Which forward is the better option at centre: Alex Burrows or Mason Raymond?

Okay so this is weird. According to Jason Botchford, the Canucks have decided to return centreman Andrew Ebbett to Chicago in favour of adding a heavy-weight in Tom Sestito and playing a winger out of position at centre. This is a confusing move, though Ebbett has been over-matched and unimpressive in his time with the Canucks so far this season, so I think I get what angle the Canucks are playing at (somewhat).

But the question remains which player is the better option at centre – Raymond or Burrows? We’ll get into it after the jump.

If you’ll recall, Mason Raymond played about 19 games at centre at the tail end of the 2010-11 season after Manny Malhotra’s freak accident in the 72nd game of the season. As a centreman, Raymond played the final nine games of the regular season, the entirety of the team’s first round series against the Blackhawks and the first two games in the team’s second round series against the Predators. Generally speaking he was pretty effective, though he played relatively soft minutes with Ryan Kesler forced to soak up the toughest matchups in Malhotra’s absence (including Kesler’s epic head-to-head blanking of Jonathan Toews in the first round series between the ‘Hawks and the Canucks).

In the final nine regular season games, Mason Raymond was well above water as the lines he centered controlled 63.2% of Corsi events, outshot the opposition six-to-one and outscored the opposition seven-to-three (with the benefit of some favourable bounces). In his nine postseason games playing pivot, Mason Raymond posted an even scoring chance differential (according to our pals at Copper and Blue) but wasn’t too productive offensively against two capable defensively clubs. In sum, I’d say he acquitted himself well, though he was somewhat sheltered in that role.

It’s tougher for me to do a proper split of Burrows’ effectiveness as a centreman from earlier this season, partly because the advanced statistical community hasn’t replaced timeonice.com yet (which is the best tool for slicing the data on a game-by-game basis). But I can make a reasonable estimate using stats.hockeyanalysis.com. What I’m going off is the ice-time that Alex Burrows has spent with Chris Higgins, and utilizing that data as a proxy. Burrows and Higgins haven’t played together except for the nine games early on this season before Kesler returned (briefly) to the lineup, so while there’s probably some shift change noise in the data, we can still use it with a good degree of confidence.

In a very small sample (roughly sixty-six minutes of even-strength ice-time), but Alex Burrows was crushed by the possession data as a centreman this season controlling roughly 43% of corsi-events. But the context here is critical – when Mason Raymond played centre, his line was playing "Cody Hodgson during the 2011-12 season" type minutes; when Alex Burrows played centre, he was going up against Taylor Hall, Anze Kopitar, Jarome Iginla and the like.

The tough-minutes line of Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins and Alex Burrows that Vigneault used early this season bled shots against, but they limited goals against and expended all of their injury in the defensive end. They did battle in Vancouver’s end of the rink, brought the puck to the neutral zone in an effort to to get it deep and get off for a quick change. It wasn’t unusual to see that threesome bail out of a counter-attacking opportunity in favour of a line-change. But that was their role and they only allowed a goal against in their sixty-six even-strength minutes together. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked (partly thanks to stellar goaltending).

Generally speaking, I think Alex Burrows – ghastly possession data aside – is the better option at centre than Mason Raymond. There are three main reasons for this, as I see it.

The first is that the Canucks are already sheltering undersized rookie centreman Jordan Schroeder, and Schroeder’s line is performing very well in that prescribed role. It’s tough enough to shelter one line while also exclusively zone-matching the twins in the offensive end. So Raymond would have to play way tougher minutes if he were to play centre than he needed to in 2010-11 and I’d be skeptical about his ability to handle that role. With Alex Burrows on the otherhand, we’ve already seen him perform reasonably well in that  "absurdly tough minutes" role.

Secondly, a major reason for Schroeder’s success at even-strength this season has been his chemistry with Mason Raymond. Schroeder has spent 85% of his even-strength ice-time with Raymond on his wing this season, and the two have dominated the puck to the tune of a 60% corsi-rate. Jordan Schroeder’s performance over the next month to six weeks while Kesler’s foot heals is going to be critical to Vancouver’s efforts to retain their Northwest Division foothold, and I wouldn’t mess with success. As is, Schroeder with Raymond and David Booth could be a key secondary scoring line and if I were Alain Vigneault I’d be very hesitant to break that group up. 

Thirdly, Alex Burrows is probably slightly more competent in the faceoff circle than Mason Raymond is. Neither is good or even respectable, but Alex Burrows has a 41.6% winning percentage in the faceoff circle over the past four seasons (144 faceoff sample) while Mason Raymond’s faceoff winning percentage sits at a clean 37% over the same time frame (124 faceoff sample). Those numbers are based on tiny samples and may not quite capture either players "true talent" on draws, but it’s enough to make me lean toward deploying Alex Burrows as a pivot, as opposed to Mason Raymond.

Finally, there’s the potential spillover benefit of having Zack Kassian play a regular shift with the Sedin twins if Burrows is deployed as a second line pivot. If the Canucks keep Booth, Schroeder and Raymond together and bump Alex Burrows onto the first checking line alongside Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins – then Vancouver’s young powerforward finds himself back on the top-line, where he had so much success early on this season. The Sedins have hit their stride of late, while Zack Kassian’s has become occassionally prone to lollygagging in his own end, but I’d be curious to see that group given an extended chance to skate together again, for at least a couple of weeks.

What do you think, dear readers: which one of Mason Raymond or Alex Burrows should get the first shot at playing center in Kesler’s absence?

  • DCR

    Very thorough analysis;

    My research shows it’s very close call.
    I don’t feel you have taken into account the potential offensive ‘loss’ of not having Burrows with Twins.
    The Twins simply haven’t been able to produce at an ‘elite’ level with anyone other than Alex- & not convinced they will with Zac. When you add in fact not many other forwards are producing offense this would be problematic.I also feel Raymond between Hansen & Higgins is a decent alternative – but yr right not quite as strong defensively (IMO the F/o numbers are a wash due to small sample though )
    (but the Qof C is a concern as is JS & Raymond’s possession chemistry)
    My solution is to start with Alex & Twins & Raymond on Shutdown line (& place Zac with JS)
    IF Nux get lead then switch Alex to protect the lead.

    No reason this has to be an absolute?

  • @Dan I agree it doesn’t have to be an absolute, and you’re right that I didn’t take into account the loss of offense from playing the twins with a forward other than their third twin. I tend to think that Burr is just the steadier two-way option than Raymond in the middle and that VAN is going to have to grind out wins in Kesler’s absence. That’s why I put him on the second line, but I think a fluid situation (where Burr plays toughs but occasionally takes a shift with the twins, esp. when the team is losing) makes good sense.

  • elvis15

    I’d vote for all of the suggested above by Drance, and I like the idea of the Raymond/Schroeder/Booth line. It can at least be a tester to see what we really need and if a trade will be the only thing to fix it. Perhaps soon Pinizzotto will become an option for the 4th line as well, and they’ll move from being a defensive line to a more traditional energy role. Then have Lappy back with Hansen and Higgins, Burr back with the Twins and figure out who plays with Schroeder (someone of Raymond, Booth or Kassian would bee shuffled down).

  • The only sure bet offensive line for the Canucks is 33-22-14. With kesler out we can’t touch that top line. Burrows goes from a CF% 65 with the Sedins to 43% with Higgins and Hansen…..ummmm That is not the move you want to make. The truth is the team needs two more forwards that can play top six and win face-offs(even with Kesler back to compete for Cup). We really need a right shooting D also. They really miss Erhoff on the PP also(even though he is a lefty)

    • JCDavies

      “They really miss Erhoff on the PP also(even though he is a lefty)”

      They had the best PP in the league for the first half of last season and, even with the bad 2nd half, finished with the 4th best PP overall. This year they have the same personnel as last year, they should be able to do it without him.

  • What we really ned to do, is put together a Higgins-Lapierre-Hansen line so that these makeshift lines can actually be sheltered.

    The lines are currently:

    They make no sense. Lapierre’s line will likely be buried in our own zone, where Kassian has looked very uncomfortable (and he’ll probably be switched with Weise after a couple of shifts anyway). Higgins and Hansen are good checking wingers, but you wouldn’t want Raymond in the circle against any top 6 centre. And the Schroeder line is just the leftovers.

  • I’m happy to line em up like you suggest. Kassian oozed confidence with the Sedins, and got demoted from that line because of one bad game. That with Schroeder/Raymond/Booth would be a fairly respectable one/two scoring line which could help keep the canucks above water until Kesler returns.

  • Higgins.

    I don’t get why they don’t try Higgy pop. He played C in Montreal for a brief period, he’s a great 2 way player.

    The Sedin line is carrying the Canucks – have been for most the season. Breaking up their chemistry with Burr could throw them off kilter. And as you said, Schroeder/Raymond also have great chemistry. Breaking that up is a risk. Higgy is eating tough mins this yr, but doesn’t appear to have much chemisty with anyone at the moment. Why not try him?

    Either way, I’m still surprised Gillis didn’t sign a centre and another righty d-man last summer. It doesn’t make sense to me. We know they’re looking for a C in a goalie trade, but there was no guarantee he could trade Luongo this yr. So why risk going with Schroeder as a 3C all season? I think he made some poor decisions failing to sign depth in those 2 positions. I remember saying the same thing the summer before about not signing a d-man who could play more mins. Well they finally got one (garrison), but lost a natural righty.

    • JCDavies

      “I don’t get why they don’t try Higgy pop. He played C in Montreal for a brief period, he’s a great 2 way player.”

      Interesting idea, I wouldn’t be against trying this.

      “Either way, I’m still surprised Gillis didn’t sign a centre and another righty d-man last summer. It doesn’t make sense to me. We know they’re looking for a C in a goalie trade, but there was no guarantee he could trade Luongo this yr. “

      The Canucks have virtually no cap space. I don’t know how you expected this to happen; especially if trading Luongo was “no guarantee”.

  • This is good analysis but the thing that is being missed is that Raymond and Schroeder have had little to no production for the last number of games. Raymond is -2 with no points in 5 games and Schroeder is a ghastly -6 with 1 assist in his last 8 games. And that’s in sheltered minutes? I know that these are old school stats but production is hard to deny and for the last couple of weeks this pair isn’t producing. The confidence of the coaching staff in number 45 is not the same as what the fanbase had in him right now.

    I think we all want to love Schroeder because the last center in his spot was really good and moved out of town but I do fear the center depth with Jordan Schroeder at 2 or 3C.

    The key to all of this is that if we are still debating these topics in late April problems are ahead. Gillis needs to address the Center position very quickly. If not he may not have to worry about it until the summer.

  • JCDavies

    I kind of like the idea of trying Burrows in the 2C spot again. Kassian did well enough with the Sedins the first time he was paired with them and, if it doesn’t work out, the Sedin-Burrows line has shown that they can be thrown together at any moment and still look as if they were never apart.

    Also, Burrows in the 2C spot, would give us the opportunity to get a longer look at the Booth-Schroeder-Raymond. The Canucks have some significant personnel decisions to make in the near future, determining what they actually have in this line would be really helpful.