Sestito to Canucks, ebbett back to wolves, burrows and/or Raymond to centre
— Jason Botchford (@botchford) March 1, 2013
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?