January 20 2013 02:30PM
Photo uncredited via NHL.
It's been nearly ten hours since the Vancouver Canucks were lit-up by noted sniper Daniel Winnik and young gun Teemu Selanne in their home debut against the Anaheim Ducks. On a quick turnaround, the Canucks will face-off against a veteran Edmonton Oilers squad, one that has finished 30th, 30th and 29th in the league in the past three seasons, poised to take the next step.
Okay, well none of the modifying words in the above paragraph were true. The Oilers do play the Canucks tonight, though, and the Oilers have finished out of the playoffs every season since their Cup Finals run in 2006, they've gone through one rebuild already, but their group this time around looks much better than the last one. They're led by the excellent young players Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, while top prospects Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz get their first taste of NHL action at the Rog.
Vancouver, who have been the class of the Northwest Division since the Oilers' Cup run, by contrast have an older roster that has been very, very good in recent years. Any other day, the only thing the Canucks might have to do in this game is say "yo, chill kids, let us teach you how this is done". Tonight, the story surrounding the Canucks is not one of Swedish efficiency or systematic team defence. It is one of controversy, as Cory Schneider, the new Canucks starting goaltender and heir presumptive to the "Goalie of the Future" label, was shelled in his debut against Anaheim, stopping just 9 of 14 shots. Roberto Luongo will get the start.
Puck Drop: 6 PM PST
TV: Sportsnet West/Pacific 6 PM PST
The Oilers enter a season with an optimistic outlook for the first time since I knew what the hell a "Corsi" was. Their three consecutive first overall picks in Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov will give the team a balanced scoring attack, while Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth, two veteran players, handle the depth positions on the club. Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner are two other players who could be first liners on many teams in the league, but play secondary scoring roles on the Oilers' club. There's been no preseason, so this will be our first chance to see how new head coach Ralph Krueger will deploy his new club.
Defence is still a bit of a weak point, however. The team made headlines this summer when they signed Anaheim's unrestricted free agent prospect Justin Schultz out of the University of Wisconsin. He tore up the American Hockey League during the lockout, scoring 48 points in just 34 games, second in overall scoring only to Oklahoma City Barons teammate Jordan Eberle. That said, there are no stats in the AHL to measure defensive play, and defencemen that play an up-tempo style tend to get victimized in their first couple of NHL years before they learn to adjust to the differences between the two leagues. A good comparable might be Jake Gardiner in Toronto, who also played at Wisconsin and had an excellent offensive year last year with the Leafs, but had to do it in fairly easy minutes that were more offensive.
So Schultz is pencilled into the top pairing, for now, with Nick Schultz, a defenceman the Oilers picked up from Minnesota last summer in a trade for a better defenceman named Tom Gilbert. The move was panned by the Oilers bloggers, some of the most influential members of the hockey analytics community. The teams' highest paid defenceman is Ryan Whitney, a serviceable defender who has been battling health issues. Whitney has played just 86 games in the last two seasons, and just 105 in the last three. He'll be on the third pairing with Corey Potter. The second pairing are the alright Ladislav Smid and the promising Jeff Petry, who has changed his jersey number from 58 to 2.
Scratched will be former first rounder Magnus Paajarvi, former Vancouver Giant Mark Fistric, and former Vancouver Canuck Darcy Hordichuk. Devan Dubnyk will start in goal. He was 10th in the NHL last year in EV SV% (minimum 40 games) at .927, tied with Tim Thomas and Tomas Vokoun. He's no pushover, and was re-signed to a two-year contract this summer.
For Vancouver, the big story is the goaltender. Alain Vigneault said earlier in the week that he expected Roberto Luongo to get a start this weekend, and the Internet was abuzz this morning in Vancouver when it turned out Vigneault was sticking to that plan. There will be some discussions about a goalie controversy if Luongo has a good showing tonight and whether the Canucks should make Luongo their No. 1 again. They shouldn't, and they won't. They made their decision, and two games shouldn't make a difference there. The team will continue to split time between the two goalies (presumably Luongo plays 3 or 4 out of 10 games) and continue to look for the best deal available for their former No. 1.
Vancouver's other concerns lie on defence. It wasn't necessarily exposed against Anaheim last night, but there were some gaps in coverage, particularly with the first unit. Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis looked like players who haven't played a real game in months. They'll have a chance for redemption, presumably lining up against Hall's line with Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins, which will be a tough test for them. Jason Garrison and Alex Edler had their breakdowns, but at least were controlling play in the offensive zone on the powerplay. The Canucks will need more of that if they hope to have a chance tonight.
I didn't think the Canucks' biggest problem last night was defence, I thought it was an inability to control the puck hurt. Remember, if you have the puck, it means the other team doesn't, so not having guys like Ryan Kesler or David Booth in the lineup hurts, since they're good at that sort of stuff. Andrew Ebbett needs to be better. Henrik Sedin needs to be better. Maxim Lapierre needs to be better. The forward group needs to be better at setting up chances inside the scoring zone.
We'll see what happens with this group. The team has put up some stinkers over its last ten or so outings, and a loss to the Oilers, followed by two days off, could lead to some interesting headlines in the paper. For the purpose of our collective sanity, it would be wise for the Canucks to play a good game tonight, even if they lose, look good doing it. No more 7-3 stinkers.
This table includes what we believe to be the best "predictive" team metrics in hockey. Beyond the self-explanatory stats like record, power-play percentage and goal differential, this table includes: 5-on-5 Goals For and Against Rate to serve as a check on goal differential. It also includes Corsi%, an indicator of possession and shows us which team is better at controlling play and Fenwick Tied% which is the gold standard for measuring "real" team quality. We also include PDO (the sum of a team's on-ice save% and shooting%) to qualify a team's record - and to try and isolate whether or not a particular opponent (or the Canucks) is as good as their record indicates. For the first ten games or so of the 2013 season we'll use last season's "fancy stats" and then switch over to stats from the 2013 season when the sample gets big enough to provide you with some value.