Kesler is glum. We miss you too Kes.
Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick/Getty
All you need to do is look over Ryan Kesler’s total player charts to understand how critical his presence is for the Canucks. While the Sedins are the "best" players on the Canucks roster, Ryan Kesler is the club’s MVP and if we’re being honest he has been for several seasons now. Without him, Vancouver is struggling in the early going, and so I figured we’d dive into some areas where Kesler’s absence is felt particularly hard if only to scratch our phantom itch.
Read on past the jump.
The Faceoff Dot
During the Mike Gillis era the Canucks have employed a fair number of quality face-off men: from Manny Malhotra, to Kyle Wellwood, to Ryan Johnson – who admittedly couldn’t do much else. As a result the Canucks have been in the top-10 in faceoff percentage during every season since Mike Gillis took over as General Manager – fifth in the league in 2008-09, seventh in 2009-10, first in 2010-11 and third in 2011-12. So far this season (admittedly a tiny sample)? They’re 29th, behind only the lowly Buffalo Sabres.
There’s a few reasons for this, like the fact that Manny Malhotra has only played in three of the team’s five contests or that the Canucks only managed to win twenty of sixty-two draws on Sunday night against San Jose. But the major one is that Ryan Kesler is the straw that stirs the drink for Vancouver in the face-off circle. He’s in on upwards of 1100 even-strength draws per season, and has averaged a whopping eighteen draws per game (all situations) over the past couple of years (in contrast, Malhotra has averaged 14.5 over the same length of time).
With the likes of Henrik Sedin, Jordan Schroeder, Andrew Ebbett, Maxim Lapierre, Alex Burrows and Manny Malhotra down the middle, Vancouver is struggling to control the puck off of draws. Now whether or not faceoffs are essential for winning hockey games is a matter of some contention, certainly it’s not a prerequisite, but an inability to control the puck off of the draw at least removes an element of polish and control from a club’s game. That sort of control can make the difference when you’re just trying to tread water and gut out some wins, like the Canucks are doing in Kesler’s absence.
The Penalty Kill
Ryan Kesler hasn’t led Canucks forwards in short-handed time-on-ice since 2008-09, but he’s been in the top-three in short-handed TOI per game in basically every season he’s played in the NHL. When Mike Gillis first took over the reigns as General Manager the Canucks were a consistently sub-average penalty-killing club (they finished 16th in the league in PK% in 08-09 and 18th in 09-10), but over the years they’ve brought in personnel like Dan Hamhuis, Manny Malhotra and even Keith Ballard who have helped tighten things up. It has worked and over the past two season they’ve finished third and sixth in penalty-killing percentage in the NHL.
So far this season, the Canucks are killing penalties at a completely unsustainable but nonetheless woeful clip of 68.2%. That’s pretty bad, and the penalty kill been a major reason for both of Vancouver’s regulation losses through five games this season. Arguably, Ryan Kesler is less important to the penalty-kill than Manny Malhotra is, but when Andrew Ebbett and Dale Weise are taking regular shifts short-handed – as they were on Sunday night against San Jose – Kesler’s absence is acutely felt.
All of this said, Vancouver’s opponents have managed to score seven power-play goals on only twenty-six shots for a comical small sample shooting percentage of 26.9%. So even if Kesler misses the whole season regression alone dictates that Vancouver’s penalty-kill is due to improve going forward. But you know Alain Vigneault and Canucks fans too, would feel an awful lot better about this if Kesler was back in the lineup, ready and able to take a regular shift with the team down 4-on-5.
On Sunday night against the San Jose Sharks, the Sharks openeded the scoring immediately following a dominant 4-on-4 offensive zone shift from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau while matched up against Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The previous night the Sedins found themselves out-chanced by a significant margin at even-strength by a line featuring Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. On Monday the Canucks will play the defending champion Los Angeles Kings and you can bet your ass that Henrik and Daniel will see a steady diet of Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar.
This isn’t how the Canucks prefer to matchup against quality teams, in fact, its been a while since the Sedins were counted on to duel their opponents "strength versus strength." Usually Alain Vigneault is able to massage his matchups, and the twins skate against a top checking line (think Dave Bolland instead of Jonathan Toews, or Mike Fisher instead of David Legwand), while Ryan Kesler does his thing to neutralize the opposition’s top offensive threat.
With Kesler out of the lineup, the Canucks are looking increasingly like a "one-line team." But you factor in the more difficult matchups the Sedin twins face and the options opposition coaches have to exploit, say, the Jordan Schroeder-Mason Raymond-Dale Weise line, and Kesler’s absence is even more costly than that.
Alain Vigneault, for all his flaws as a head-coach, is a master of attacking the "soft underbelly" of opposition rosters. Primarily he’s done this by neutralizing the opposition’s top-line with Vancouver’s third line, taxing the opposition’s top checking line with the Sedin twins and Burrows, and getting Ryan Kesler some fire-drill shifts against the third and fourth lines of Vancouver’s opponents. Early on this season, he’s operating without his trump card, and while he’s done well to fatten up his forward groups and stem the bleeding: his task is about to get an awful lot more difficult with the Kings, Avalanche and Blackhawks on the docket this week.
So far Vancouver’s power-play hasn’t been too much worse for wear without Kesler, as Zack Kassian has filled in admirably (for the most part) on the top power-play unit. But that really underrates the impact Kesler has had on the first unit since he was first placed there to start the 2010-11 season.
It’s worth remembering that, over the past three seasons, Ryan Kesler has been the single most efficient power-play scorer for the Canucks, and it’s not even all that close. In 2009-10, for example, Kesler played primarily with Alex Burrows and Mason Raymond on his wings – not exactly world beaters with the man-advantage – and still managed to lead the team in power-play goals while finishing only one point behind Henrik Sedin in total power-play points (despite playing sixty fewer minutes 5-on-4).
Ryan Kesler has several big weapons that have been essential for Vancouver’s success with the man-advantage over the past couple of years. The first is his right-handed shoot, which is absolutely nails from the top of the circle. Yes, Zack Kassian and Jannik Hansen have right-handed shots too, but they don’t shoot the puck with the velocity that Kesler can manage on his wrister, and they aren’t nearly as dangerous teeing off on cross crease feeds.
Secondly, Ryan Kesler is one hell of a battler in the slot. He may not have Zack Kassian’s girth (gross) but he’s quicker, more experienced, and considerably more lethal in that spot.
Thirdly, Ryan Kesler’s speed and his ability to protect the puck at top-speed gives the Canucks four legitimate zone-entry options when gaining the offensive blue-line on the power-play. In five games this season, I haven’t seen either Zack Kassian or Jannik Hansen trusted with that job, so teams know it’s going to Daniel, Henrik or Alex Edler. They also know that if it’s a forward coming in (either Daniel or Henrik Sedin) they won’t be coming in with speed…
Kesler’s presence adds the threat of blinding speed, and his absence has made Vancouver’s power-play that much more predictable on zone-entries. It’s too soon to tell yet, but over a larger sample of games that could be the difference between a super-elite power-play and a top-10 power-play.
The Canucks miss Ryan Kesler everywhere, and for now they’re just treading water. All of this said, we should resist the urge to go overboard here: on the strength of their power-play, their top-line, their defense-corps and their goaltending – Vancouver is still a playoff team, I think, even if Kesler were to miss the entirety of this season. But without Kesler the club’s forward group is slightly sub-average, their special teams become significantly less special, and the Canucks become legitimately exploitable in the matchup game.
All of which is to say that it’s critical for Kesler to get back into the lineup, but even more important that he’s completely healthy before he rejoins the team. Canucks fans could be in for a long February without Ryan Kesler, which sucks, but theres no chance of a long May or a long June if Kesler is hobbled.