Roberto Luongo: in the background but still the main focus.
That’s just a description of the photo, I’m not alluding to his trade status or anything.
Over a typical hockey season any given team is going to have their ups and downs. Of course, a forty eight game season isn’t a typical hockey season but even so, as the old saying goes: a team is never as bad as they might look at their worst, nor as good as they might look at their best.
Last night the Canucks lost to Columbus and though they were marginally the better team overall, they weren’t nearly good enough. As such the Vancouver market demands blood and I understand that. But I think it’s worth remembering that Thursday night’s loss to Columbus shouldn’t change our overall assessment of the quality of this hockey team, and neither should Vancouver’s recent, more extended run of mediocrity (three wins in ten games, with a 3-3-4 overall record).
Read on past the jump.
What follows is a thorough accounting of how the Canucks have performed this season by game state. Let’s put it all out on the table and try to figure out exactly what Mike Gillis is working with here and where the Canucks are going to need to improve if they hope to seriously contend this spring. We’ll begin, of course, with even-strength play.
While inconsistent, the Canucks have exceeded my expectations at even-strength this season.
Largely that’s thanks to the five guys you see here.
Through twenty-four games this season the Canucks have been among the league’s best even-strength teams. They’ve accomplished this without arguably their two best two-way forwards at even-strength in David Booth – stop laughing, it’s true – and Ryan Kesler for the majority of their games.
Based on the possession metrics the Canucks are a top-five club at even-strength in terms of Fenwick Close (which I’ll use in favour of Fenwick Tied until the majority of teams have played thirty games) and they’re a top-three team in terms of raw Corsi percentage.
Now I know there are those of you out there who don’t understand why possession matters, and who are convinced that goals are something unique and holy rather than shots on goal with a different result (determined mostly by randomness). Whatever, if you think that you’re wrong, but it’s obviously true that goals matter more than puck possession at the end of the day. Duh, they’re what determines wins and losses!
So let’s look at it on those terms. Even then it’s clear that the Canucks are an elite NHL club so far this season. In fact by goal differential at even-strength (5-on-5 and 4-on-4), the Canucks are the fourth best team in the Western Conference through 24 games:
|Western Teams||EV Goal Differential|
Vancouver’s +9 even-strength goal differential remains superior to all of the following highly regarded clubs so far this season: the Boston Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Los Angeles Kings, the San Jose Sharks, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. But yeah, the sky is falling.
What’s doubly impressive to me is that the Canucks have accomplished this despite dealing with injuries to the likes of Kevin Bieksa, David Booth and Ryan Kesler. They’ve also accomplished this despite the average goaltending they’ve recieved from their 9.33 million dollar goaltending tandem of Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider.
Through twenty four games the Canucks are 13th in the NHL and seventh in the west in even-strength save-percentage behind Chicago, San Jose, Nashville, Detroit, Colorado and even Edmonton.
One could spin this as a negative if they wanted to be disingenuous – the Canucks are too reliant on stellar goaltending! – but analytically the Canucks are due for some positive regression in this area. Actually I’d argue that their +9 even-strength goal differential probably undervalues them, though only modestly since Vancouver has also been fortunate at the offensive end of the rink at evens this season.
Luckily in terms of "true talent" level, Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo are superior to the tandems found in all of those six other Western markets with the possible exception of Pekka Rinne and Chris Mason in Nashville. As Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider find their form, and as Kevin Bieksa and Keith Ballard work their way back into the lineup, the Canucks are likely to begin to demonstrate what the possession numbers already suggest: that this is arguably the best even-strength team that Mike Gillis has ever put together in his time as Canucks General Manager – even without Ryan Kesler.
Is Henrik Sedin so frustrated by the lack of power-play success that he’s taking it out on his teammates?
No. I don’t actually think that what’s going on.
I wrote a long treatise on the power-play yesterday and won’t repeat myself at length here. Suffice it to say this is the area of the game where the Canucks are particularly struggling this season.
To make matters worse, short of Ryan Kesler’s return, I don’t know what else to say about it. The power-play has been terrible and that’s not hyperbole, in fact, it has probably been even worse than the conversion rate suggests.
I’d even go so far as to describe the Canucks power-play as one of the five worst in the NHL so far this season. That’s completely inexplicable considering the continued presence of both Sedin twins. Until Newell Brown and the power-play personnel can figure out a way of generating more shots (by either simplifying the formation, or adjusting the personnel, or black magic – who the fuck knows) I’d expect Vancouver’s conversion rate to continue to hold steady or drop even further…
The Penalty Kill
Dan Hamhuis doing work (just like the Canucks penalty-kill!)
The Canucks penalty-kill got off to a rough start this season, but seems to have adjusted to life without Manny Malhotra nicely over the past month. Since February 7th, Vancouver’s penalty-killers have successfully killed off forty-one of forty-nine opposition power-plays (an 83.3% clip) and one of those power-play goals against was an empty-netter in Calgary. So the Canucks’ functional penalty-kill rate is 85.4% over the past month of hockey and that bodes well for the team going forward.
By the underlying data the penalty-kill doesn’t look quite so good, as Canucks penalty-killers are allowing shots against at the ninth highest rate among all NHL teams this season. Then again, Vancouver’s penalty-kill has been at or near the top of the league over the past couple of seasons in conversion rate, and they’ve persistently allowed shots against at an elevated clip.
Watching the way Vancouver kills penalties, it seems to me that they play a passive system. They’re more concerned with trying to prevent grade-A scoring chances in the slot and cross seam passes than preventing perimeter shots against…
So yeah, I tend to think that systems play is at the heart of the opposition’s consistently high power-play shot-rate, and I’d assert that Vancouver’s penalty-kill is rounding into form (even if the club’s conversion rate remains a tick below average on the whole this season.)
Over the second half of this season, I’d expect Vancouver’s goaltenders to deliver an elite save-percentage with a greater degree of consistency than we’ve seen over the past month. While that could be offset somewhat by the likelihood that the Canucks regress offensively at evens, I doubt that negative regression will be quite so dramatic. After all the Canucks generally shoot an above average percentage as a team because they employ a couple of first-line shooting percentage drivers who share the last name Sedin. Basically the Canucks are as good as they’ve ever been at even-strength and that should become even more apparent if Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo figure it out in the second half of the season.
On special teams, the peantly-kill looks to be finding a rhthym, but the power-play is in shambles and is in desperate need of a fix. It’s tough to figure out precisely what that "fix" is, but I know the Canucks are practicing tomorrow and hopefully they’ll at least try some new personnel.
Going forward, the Canucks remain one of the top teams in the West as currently composed. If Ryan Kesler can return from his injury before the playoffs and can find even 75% of the form he flashed during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, then the Canucks are among the six or seven clubs that I see as having a realistic shot at contending for the Stanley Cup.
At the halfway point of this season the Canucks have exceeded my expectations in terms of controlling contests at five-on-five, even as their power-play has been a disaster and their goaltending only average. Still it all comes down to Kesler’s health, really. The Canucks are going to need him at close to full speed if they hope to hang with the likes of Chicago or Los Angeles in a playoff series…