Other considered preview headlines: "Eviction Nonis" and "Baby got Burke!"
The last time the Leafs defeated the Canucks in Vancouver, the calender read 2003. Phil Kessel and I were in the 10th grade, Brian Burke was the architect of an entertaining Canucks team having a renaissance in the Vancouver market, and Dave Nonis was Burke’s assistant general manager. Yep, a lot has changed since that day, and also, Dave Nonis is still Burke’s assistant general manager.
Tonight, in fair Vancouver where we lay our scene, two teams both alike in post-expansion indignity will renew acquaintances. With two former Canucks General Managers in the house, it promises to be more than just another mid-February game, so expect money on the board.
At this point, the Canucks are clearly Gillis’ team but Nonis and Burke were the guys who grafted the adamantium onto the exoskeleton of Vancouver’s, apparently Wolverine-like, contending hockey club. Between them, they brought in the Sedins and Luongo (in hilariously lopsided deals). They drafted Kesler, Raymond, Edler, Hansen and Cory Schneider (also, Patrick White). They were wise enough to sign Bieksa to an ELC after he punched out Fedor Fedorov, and unwise enough to give us the "Byron Ritchie: power-play quarterback" era. This was the management team which took a chance on Burrows, and also, stubbornly stuck with Dan Cloutier…
The team Nonis and Burke bring with them tonight is not one of those limp-noodle, top-10 pick (Boston via Toronto), cough up a three goal lead at home to Alex Burrows (then trade half of your team the very next day) Leafs teams of the recent past. This season’s Leafs are legitimately exciting to watch, they can score with anybody and, in the midst of a tight race to make the playoffs in the East, they should be desperate.
A more thorough preview and underlying numbers for both teams after the jump!
Game-time: 4 PM PST.
Radio: The Team. Broadcast: Hockey Night in Canada
The Set Up
When you get to mid-February, the regular season can start to drag. The Canucks have played Nashville, Colorado twice, the Phoenix "Game Pace Grim Reapers", the Flames and the Minnesota Mild over the past few weeks. When you think about it that way, the Maple Leafs represent something of an oasis, a rare regular season game against a team that likes to play uptempo, ‘defense optional’ hockey. Add in the tampering twosome (Burke/Wilson), and the "big stage" of playing in the early game on Hockey Night in Canada – and you have the recipe for a humdinger.
The Leafs have a slew of offensive weapons, led by their top-line of Kessel, Bozak and Lupul. That group has been among the NHL’s most productive lines this season, they’re fast and extremely dangerous off of the rush. They’re likable too.
Phil Kessel’s skill-level is preposterous, and his wrist shot is unique – kind of like the ability I imagine he has to promptly end conversations. Bozak, an undrafted centerman, has established himself as a legitimate top-six forward in the NHL and is quietly on pace to score 60 points. Meanwhile Joffrey Lupul has had a bounce back season, after a two year bout with a blood infection. His transformation into a power-forward, a top-line point producer and a likable "big-market" personality is easily one of the NHL’s best stories of the season.
The Leafs player to watch tonight, however, is Grabovski. Mikhail Grabovski is a UFA after this season and is probably the best available centerman, so he’s a couple of months away from getting seriously paid. While he isn’t as physical as Kesler,his two-way effectiveness and ability to drive play occasionally reminds me of #17. I’m pretty confident that one day Grabovski will play ahead of a quality third line centerman and put up 70+ points too, I mostly just hope that third line centerman isn’t Dave Bolland.
On the back-end at the moment, the Leafs are lacking in the type of personnel who are able to really handle tough minutes. Their best defensive defenseman (Carl Gunnarsson, who is criminally underrated) is out of the line-up, so they’re relying on the likes of Schenn, Komisarek, Liles, Phaneuf, Aulie, former Vancouver Giant Cody Franson and impressive rookie Jake Gardiner tonight. You have to think that list is ripe with the names of dudes one may generously consider Sedin-fodder. At least that’s nothing new for Phaneuf.
The Sedins have been quiet of late, but the top-line was dominant the last time these two teams met back in December. One expects that the twins will play well, partly because they’re due and partly because they rarely get to play in the early slot on Saturday nights. It’s a time-slot in which, NHL games are usually picked up on Swedish TV, which they’ve spoken about as a "motivating factor" in the past. Also, they should have space to work with when you consider who the Leafs are dressing along their blue-line.
The Canucks practiced Cody Hodgson on the third line with Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins yesterday, so we’ll expect them to play sheltered minutes on the team’s third line – at least to start the game. Kesler will skate with Booth and Raymond again, while Lapierre-Malhotra and Bitz will soak up the defensive-zone starts.
On defense for the Canucks, Chris Tanev got the call this week and hopefully he’ll see some burn in the top-four on Alex Edler’s right-side. At yesterday’s practice, I believe Alberts was the odd man out, though with Bieksa given a maintenance day and reports of him "limping" leaking out from the arena – the defensive pairings are far from set in stone.
Reimer gets the start for the Leafs, Luongo for the Canucks. The book on Reimer: he’s big, good down low, and tough to beat at even-strength despite his "slow" glove-hand.
This table includes what we believe to be the best "predictive" team metrics in hockey. Beyond the self-explanatory stats like record, powerplay percentage and goal differential, this table includes: 5-on-5 Goals For and Against Rate, which measures a team’s even-strength goal differential on a per game basis. Shot% and Fenwick% are indicators of possession and show us which team is better at controlling play. Shot% and Fenwick% in a tied game state have been proven to be the gold standard for measuring "real" team quality. We’ll also include PDO to qualify a team’s record – and try to isolate whether or not a particular opponent (or the Canucks) are actually as good as their record indicates, or whether or not they’ve just been lucky (or unlucky).
|Venue Record (Home/Away)||17-6-4||13-14-2|
|5-on-5 Goals F/A||1.19||0.99|
|Shots Tied %||48.4%||49.7%|
|Fenwick Tied %||50.5%||48.9%|
The Three Keys
- Draw penalties. The Leafs play a disciplined game, partly because their penalty-kill is incomprehensibly leaky. While they’ve been much better this calender year short-handed, they’re still basically a fire-drill if they take a penalty. The Canucks are struggling on the power-play, partly because they’ve been drawing penalties at a supremely slow rate. It would be nice to see them start to reverse both of those trends this evening.
- The shutdown pairing. Hamhuis and Bieksa (assuming he’s healthy) are the only two legitimate, "turn play around in tough minutes" defenders in tonight’s game. They ran rough-shod over the Leafs a couple of months ago, and if they can play even half as well as they did in that game – the Canucks should take it.
- With Leafs-fan nemesis Jim Hughson calling tonight’s proceedings, it would be nice if Luongo could post a quality-start and make a few big stops. Hughson’s "GREAT SAVE LUONGO" is entertaining enough as it is, but it’s even more fun when accompanied by a collection of annoyed Leafs fan tweets on Twitter.
- From a salary-cap perspective, Ballard’s recent injury is both timely and as a result, suspicious.
- Grabovski is obsessed with getting his sticks just right – and has been for a while. That dude seems intense.
- The Canucks need the Sedins offense, and it just hasn’t been there of late.
- The Power-Play is struggling of late, partly because the team isn’t able to draw penalties.
- Raymond makes more sense in the top six than Cody Hodgson.