The Canucks at the Half Way Mark (or Near Enough)

Thomas Drance
March 08 2013 06:14PM


Roberto Luongo: in the background but still the main focus.
That's just a description of the photo, I'm not alluding to his trade status or anything.

Over a typical hockey season any given team is going to have their ups and downs. Of course, a forty eight game season isn't a typical hockey season but even so, as the old saying goes: a team is never as bad as they might look at their worst, nor as good as they might look at their best. 

Last night the Canucks lost to Columbus and though they were marginally the better team overall, they weren't nearly good enough. As such the Vancouver market demands blood and I understand that. But I think it's worth remembering that Thursday night's loss to Columbus shouldn't change our overall assessment of the quality of this hockey team, and neither should Vancouver's recent, more extended run of mediocrity (three wins in ten games, with a 3-3-4 overall record). 

Read on past the jump.

What follows is a thorough accounting of how the Canucks have performed this season by game state. Let's put it all out on the table and try to figure out exactly what Mike Gillis is working with here and where the Canucks are going to need to improve if they hope to seriously contend this spring. We'll begin, of course, with even-strength play.

Even-Strength


While inconsistent, the Canucks have exceeded my expectations at even-strength this season.
Largely that's thanks to the five guys you see here.

Through twenty-four games this season the Canucks have been among the league's best even-strength teams. They've accomplished this without arguably their two best two-way forwards at even-strength in David Booth - stop laughing, it's true - and Ryan Kesler for the majority of their games.

Based on the possession metrics the Canucks are a top-five club at even-strength in terms of Fenwick Close (which I'll use in favour of Fenwick Tied until the majority of teams have played thirty games) and they're a top-three team in terms of raw Corsi percentage.  

Now I know there are those of you out there who don't understand why possession matters, and who are convinced that goals are something unique and holy rather than shots on goal with a different result (determined mostly by randomness). Whatever, if you think that you're wrong, but it's obviously true that goals matter more than puck possession at the end of the day. Duh, they're what determines wins and losses!

So let's look at it on those terms. Even then it's clear that the Canucks are an elite NHL club so far this season. In fact by goal differential at even-strength (5-on-5 and 4-on-4), the Canucks are the fourth best team in the Western Conference through 24 games:

Western Teams EV Goal Differential
Chicago +22
Anaheim +13
Detroit +12
Vancouver +9
Los Angeles +8
Colorado +2
Dallas -1
Nasvhille -1
San Jose -4
Phoenix -5
St. Louis -6
Minnesota -7
Calgary -8
Edmonton -15
Columbus -16

Vancouver's +9 even-strength goal differential remains superior to all of the following highly regarded clubs so far this season: the Boston Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Los Angeles Kings, the San Jose Sharks, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. But yeah, the sky is falling.

What's doubly impressive to me is that the Canucks have accomplished this despite dealing with injuries to the likes of Kevin Bieksa, David Booth and Ryan Kesler. They've also accomplished this despite the average goaltending they've recieved from their 9.33 million dollar goaltending tandem of Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider.

Through twenty four games the Canucks are 13th in the NHL and seventh in the west in even-strength save-percentage behind Chicago, San Jose, Nashville, Detroit, Colorado and even Edmonton.

One could spin this as a negative if they wanted to be disingenuous - the Canucks are too reliant on stellar goaltending! - but analytically the Canucks are due for some positive regression in this area. Actually I'd argue that their +9 even-strength goal differential probably undervalues them, though only modestly since Vancouver has also been fortunate at the offensive end of the rink at evens this season. 

Luckily in terms of "true talent" level, Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo are superior to the tandems found in all of those six other Western markets with the possible exception of Pekka Rinne and Chris Mason in Nashville. As Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider find their form, and as Kevin Bieksa and Keith Ballard work their way back into the lineup, the Canucks are likely to begin to demonstrate what the possession numbers already suggest: that this is arguably the best even-strength team that Mike Gillis has ever put together in his time as Canucks General Manager - even without Ryan Kesler.

Power-Play


Is Henrik Sedin so frustrated by the lack of power-play success that he's taking it out on his teammates?
No. I don't actually think that what's going on.

I wrote a long treatise on the power-play yesterday and won't repeat myself at length here. Suffice it to say this is the area of the game where the Canucks are particularly struggling this season.

To make matters worse, short of Ryan Kesler's return, I don't know what else to say about it. The power-play has been terrible and that's not hyperbole, in fact, it has probably been even worse than the conversion rate suggests.

I'd even go so far as to describe the Canucks power-play as one of the five worst in the NHL so far this season. That's completely inexplicable considering the continued presence of both Sedin twins. Until Newell Brown and the power-play personnel can figure out a way of generating more shots (by either simplifying the formation, or adjusting the personnel, or black magic - who the fuck knows) I'd expect Vancouver's conversion rate to continue to hold steady or drop even further...

The Penalty Kill


Dan Hamhuis doing work (just like the Canucks penalty-kill!)

The Canucks penalty-kill got off to a rough start this season, but seems to have adjusted to life without Manny Malhotra nicely over the past month. Since February 7th, Vancouver's penalty-killers have successfully killed off forty-one of forty-nine opposition power-plays (an 83.3% clip) and one of those power-play goals against was an empty-netter in Calgary. So the Canucks' functional penalty-kill rate is 85.4% over the past month of hockey and that bodes well for the team going forward. 

By the underlying data the penalty-kill doesn't look quite so good, as Canucks penalty-killers are allowing shots against at the ninth highest rate among all NHL teams this season. Then again, Vancouver's penalty-kill has been at or near the top of the league over the past couple of seasons in conversion rate, and they've persistently allowed shots against at an elevated clip.

Watching the way Vancouver kills penalties, it seems to me that they play a passive system. They're more concerned with trying to prevent grade-A scoring chances in the slot and cross seam passes than preventing perimeter shots against...

So yeah, I tend to think that systems play is at the heart of the opposition's consistently high power-play shot-rate, and I'd assert that Vancouver's penalty-kill is rounding into form (even if the club's conversion rate remains a tick below average on the whole this season.)

Outlook


Swish!

Over the second half of this season, I'd expect Vancouver's goaltenders to deliver an elite save-percentage with a greater degree of consistency than we've seen over the past month. While that could be offset somewhat by the likelihood that the Canucks regress offensively at evens, I doubt that negative regression will be quite so dramatic. After all the Canucks generally shoot an above average percentage as a team because they employ a couple of first-line shooting percentage drivers who share the last name Sedin. Basically the Canucks are as good as they've ever been at even-strength and that should become even more apparent if Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo figure it out in the second half of the season.

On special teams, the peantly-kill looks to be finding a rhthym, but the power-play is in shambles and is in desperate need of a fix. It's tough to figure out precisely what that "fix" is, but I know the Canucks are practicing tomorrow and hopefully they'll at least try some new personnel.

Going forward, the Canucks remain one of the top teams in the West as currently composed. If Ryan Kesler can return from his injury before the playoffs and can find even 75% of the form he flashed during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, then the Canucks are among the six or seven clubs that I see as having a realistic shot at contending for the Stanley Cup. 

At the halfway point of this season the Canucks have exceeded my expectations in terms of controlling contests at five-on-five, even as their power-play has been a disaster and their goaltending only average. Still it all comes down to Kesler's health, really. The Canucks are going to need him at close to full speed if they hope to hang with the likes of Chicago or Los Angeles in a playoff series...

3136ae487fac57943f99a50e66e4d6cf
Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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#1 Betty Henderson
March 08 2013, 06:37PM
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Wow! I am impressed. Nice work Mr. Drance.

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#2 dan
March 08 2013, 07:31PM
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Agreed. Solid Write up. afew more points! By the key numbers:

* Luongo has been excellent this year. 70% Quality Stats & .932 ES Sve One outing where Av chose or had to leave him in?? is skewing things in a small sample size. Conversely, Cory has only been average & there IS a still a chance that Cory is not elite (like Lui is) ...

So if Av continues to choose Cory there might not be as much a regression improvement in Goal as you predicted...

** Hansen Raymond Higgins (all historically strong poss. players)have played more & performed well & helped to improve Nux poss numbers.

Possession numbers should even rise with Kes back (if Healthy)And, ideally a trade of Cory for a legitimate 3rd center with offensive creating ability would be awesome. That only leaves Edler as the key to ANY playoff success. Bieksa /Hammy/ Ballard Tanev Garrison have all played well at even this year...

Edler must improve it is vital!!For the PP & to be able to play with Bieksa or Garrision!

Also, Booth should get POP time - he has 23 career PP goals & is playing well - yet has had no chance?Garrison as well - the problem is Edler can't get shot through- and Garrision deserves 1st unit time.

Finally...there IS the 'negative history' Nux have with the two best West teams.. Do the Nux really believe that with AV they CAN beat Chi or LA in a series..???

Or do they feel Q-ville & Sutter have the edge before the series starts?

Psychology does play a part in all head to head or match play competitions - (why IMO playoffs are different?)

Time will tell?!.

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#3 DCR
March 08 2013, 08:58PM
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@Dan

I don't see why the Nucks wouldn't think that they couldn't beat Chicago or LA in a series with AV on the bench as they've done it in the past.

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#4 Wetcoaster
March 08 2013, 09:43PM
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So compared to the last couple years, the Canucks have become a better even-strength team, but their special-teams have taken a hiccup and fallen off a cliff respectively.

Is this a matter of the Red Queen's Race as other teams focus more energy on analyzing the power play of the Canucks, or do you think this is also part of a deliberate strategy from management in response to less penalties being called?

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#5 dan
March 08 2013, 09:46PM
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DCR wrote:

@Dan

I don't see why the Nucks wouldn't think that they couldn't beat Chicago or LA in a series with AV on the bench as they've done it in the past.

Did you happen to watch the Chi series in 11? Nux hung on for dear life..& Chi was without Bolland & Seabrook... hardly convincing..LOL

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#7 Love you guys
March 08 2013, 11:14PM
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I've been RTing this blog like crazy. You guys are amazing at what you do - I'm glad you're here to calm the waters and prevent future riots :)

Big fan of advanced stats. Clearly the Canucks org is too from various articles I've read over the last few yrs. Gillis obviously knows his team is good just going through some bad luck and bounces.

The PP is concerning for sure. They like it to be a deterrent for cheap shotters like Ben Eager. If Nucks run into Boston again - their current PP wouldn't deter Claude Juliens mouth. It's ugly. I don't get it. They've consistently been in the leagues top 10 re: PP% - why are they suddenly tanking?

But my biggest concern the past few years was even strength play, and how they relied too much on special teams. Last 2 years we saw 2 teams win Stanley when they had a horrific PPs. Horrific. They were stong even strength teams with good PKs. Canucks can be that team. I have faith.

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#8 Joel
March 09 2013, 01:28AM
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@dan

Convincing or not, they won.

If they meet the blackhawks again the playoffs, and I hope they do, it won't be with the Hawks in their heads.

And this time hopefully no one gives the Hawks a rallying point (Torres on Seabrook) at the same time the Canucks take the foot off the gas.

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#9 Joel
March 09 2013, 01:32AM
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Wetcoaster wrote:

So compared to the last couple years, the Canucks have become a better even-strength team, but their special-teams have taken a hiccup and fallen off a cliff respectively.

Is this a matter of the Red Queen's Race as other teams focus more energy on analyzing the power play of the Canucks, or do you think this is also part of a deliberate strategy from management in response to less penalties being called?

I also wonder if Brown has some new PP options up his sleeve that they will practice but not employ until closer to the playoffs, so as not to tip off everyone.

Because there are some obvious answers that they just aren't trying. Or at least obvious to me, like simplifying to point shots and rebounds rather than constantly cycling off the wall, etc

Clearly other teams scouted and adapted to the league's best PP after around 1.5 seasons of dominance.

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#10 Fred65
March 09 2013, 08:49AM
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IMO the Canucks have tried to up grade their journeymen players and for the most part have failed. Take away Sedin x 2 ( or a drop in their play) Kesler + a goalie and the rest of the roster looks average. AV like him or not has done well with what he has been given. Now he´s lost his go to facw off man thea is looking just as it should---- average. I know MG wants to be Ken Holland MK2 but me thinks he´s going to need to blood some of the prospects or suffer the consequences. If Vcr was in a tough devision they might not make the play-offs come the end of the year. A loo to Columbus tells the real story IMO

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#11 chinook
March 09 2013, 10:30AM
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@Fred 65

Canucks defence may be a "journeyman" but its balanced and a real strength of the team. Canuck defence doesn't have the vulnerability to injury created by relying on a Doughty or Pietrangelo. Who is Canucks #1 d-man? Hamhuis? - he's the one D used on a 5 on 3 PK. Is it Bieksa? - he's the one with a big hit, fight or O/T goal (off the stanchion if necessary). Or is it Edler? - (OK, maybe not this year) but has the big shot and usually has the most D points.

Of course the Canucks didn't have the chance to draft top players (defence or forwards) because of not being a lousy team since they took the Sedins. With one notable exception - Shea Weber, a second rounder. Obviously 28 other teams missed on him.

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#12 Fred65
March 09 2013, 11:10AM
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chinook wrote:

@Fred 65

Canucks defence may be a "journeyman" but its balanced and a real strength of the team. Canuck defence doesn't have the vulnerability to injury created by relying on a Doughty or Pietrangelo. Who is Canucks #1 d-man? Hamhuis? - he's the one D used on a 5 on 3 PK. Is it Bieksa? - he's the one with a big hit, fight or O/T goal (off the stanchion if necessary). Or is it Edler? - (OK, maybe not this year) but has the big shot and usually has the most D points.

Of course the Canucks didn't have the chance to draft top players (defence or forwards) because of not being a lousy team since they took the Sedins. With one notable exception - Shea Weber, a second rounder. Obviously 28 other teams missed on him.

There´s more to it than the D, They have tried through trades to upgrade and failed, enter stage left Ballard and Booth. Not to mention the dynamic German we signed two summers ago after telling the fans he´s just what we needed. I can´t recall his name (which is bad ) but he was part of the Booth deal. I think the Pro Scouting is deplorable to come up with these chumps. Higgins was a good pick up and Laperrie OK. Loosing Malhotra is a big loss. But over all we don´t have a roster full of depth, right now we can´t cover the loss of not the #1 centre but the #2 centre adequatley. All I can say is don´t expect greatness next season and don´t expect a long run in the play-offs

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#13 Unknown Comic
March 09 2013, 11:56AM
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Fred65 wrote:

There´s more to it than the D, They have tried through trades to upgrade and failed, enter stage left Ballard and Booth. Not to mention the dynamic German we signed two summers ago after telling the fans he´s just what we needed. I can´t recall his name (which is bad ) but he was part of the Booth deal. I think the Pro Scouting is deplorable to come up with these chumps. Higgins was a good pick up and Laperrie OK. Loosing Malhotra is a big loss. But over all we don´t have a roster full of depth, right now we can´t cover the loss of not the #1 centre but the #2 centre adequatley. All I can say is don´t expect greatness next season and don´t expect a long run in the play-offs

Fred, please do your work before posting. Booth came with Reinprecht, a centre. Sturm was German, but a forward and Samuelsson went the other way. There was no d-man included.

You may be thinking of of the German d-man Sulzer. He was never promoted as "just what we needed", but rather as a 7-8th d-man.

You appear to have acquisitions and positions mixed up, which is also reflected in your other comments.

Booth has been proven around here as a solid, two way 2nd liner in terms of even strength goals per minute played and puck possession. He has also yet to play with a healthy Kesler for more than a dozen games and is currently playing with Lapierre.

With a healthy Kesler, one of Hansen, Higgins, Raymond or Kassian end up on Vancouver's 4th line. That depth is the envy of most teams.

Without Kesler this year, Vancouver has also posted the 5th best puck possession numbers at even strength in the league. Not sure how that demonstrates your assertion that the team "can't cover the loss of the #2 centre adequately."

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#14 JCDavies
March 09 2013, 11:56AM
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@Fred65

"Take away Sedin x 2 ( or a drop in their play) Kesler + a goalie and the rest of the roster looks average."

That's a $20 million cap hit. That statement would be true of pretty much every team in the NHL.

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#15 Reuben
March 09 2013, 12:28PM
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@Fred65

So you're saying that without four of their star players the Canucks would be an average (I'm assuming playoff bubble) team. That's actually quite high praise!

That means that with their four stars rolling (and maybe if a couple other players got hot) they'd be a hell of a team, maybe even a Stanley Cup contender! Cool!

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#16 Fred-65
March 11 2013, 01:09AM
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@Unknown Comic

Duh I know Sturm was a fwd. What I was saying is the pro scouting is keeping serving up poor players. I said it's not just the D ...in fact I never ever picked out the defence. The players brought in to upgrade the journeymen have noy been good...what ever position they played. Take away a couple of players and you're left with an average roster.

If they don't throw in Jensen and who knows who else next season I can see the team fizzling. Just think if it's one round and out AGAIN what does MG do then...his cupboard is bare

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