December 04 2013 01:53PM
Image via Matthew Henderson
Man, where does the time go? It seems like it was just a few days ago that we were patiently drudging through the preseason, eagerly awaiting the return of meaningful hockey. Remember when Hunter Shinkaruk was scoring sweet goals, and Yannick Weber was looking like a competent NHLer? That was nearly 3 months ago now, crazily enough.
We're now over 1/3 of the way (36.6%, to be exact) through the 2013-14 regular season, as the Canucks played their 30th game of the season on Tuesday night against the Nashville Predators. As you'd expect, there have been some notable peaks (see: 5-1-1 Eastern Conference road trip), and some ugly valleys (1-4-3 stretch, with just 15 goals over that span). Overall I think they've have performed roughly around the expectations I had for them, but I feel like this opening part of the season has served as somewhat of a wake-up call for those of you out there expecting the Canucks of old. Things have changed, and expectations need to be tempered.
We'll get into this in rather excruciating detail just past the jump, but it has become abundantly clear that the team we're watching these days doesn't quite have that other gear that it once did. Their margin for error has shrunk, and as a result we've seen them take some difficult losses due to mistakes they used to be able to get away with. That's not to say "they suck!" or "their window has closed!!", because I actually still think they're a pretty competitive team. There are certainly reasons for optimism and room for improvement.
I'd recommend you pour yourself a big cup of coffee, settle in, and get nice and cozy for this one.
Note: We covered these "Player Usage Charts" in detail back in October, so if you need a refresher on how to interpret them and what they're all about, go here . Here's what you need to know: On the horizontal axis you'll see the % of shifts guys have been starting in the Offensive Zone. On the vertical axis you'll see the Quality of Competition that they've faced thus far. In terms of the player bubbles themselves, the bigger it is, the more 5v5 ice time the player is seeing. Meanwhile, the dark blue - like in Henrik Sedin's case - signifies a greater Relative Corsi, while the orange - like the players in the bottom left part of the chart - lets you know that they've been getting hammered in terms of possession.
So those Sedin characters are pretty good, eh? Who knew. They seem to be well on their way towards another dominant two-way season, as they remain amongst the league's best possession players while routinely going up against the better players the opposition has to offer. At this point I think they've more than alleviated any of the worries people may have had heading into the season with regards to how they'd fare in John Tortorella's shot-blocking heavy system. The thing about great players is that they adapt, which is what they've clearly done both under the new coach, and under the pressure of father time.
Here are a few fun Sedin-related stats:
a) Amongst forwards only Sidney Crosby and Ryan Kesler are playing more minutes/game than the Sedins. It's a testament to their work ethic and ability that they've not only handled, but thrived the workload that they have. To put their 22 minutes a night this year into perspective, they both topped out in '09-'10 with Henrik at 19:41 and Daniel at 19:08.
b) The list of players in the NHL that have a better Corsi Relative than Henrik Sedin: Loui Eriksson, Brent Burns, PK Subban, Justin Williams, Andrei Markov, Scott Hartnell. And that's it. One thing that's becoming apparent based on the numbers, the eye-test, and history in general, is that it's looking more and more like Henrik will age far more gracefully than his brothers as the years becoming to accumulate. His underlying numbers look better, he's producing points at a higher rate, and his game is translating better. I think this'll prove to be an interesting trend to follow moving forward.
At this point I think it's fair to wonder about Daniel's ability as a finisher, which has been dipping since 2010-11. He has appeared in 83 games (including the postseason) since the end of '12, and in that time he has scored 22 goals on 258 shots. That's good for a 8.53 shooting %, which is a far cry from the 11-13% we had been accustomed to seeing from him.
I hope for your sake that you gambled on Ryan Kesler in your fantasy pool, because you probably got him at a bargain in your draft. He's on pace for 38 goals, 300+ shots on goal, and in excess of 22 minutes/night. His past few injury-riddled season probably scared away the other people in your league, but so far, so good on that front. I was rather vocal in my belief that we should temper our expectations regarding his production in the preseason, but obviously I didn't expect him to play anywhere as much as he has (and spend as much time with Henrik Sedin as he has). Kesler hasn't really dealt with a single injury scare thus far (which I hope I didn't just jinx..). As good as the Sedins have been this year, it's clear that the Canucks go as Kesler goes; there's really no one else on the team that's able to do what he is. But please, for the love of god, let's put the "BeastMode" thing to rest..
The name that sticks out the most on that chart above, at least to me, is Chris Higgins. He's currently rocking a line of: 1.049 Corsi Rel QoC (2nd toughest on the team behind Kesler), 12.0 Corsi Relative (4th best on the team behind the Sedins and Burrows), and a 43.4 offensive zone stat % (the lowest out of any non-4th liner on the team). He's also on pace to score ~20 goals, which is pretty remarkable given his circumstances (which include a low 6.9 shooting %). Given his history it's reasonable to wonder how he'll hold up in the final year or two of his deal, but for now, paying him $2.5 million is an absolute steal.
Speaking of steals, Mike Santorelli - whose signing in the offseason was brushed off as an insignificant transaction - has been fantastic this season, shifting between 2nd line C (when Kesler moves up to play with the Sedins), and more recently, the 3rd line C. That has been the best thing about him; his ability to succeed in various circumstances, whether it was centering Higgins and Burrows, or playing between Booth and Weise. He's probably going to finish the year somewhere between 40-45 points, which for a guy making $650k, is quite the find. I'll be curious to see whether someone (probably mistakingly) throws too much money at him to come and be their team's 2nd line pivot.
It hasn't been all positive, though. It's about time we start talking about poor ol' Alex Burrows, who has truly had a season from hell thus far. He got injured blocking a shot in the season opener, and missed the next 12 games. When he came back he actually played well, and got chance after chance, but couldn't buy a goal. With a big fat 0 in the goals scored department next to his name he broke his jaw in Carolina on Sunday, and will now be out for at least 4 weeks. That all but ensures that he'll keep that goose egg through at least the halfway mark of the season, which is kind of ridiculous. I'd say he can't catch a break, but..
The 4th line hasn't been productive in the slightest, but that's likely due to the fact that it is starting almost every shift in its own zone, and is being used very sparingly. Well, that, and the presence of Tom Sestito. Ideally Brad Richardson would be centering two of Zac Dalpe/Dale Weise/Jeremy Welsh/Darren Archibald, but I've become resigned to the fact that we'll never see that. Tom Sestito is here to stay!
The biggest storyline on the blueline for the Canucks through the first 1/3 of the season has to be the remarkable bill of health they've been enjoying. Excluding Alex Edler's 3-game suspension back in the 2nd week of the season, John Tortorella has been able to use the same 6 defensemen for every single game.. which seems unprecedented.
Remember back when people were worrying about Dan Hamhuis? He went through a weird couple weeks to start the year, mostly due to a string of bad luck (and as a result, a ridiculously low PDO). Rumours were beginning to circulate that he was playing through injury. People were beginning to wonder out loud whether he would be able to adapt to Tortorella's new aggressive style. So much for that. He has returned to being the anchor of the team's defense - handling the tough minutes on a shutdown pairing with Chris Tanev - and is enjoying another fantastic, super underrated season in a Canucks uniform.
Kevin Bieksa has had a Chris Higgins-esque bounceback campaign, after a litany of minor injuries really slowed him down last year. In one of the unlikeliest of events, he has formed a wildly successful partnership with newcomer Ryan Stanton. In 200 minutes of 5v5 play with the two of them on the ice, the Canucks have controlled 56.1% of all shot attempts, and 62.5% of all goals scored. Stanton has 10 points on the year, or as I like to call it 6 Fewer Points than Keith Ballard Had as a Canuck. He also recently had a hilarious exchange with a good friend of ours. As for Bieksa, his penalty minutes are way down this year, though he's shown us that you still don't want to get him angry:
I cannot be rational about Jason Garrison, that much has become clear. In the preseason I made a wager with Charron re: Garrison's goal total, taking the over on 14.5. I went into it all (and Garrison's brutally unlucky season) in detail here. While things were looking bleak for a while there through the first week or two of November, there has been a steady improvement recently.
The Edler/Garrison pairing has creeped its way back up to the 50% Corsi plateau, and Garrison has been reinstated back on the top power play unit (registering 8 points in his last 6 games). He only has 3 goals on the year, but should have 5 were it not for the conspiracy the NHL has against him and myself. Plus he's 13 in the league in points for a defenseman, and 3rd in shots on goal.
As for Edler, he has been scrutinized heavily this year, and there have been question marks about his relationship with Tortorella.. yet he leads the team in ice-time by a fairly significant margin (24:03/game). He's also currently playing by far the toughest minutes of his career, which people seem to conveniently leave out of the discussion when wonder where his offense has went. You'd like to see more from him, certainly, but for whatever reason people seem to be wearing drunk goggles when evaluating his play. They're as irrational about him as I am about Garrison, just in the opposite way..
Poor Yannick Weber, all alone there in the bottom left corner. A few weeks ago Tony Gallagher wrote a story about the team's power play which included some fairly interesting (and depressing) quotes from Weber:
Weber says he still looks at the old video of the Vancouver power play with Salo on the right point. “I still watch it now, and he does have a very hard shot and I know when he was here they were very successful. I was sure that was one reason why they signed me."
And now he's in Utica. Still, he has 650,000 reasons to sleep easy at night, so let's not feel too bad for him.
The Special Teams
It's kind of ironic that this section encompasses both the power play and the penalty kill units, because their respective success thus has been on the opposite ends of the spectrum.
The PK has pretty much held tight atop the NHL leaderboard for the entire season. They're currently ranked #1 with an 89.0% success rate, and a league-low 11 PPG allowed (just a 4.07 goals against/60 rate). By the looks of it their success thus far is relatively sustainable, too, as they're doing a great job of limiting the shot attempts teams have been able to generate with the extra man.
Guys like Kesler, Santorelli, and Higgins have definitely done a fine job killing penalties, but it has been in this part of the game that Brad Richardson has done his best work as a Canuck. He's playing nearly 2 minutes a game on the kill this year, and has scored two shorthanded goals, with one of them being an absolute beauty:
Unfortunately the power play hasn't enjoyed the same type of success, though it has been trending upwards recently. They've managed to crawl their way up to 26th in efficiency (14.1%), and 22nd in PPGs (14), after being stuck in the bottom 3 for weeks on end. Their futility in this phase of the game has caused them to try out Dan Hamhuis on the top unit (which thankfully has subsided with Garrison being put back where he belongs). Through all of that, though, Glen Gulutzan managed to remain pretty calm.
They're showing signs of life these days. The Canucks have now scored in 6 straight games with the man advantage, and are drawing penalties more frequently. Plus, they're 2nd - only behind the Sharks, whose PP dominance we're all too familiar with - in fenwick for/60, and actually lead the league in shots on goals/60, so there's reason to believe that they'll continue to make their way up towards an at least respectable conversion rate.
There's no question about it, Roberto Luongo hasn't been great this year. He's currently sporting a .914 save %, which is down from the .920+ I was projecting him to hover around prior to the season (and which I still expect him to get to, eventually). It has been a weird season for Luongo, who hasn't exactly had very many clunkers - pulled twice, including recently in New York which I thought wasn't even his fault - but also hasn't had many vintage awesome performances to speak of.
It seems as if most of his best outings have come in either blowout wins or losses, and as a result even his good efforts haven't been singled out or spoken of. Even if his skills are slipping a little bit as he hits his mid-30's, I still think he's an above average goaltender that I have no real issue relying upon to get the job done. I know we're reaching a breaking point with him and the fanbase in Vancouver, but I think the blame is misguided. The Canucks have had much larger issues than their goaltending this season.
Just for some perspective, here are some goalies who currently have a lower save percentage than Luongo on the season: Jaroslav Halak, Jimmy Howard, Mike Smith, Jonas Hiller, Corey Crawford, Sergei Bobrovsky, Cam Ward, Jonathan Quick, Tim Thomas, Craig Anderson, and even the immortal Dan Ellis (!!). Sometimes perspective is needed.
Eddie Lack has been just fine in his role as the team's backup, giving them a chance to win every single time he has been been called upon. The team rewarded him for his efforts with a 2-year extension a few weeks ago. Swedish Meatballs for all!
Mike Gillis and the Canucks hired John Tortorella back on June 25th. While he had spent the majority of his coaching career in the Eastern Conference, we'd all become familiar with how fiery he was behind the bench. When I heard of the news I was personally pretty excited, because I figured we'd get to witness some of those classic outbursts up close and personal. But he started his tenure with the team a seemingly changed man, a la what we'd seen from Michel Therrien the prior season. On July 23rd the team held a summer summit for its season ticket holders, where Gillis, Tortorella, and others answered questions. The following is an exchange from that day:
Yep. Thankfully, that little character change didn't last long:
[The guys over at Pass it to Bulis have more John Tortorella Losing His Mind goodness.]
The Competition and the Process
I wrote about the Western Conference a while back from Sporting News. As of today the Western Conference is 105-43-18 against the East (which would be an even more impressive split if not for Edmonton's 6-10-1 record). This trend has been something we've been following all year long, but with the realignment, the added out of conference games have really skewed things. I suspect the Western Conference teams will continue to beat up on the East throughout the course of the season.
A few quick thoughts on this as it relates to their remaining schedule:
Negative: The Canucks are 10-4-2 against the East, and only 5-6-3 against the West. 38 out of their remaining 52 games will come against teams in their own conference. They've feasted on the East thus far, and unfortunately a smaller percentage of their games will come against such foes going forward
Positive: Out of those 52 games against the West, 8 are against the Oilers and Flames. So.. it's not all bad. It also means that they'll be playing a ton of games against teams they'll be jockeying with for position, so at least they will undoubtedly control their own destiny moving forward. Plus, they don't have to play the Sharks again.
At the moment the Canucks sit just on the outside looking in, only 1 point behind the Coyotes for that final playoff spot. They're 2 points behind Minnesota, and 3 behind Colorado.. but have played more games than every one of those teams thus far. The West is crazy good this year, and it's also densely packed. There's very little separating the teams not named Chicago/San Jose and everyone else, which means that you'll drive yourself crazy if you look at the standings too often these days. Going forward there's death, taxes, and flip-flopping for seeding in the West.
The Canucks are firmly in that LA/St.Louis/Anaheim/Colorado/Minnesota/Phoenix tier (with Dallas potentially throwing its hat into the ring). It all depends on personal preference, but based on the underlying data there's reason to believe that the Canucks are right near the top of that group. And that's not just because I cover the team. Robert P from Jewels From The Crown (an LA Kings blog) had the following to say in his Pacific Division review from a few days ago:
I think the Canucks will be a team the Kings will need to worry a lot more about as the season goes on. Their ability to drive play is starting to take off, but their down-trending percentages have made them look a little worse than they really are. Look for the division title to end up being a dog fight between the Sharks, Canucks and Kings.
He's right. Personally, I'd say that the Canucks are the 5th best team in the Western Conference at the moment. I'd have them behind the Blackhawks, Sharks, Blues, and Kings, but over the others. They currently sit 7th in the league in Fenwick Close % (controlling 52.8% of all unblocked shot attempts with the game up for grabs), whereas a team like the Avs are down at 49%, and the Coyotes at 48.3%. As Daniel Wagner astutely pointed out yesterday, they've got some similarities to the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings in them, though they'll need to hit a home run with a trade in the coming weeks/months.
It may not look like it now, but if they keep playing the way they have been, and the sample size grows larger, some of the breaks will eventually start going their way as some of the other teams (which we suspect to be frauds) being to falter. There has unquestionably been more turmoil than we've been used to over the past couple of seasons, but it's important to stick with the process. There's a lot of season yet to be played.