres on the roster - which, IMO improves the team.

Really digging these pieces Remy, solid, solid stuff.

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#2 M
July 22 2011, 01:45PM
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Enjoying these articles, thanks! Chris Higgins is one of my favourite players and I would love to see him on the 3rd line with Manny Malhotra (another favourite). Can't wait for October!

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#3 Kent Wilson
July 22 2011, 01:45PM
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Quality stuff. The comparison to Malhotra is an apt one.

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