Scoring Chances, Vigneault and the Canucks New Lines

Ever since Alain Vigneault derided the value of the plus/minus statistic, and admitted to the Vancouver media that the team tracks an in-house micro-stat similar in spirit to the scoring chances Cam Charron and I count at this site and at Nucksmisconduct, I’ve become obsessed. 

Lots of people don’t have time for fancy-stats, and that’s fine. I’ve talked to knowledgeable bloggers, who run wicked sites and they don’t have time for things like PDO, which, they believe take the fun out of emotionally reacting to early season results. I don’t have a problem with such a sentiment – hockey is first and foremost a spectator sport, and an entertaining diversion.

I’m an obsessive, however. I want to understand everything about hockey, and about the Canucks in particular. Elliotte Friedman told me back in October that the Canucks were one of the teams who are the most aggressive in looking for "that extra competitive edge" through advanced stats. The team is paying attention to these things, so I feel like it’s worth my time to do so too.

After all, I want to be able to explain to folks why Aaron Rome gets more minutes than it looks like his talent-level should warrant, and why Mason Raymond had a productive season last year. It’s important to me to look deeper into the way the Canucks make decisions, and to try and gain a basic understanding of why they deploy the way they do, and what they’re looking to do in particular situations. While lots of people think that’s dull, to me, it’s a lot of fun.

This is why scoring chances matter so much to me, and it’s why I’ll continue to call out any member of the Vancouver media for wasting ink on Bieksa’s woeful plus/minus. It’s lazy. The head-coach himself has said he doesn’t value it, or use it to determine playing time or deployment – so why should the media or everyday fans care about it? Habit? It’s silly, because scoring chances are what matter to the team.

This is a scoring chance by the way, any puck directed to the net within this boundary (often referred to as "home-plate") qualifies:

Blocked shots are assumed to be the fault of the offensive player, so if a shot from within home-plate is blocked, it doesn’t count as a chance (unless the defensive player is playing goalie… like when Zdeno Chara blocked Burrows’ wrister on the goal line in game 7). Chance counters are also liable to be a little bit more generous about a particular chances location based on the puck movement that preceded the chance. Daniel Sedin’s functional empty net goal against Chicago, for example, came from just about the edge of home-plate. Had it been a weak wrist-shot on the rush, I wouldn’t have counted it, but because of the dangerous puck movement before hand – I did. Quality puck movement, obviously, can contribute to making a particular scoring chance more dangerous, so a bit of flexibility to account for it is sensible.

Ultimately Alain Vigneault’s recent lines have confused me, so I figured a closer look at Canucks scoring chances might help me understand, say, why he would create a third line consisting of Malhotra-Hodgson and Ebbett. Or why he’s decided to give Hansen an opportunity to play with the Sedins while Burrows is injured. Before I get to this, however, let me quickly defend Vigneault who seems to be taking a lot of heat among Canucks fans I talk to and who fill my timeline on twitter.

While I know AV’s coaching style frustrates a sizable cross section of Canucks fans, I believe the man is a genius. Want proof of this? Look at what he managed to accomplish last season, or look at his career winning percentage. If that doesn’t do it for you, watch other NHL teams play this year and pay close attention to their zone-entries. It’ll look pretty familiar, because a lot of teams are adopting some of the set-plays that have been Canucks hallmarks for a couple of years. One in particular is a Vigneault original: the delayed entry.

The delayed entry is where a slow-moving skater hits a quickly moving trailer. Hypothetically the rapid, and hopefully unexpected change of speeds forces the defenders back and allows for a smooth entry into the offensive zone. The Canucks used this constantly last year, the most impressive example was when Ryan Kesler posterized Shea Weber then beat Pekka Rinne in the Western Conference Semi-Finals last season:

Look around the league and you’ll see a bunch of teams have adopted several set-plays that are uncannily similar to the one you see above. San Jose went to a delayed entry a number of times last night against the Kings, for example. If other NHL head-coaches are adopting Canucks strategic nuggets, I’d say that means Vigneault is probably doing a pretty good job. 

Lets get to the way individual Canucks have performed at even-strength so far this season, according to the scoring chance data. The below table includes all chances for and against, the per-sixty minutes rate of those chances and the differential (per sixty minutes):

Skater EV F EV A Chances For Per 60 Chances Against Per 60 Differential
Dan Hamhuis #2 83 57 20.23 13.89 6.34
Chris Higgins #20 56 38 18.92 12.84 6.08
Ryan Kesler #17 37 25 17.98 12.15 5.83
David Booth #7 31 22 19.58 13.9 5.68
Sami Salo #6 44 30 15.44 10.53 4.91
Alex Burrows #14 59 48 19.88 16.18 3.7
Mikael Samuelsson #26 17 13 15.4 11.78 3.62
Kevin Bieksa #3 86 70 19.07 15.53 3.54
Henrik Sedin #33 69 60 18.92 16.45 2.47
Maxim Lapierre #40 37 31 15.1 12.65 2.45
Marco Sturm #15 16 14 15.73 13.77 1.96
Alex Edler #23 64 57 15.43 13.74 1.69
Daniel Sedin #22 63 58 17.26 15.89 1.37
Cody Hodgson #9 51 54 17.59 18.62 -1.03
Andrew Ebbett #25 11 12 19.3 21.05 -1.75
Keith Ballard #4 55 62 14.8 16.69 -1.89
Aaron Volpatti #54 21 25 10.52 12.53 -2.01
Dale Wiese #32 27 32 12.16 14.41 -2.25
Jannik Hansen #36 45 53 14.88 17.53 -2.65
Chris Tanev #8 10 12 17.55 21.06 -3.51
Andrew Alberts #41 23 34 11.12 16.44 -5.32
Manny Malhotra #27 32 47 12.12 17.8 -5.68
Alexander Sulzer #52 17 26 13.49 20.63 -7.14

So how does this help us explain AV’s recent decisions? Clearly it’s imperfect, but it does shine some light on a few of the recent alterations to the lineup. I’ve been upset about Andrew Alberts playing top-4 minutes in the absence of Sami Salo, however, a quick look at the rate of "chances against per sixty mintues" indicates that Alberts’ 16.44 chances allowed per sixty is the fifth best among defenders on the team. If you’re looking to promote a skater to play with Bieksa on a "shut-down pair" he does ultimately make more sense than Keith Ballard (16.69 chances against per sixty). 

The above table also helps explain why Dan Hamhuis has been elevated to the first unit powerplay in the absence of Sami Salo. Hamhuis doesn’t have a right-handed shot, his shot isn’t known for its velocity and certainly he doesn’t have the offensive pedigree of a Kevin Bieksa. What Hamhuis does have, however, is the highest rate of on-ice scoring chances per sixty of any skater on the club. Think that played into Vigneault’s decision?

In terms of skating Jannik Hansen with the Sedins – the table doesn’t directly help me understand AV’s decision on this one. It does, however, make clear how poorly Hansen has played in the early going. My best guess would be that playing Hansen with the Sedins in the absence of Alex Burrows, is designed partly to get the young Dane going, and is based as well on Vigneault prioritizing the presence of Higgins with Kesler and Booth. I’ll bet he wants one line that will dependably dominate at even-strength, since the Sedins have been frankly subpar 5-on-5 so far this season. Higgins-Kesler-Booth is that line.

Finally, with the Ebbett-Malhotra-Hodgson line, the important thing to note is that they were deployed as the Canucks fourth line (even before the game became a blowout) on Sunday against Chicago. So rather than seeing that line as "a new third line that makes no sense", we should see it as "Manny Malhotra got demoted" and Vigneault wanted big, checking wingers to skate on his checking line, as opposed to a skilled guy like Hodgson.

But before you go cursing Vigneault for his undying hatred of Cody Hodgson, note that the promising Canucks rookie played nearly three minutes more than either of his line-mates at even-strength. Vigneault got him a 4-on-4 shift with David Booth (that resulted in two Canucks chances) and played him on two post PK shifts with Kesler and Higgins, as well.

While Alain Vigneault’s decision making may seem arbitrary, nay "ridiculous" to many Canucks fans at times, it’s a safe bet that he’s making decisions with better data than we are. If you look into what he’s likely seeing, subtly, it’s clear that the coach continues to push the right buttons. Perhaps that’s why his job security remains assured, and why he remains one of the NHL’s premiere head-coaches. 

  • Fantastic post. I also think Jannik Hansen is the closest thing to Burrows, without the quick hands. But checks hard, skates fast, goes to the net.

    Do we actually know that the Sedins are playing worse 5v5 chance-wise than last year or the year before? It’ll be interesting to see how the chances ebb and flow through the year.

  • @Antro we don’t have chance data from the first 65 or so games of last season sadly – so that’s not possible. But based on their chances totals during those last 15 or so games and the playoffs – their 5-on-5 play this season has definitely been lacking.