February 26 2014 09:24AM
Graphic via Matthew Henderson
It has been 17 days since we've covered a Vancouver Canucks hockey game, which as you'll recall was a largely listless performance against the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada. Since then we've spent very little time actually discussing the team this blog is named after themselves, instead using the Winter Olympics to decompress, and focus on other, less depressing things.
Like, for example, Team Canada's "Golden" pursuit, and boat loads of prospect coverage, including the Utica Comets who have been slowly but surely turning their campaign around). The break has provided a nice little reprieve from all of the cynicism and negativity accompanying the team these days, but we knew it couldn't last. With the Olympics now having concluded, we have to shift gears and bring our attention back towards the Canucks, with the NHL set to embark upon its stretch run.
We ran something very similar to this at the 30-game mark, and it proved to be both a fun and informative project. That was all the way back on December 4th, and suffice it to say that a lot has changed since then in Vancouver. The narrative, as its one to do, has shifted. Let's break it down from all angles.
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. The further to the right the guy is, the greater the proportion of shifts he starts in the OZ, and the more "sheltered" he is. 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 darker the blue - like in Henrik Sedin's case - the greater a Relative Corsi, while the red - like the players in the bottom left part of the chart - lets you know that they've been getting hammered in terms of possession. It's simple stuff, and super effective for putting roles into perspective.
It makes sense to start from the top, and work our way down. As has been the case with the Canucks for years now, anything and everything begins and ends with the Sedins. So it's not a real surprise that after having continued to stay afloat despite all sorts of injuries all across the board, the team finally fully nosedived once Henrik got hurt.
Following the carnage at the hands of Marty Hanzal (which also ended Mike Santorelli's impressive season, costing the Canucks a valuable player and costing Santorelli himself more than a few bucks along the way) back on Thursday, January 16th, the Canucks went 3-8, with their only victories coming against the Oilers, Flames, and Coyotes (and only 1 being in regulation). Henrik tried valiantly to play through the injury, but looked like a shell of himself, and was eventually shut down by the team; he missed the final 2 games before the break, and Tre Kronor's run to Silver in Sochi.
Speaking of the Swedish team, Canucks fans are surely hoping that Daniel Sedin's individual success will help invigorate him. He was second on the Silver Medal team with 5 points in 6 games, and was even able to score a goal. That last part has been something of utmost difficulty for him this year, as he's on pace for score just 18 goals on the year (which is something he hasn't done since '03-'04).
Much has been made of the interesting path their career's have been on over the past couple of seasons, but it's worth repeating: while Henrik and Daniel Sedin will never again have the type of Art Ross campaigns that they've enjoyed in the past, they've found a way to compensate for their declining offensive skillsets by becoming more prolific two-way players. They're still playing the toughest competition, they're starting even fewer shifts in the offensive zone, and yet they're still crushing in the possession game. The problem, though, is that their team is now 24th in goals/game on the year, and desperately needs some more pucks to go off of their sticks and into the net.
But for as much as Daniel Sedin has struggled finding the back of the net, he's basically Ovechkin compared to Alex Burrows at this point. Burrows, who averaged 29 goals/season from '08-'12, has failed to score a single goal thus far this season. While he has managed more than half of the year thus far with two separate injuries, he's still suited up 28 times, which means it's more than ridiculous that he has that big fat goose egg next to his name.
I don't mean to rub salt into the wound, but let's just try and put this into some perspective. 650 different players have scored at least once this year, including luminaries like Julien Brouillette, Eriah Hayes, Mark Borowiecki, Kevin Westgarth, Sheldon Brookbank, Phillip Varone, and Marc-Andre Cliche, to new a few. Tom Sestito has 5 more goals than him. Heck, even David Clarkson has scored 4 times! There are only 7 forwards in the entire NHL who have played more games than Burrows thus far this season without scoring a goal, and their all either 4th liners who are used only sparingly, or unapologetic goons.
The fact that Burrows - whose 4 year contract extension just kicked in this year, and pays him $8 million in '13-'14 - has failed to score a single goal despite having put 68 pucks on net (not including the 61 that have either missed the target or been blocked), and having been on the ice for over 500 minutes now (in all situations) seems unfathomable, really. But it's a reality that we live in. Last March he had 5 goals on 77 shots and I wrote an article about how he was long overdue for some positive regression. What else is there to say at this point? You may as well tweet that you're predicting he'll score prior to every game, and then take credit for it when it eventually does happen. Unless it never does..
This'll become a recurring theme as we go along, but the script has really flipped for Ryan Kesler since the 30-game roundup we did:
"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. 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..)
.. and then he went on to get hurt in Sochi, while wearing a jersey for a team that isn't the Vancouver Canucks. We're still waiting on the results of the tests on his hand (which he hurt blocking a shot), but we've become conditioned to expect the worst when it comes to his injuries at this point.
Even without the injury, his production had been falling off. After having 14 goals through 30 games, he managed just 6 in the following 30. His story is similar to the Sedins; he's logging a ton of minutes (no other forward plays more than him per game), and he's managing to move the needle in the right direction for this team (while only starting 48.1% of his shifts in the OZ). And that's great, but there were nights earlier in the year where he'd put the team on his back and get them the win.. and those types of performances haven't been something that we've seen for a while now.
I've legitimately liked what we've seen from David Booth and Zack Kassian every time we've seen them play together. They look good on the eye test, and the numbers back up what we're seeing; the Canucks have controlled 52% of the shot attempts whenever those two have been on the ice together (in ~258 minutes at 5v5). Yet despite that, they only have a 38.9 goals for %. That speaks to some genuinely poor luck more than anything else, and I'd love to see them remain together for the foreseeable future. Particularly if they were given a *real* center to play with..
.. because Brad Richardson certainly isn't that guy. Here's a fun little chart to visualize the effect that Booth has had in propping Richardson up, and making him look far more competent than he really is:
This isn't necessarily meant as a dig against Richardson, because it's not supposed to be. For $1.15 million Richardson is a fine enough depth guy; he kills penalties (over 2 min/game), he wins 53.5% of his faceoffs (best on the team), and he kind of looks like this dude. But just as I said on the day he was signed by the team, he's more of a 4C than anything else, and it's a mistake to be playing him higher up in the lineup. With the injuries to Santorelli, Schroeder, and Henrik Sedin, the team has unfortunately has had their hand forced, though.
Despite the fact that there have been many times where he has looked like he was overtly avoiding physical contact - making me think that he's still either physically or mentally healing from his shoulder injury - Jannik Hansen has is having a career #fancystats season. It's definitely odd that a 15 goal, 3rd line winger such as himself has a NTC of any sort (even modified) on his contract, but that's Modus Operandi for the Canucks these days.
I'd be curious to see what the trade market would potentially look like for Chris Higgins come March 5th. I know that he's a fan favourite, and that he's a complete bargain at $2.5 million; he's going put the puck on net a good 225-230 times, play in all facets of the game, and score 20 goals all while logging over 19 super tough minutes.. scratch that. I doubt anyone is giving the Canucks anything remotely close to the value that Higgins provides them, and should in theory continue to provide for the next year or two at the very least. Forget I said anything!
Let's wrap the discussion about the forwards up with a quick look at the 4th line. Tom Sestito, the only stalwart on that unit, made some sort of deal with the devil which helped him net a few goals, but I'm still not convinced he's someone that should be a lock in the lineup on a nightly basis. There have been a handful of guys that have been cycled in and out beside him, but regardless of who has occupied those spots the plot has been the same: nearly the entirety of their night is spent either glued to the bench, or watching the other team skate circles around them while praying that Roberto Luongo can freeze the puck to allow a change to take place. Rinse, repeat.
While they haven't been all that helpful in winning hockey games, at least the #MoralVictories have been grand!
"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."
My most sincere apologies..
Since that post, only Jason Garrison has been able to suit up for every single game. Here's the laundry list of ailments on the back-end:
Alex Edler missed 16 games with a knee injury
Ryan Stanton missed 15 games with an ankle injury
Chris Tanev missed 6 games with fractured thumb
Kevin Bieksa missed 5 games with a foot injury
Dan Hamhuis missed 2 games with a "soft tissue" injury
When fully healthy, the Canucks for my money are on the very short list of teams with the best top-6 defensemen. But the injuries all came at once in some sort of incredible regression flurry. As a result we've had to bear witness to the ungodly Frankie Corrado/Yann Sauve pairing for 3 games, which, for the record, couldn't keep up in the AHL with the Comets this season. In the 32 minutes they played together at 5v5 in those 3 games, the Canucks controlled 34.5% of all shot attempts, and were pretty lucky to get away with only having surrendered 2 goals against.
When Raphael Diaz first came to Vancouver, I figured he'd be able to really move the needle in a big way for this team in a sheltered role. He only has a 3 game sample as a Canuck for us to analyze, but so far, that's exactly what he has done. On a related note: I'd love to start referring to a guy who has fantastic possession numbers as "a big blue circle". It's geeky, but it would also serve as an effective way of weeding out who really knows their stuff and who doesn't. Raphael Diaz is definitely a big blue circle.
In watching the Olympics I thought that Alex Edler looked fantastic for the Swedes, with the caveat being that he got to play caddy to Erik Karlsson. Assuming Bieksa and Tanev don't miss too much more time, I'd love to see Edler get to log some of those cushier minutes next to Diaz. The Canucks are a team that desperately needs scoring from wherever it can get it at this point, and unleashing that pairing could potentially be a good place to start.
DAN HAMHUIS SMILING BREAK!
Things worked out perfectly for Hamhuis in Sochi; he got his Gold medal, he got his smile, and he got to do all of that without exerting much energy at all. He played 26:55 a night in December, 26:19 in January, and I imagine that he'll continue to be somewhere in that range for the remainder of the season (or at the very least until his body gives out from exhaustion).
The Special Teams
The team's play while a man down has been inspiring this season, as its been one of the few things they've been able to hang their collective hats on. The numbers are a bit skewed because of the savage 6-spot the Anaheim Ducks put on them in that 9-1 beatdown back on January 15th. But even with that, the Canucks are still in the top-5 in goals against/60 and shot attempts against/60 on the PK.
On the other side of the special teams coin..
I'm glad that Glen Gulutzan is so chill about all of this, because it's not like he's at all to blame for the atrocity that has been the Vancouver Canucks' power play this season. Oh wait, he totally is. When "Gully" was hired this summer he was expected to reinvigorate a formerly great unit that had fallen on hard times.. but things have only gotten worse.
Meanwhile, here's a fun fact for you: his predecessor, Newell Brown, went to Phoenix and has turned the Coyotes around from 25th in the league in terms of power play % all the way up to 7th.
At the 30-game mark the Canucks were 26th in the league with a 14.1% rate, and now they're.. 27th with a 14.0% clip. At least they're consistent, right? That's the operating term, though. Consistent. Consistently bad. For nearly the entirety of the season the Canucks have been near the top of the league in terms of shot attempts/60 with the man advantage, and we've been preaching patience by saying that the goals would eventually start coming.. but they haven't.
And at this point it's definitely fair to start asking questions about what's wrong with it. I don't quite have the answer that'll fix everything, but one thing I know for certain is that Dan Hamhuis on the top unit probably won't get the job done.
GIF via Ian McLaren
While goaltending is usually a pretty fashionable way to go when looking for a scapegoat to pin a team's slide on, you'll have to look elsewhere in this particular case. The overall numbers between the pipes for the team's tandem aren't necessarily electric - in fact, they're basically right around average as their .912 save% in all situations is good for 15th, while their 5v5 score close save % is 14th - but it's also not "Pavelectric", either.
When the Canucks went 10-1-2 in the month of December, it was largely due to the fact that they only surrendered 20 goals combined over the course of those 13 games. After that, defensemen started to fall like flies, and the numbers slipped a bit.
But it's not like Luongo and Lack have exactly had much wiggle room; on most nights, if they give up more than a goal or two it has basically been game over. For the life of me I can't remember too many games where I would've pointed to the goaltending as one of the top 3 reasons they lost. And I've watched all of the games.
We went into the season thinking that it would behoove the team to limit Luongo's workload to somewhere around the 60-game mark, and because of the few nagging injuries he has dealt with, it looks like he's right on track to hit that plateau. He has 42 starts thus far with just 22 games left, and there are only 3 back-to-backs left on the schedule.
I assume that we'll see a heavy dose of him down the stretch, barring some sort of re-injury. Considering his age and recent history it's not like that's out of the question, but even if he does go down Eddie Lack (and his .922 save %) has done everything he could so far to prove that he's certainly a capable fill-in.
Nothing really to see here, may as well just move on to the next sect--..
Whoops, I totally almost forgot about that *little* incident. For his little adventure around the bowels of Rogers Arena during the 1st intermission of a January 18th game against the Flames, Tortorella was forced to serve a 15-day, 6-game suspension by the league. I was perfectly OK with the ruling; it was a dumb decision by Tortorella to do that, and the league can't have that sort of thing happening during one of its events. He should know better.
More recently, he caused some waves around these parts when he was quoted as saying that he was cheering for Sweden in this past Sunday's Gold Medal game in Sochi. I guess it shouldn't have come as a total surprise considering what happened in 2010 with Ryan Kesler, but still.. I'm dumbfounded by both the fact that there were some people out there who were upset with him for what he had to say, and that he felt the need to apologize for his comments.
Torts said if he insulted anybody, it wasn’t his intention. Apologized to Canadian coaches. “That’s on me. I hope I can clear that up.”— Hosea Cheung (@hosea24hours) February 25, 2014
There is very, very little fun about this team these days. How about we don't put a muzzle on one of the few remotely assets still around?
What Lies Ahead?
I wrote somewhere in the neighbourhood of 3,000 on this very topic during the break, so my thoughts on how the Canucks should approach the March 5th trade deadline are already out there. To sum it up very concisely: no, I do not think that this team is going anywhere this season, and yes, I think that they should except it and refrain from making any rash, short-sighted moves in the next week or so.
Here's how the landscape looks around them at the moment:
I'm not arguing that the Canucks can't make a late run into the playoffs, because there's a very reasonable case to be made that they're better than some of their fringe WC peers when they've got all of their guys in the lineup. But I'm even more confident that they're nowhere near the Western Conference's top 4.
Even if they get all of their guys off of the IR (which isn't a foregone conclusion), and squeak in, they're just setting themselves up for more of what we've seen over the past two Springs.
At some point you have to ask yourself whether you're okay with settling for mediocrity because it provides some sort of short-term, misguided satisfaction, or whether you've got aspirations and a plan for thinking bigger and better into the future. The Canucks are at that point right now, and those questions need to be asked. Suffice it to say that the way the next handful of days play out - both on, and off of the ice - will answer that for us.