Kesler played some good hockey on Mats Sundin’s wing a few years back.
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Shortly after the Canucks traded for Derek Roy, Laurence Gilman went on the Team 1040, and said that in his opinion Ryan Kesler had played some of his best hockey during his time in Vancouver while skating on Mats Sundin’s right-wing. It was the second time in the span of a year that Vancouver’s Assistant General Manager had broached this particular hobby horse, and Gilman’s boss echoed the sentiment in a media availability later that day. Why would the Canucks consider moving their Selke winning two-way ace centreman to the wing exactly? Offense, according to Mike Gillis:
"To generate more offense. When Ryan is out of the lineup teams can really focus on Daniel and Henrik. To get their focus away from them – we need more offense. Derek’s a really skilled playmaking centre and in different situations I can can [Kesler] moving up and down the lineup."
Lo and behold, at Canucks practice on Sunday morning, the Canucks were taking line rushes with a second line that included Ryan Kesler on Derek Roy’s right-wing. Also, Alex Burrows which is a whole other story. So if we look at the data, does Vigneault’s latest lineup purée appear justified? Or should the Canucks stop messing around in advance of the postseason?
Read on past the jump.
Ryan Kesler has been a centreman for the vast majority of his career. Back before anyone was sure he was a top-six forward, however, he initially broke into an "offensive role" with the Canucks playing right-wing alongside Mats Sundin and primarily Pavel Demitra back in 2008-09. Canucks fans, and team management apparently, remember that line fondly, and they were a pretty good group I suppose, but they weren’t really as effective as the Sedin twins have consistently been with Alex Burrows, or even close to as effective as Ryan Kesler was the next season skating with Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond…
To illustrate how Ryan Kesler has played as a winger in the recent past, I’ve put together a with or without you (WOWY) table using information culled from stats.hockeyanalysis.com. The table below includes the amount of even-strength ice-time in the respective samples (EV TOI), as well goals for (GF) and goals against (GA) expressed as both a raw total and as a per sixty minute rate. I then went and used Corsi – which is just the sum total of all shots attempted (so: goals, shots on goal, misses and blocks) both ways with a certain player on the ice – expressed both as a percentage (CF%) and rated per sixty minutes. I also included a Corsi For rate (CF/60) and a Corsi Against rate (CA/60) so we can see the anatomy of where play was going while Kesler was playing centre or playing with Sundin.
Here’s the data:
|Kesler overall||5353: 10||215||192||2.41||2.15||53.9%||58.62||49.97||+8.65|
|Kesler with Sundin||365: 01||15||12||2.47||1.97||52.9%||53.58||47.66||+5.92|
So first things first: the notion that Ryan Kesler is a more productive offensive player when he plays the wing is only partially corroborated by the underlying data. On the one hand, the Canucks scored goals at a slightly higher rate with Kesler playing on the wing at even-strength, but the difference between the team’s offensive output with Kesler overall and with Kesler on the wing is in the hundredths. It’s negligible.
With Kesler on the wing alongside Sundin, the Canucks attempted nearly five fewer shots per sixty minutes than they have with Kesler playing mostly at centre over the past six seasons. While that might, in part, be team effects (the 2008-09 version of the Canucks weren’t the offensive juggernaut the team became in 2009, nor the quality puck possession club the team became in 2010), the fact remains that the evidence on Kesler driving offense better as a winger is mixed…
Maybe the Canucks have some proprietary data that indicates otherwise, in fact, I’d wager they do since the "Kesler on the wing" thing appears to be a Laurence Gilman special. Also, there’s no denying that Vancouver’s power-play took a major step forward before the 2010-11 season, when Kesler bumped up to join the first unit as a winger. Perhaps that plays into this evaluation as well…
On the positive side of the ledger: it’s possible that with Ryan Kesler’s speed and shooting ability, he could theoretically get more opportunities to cause havoc and create scoring chances on the wing. The Canucks definitely do need another scoring winger, and maybe Kesler is that guy.
However, there’s an opportunity cost incurred by bumping a dominant two-way centreman – though in fairness, injuries have prevented Kesler from really performing that way this season – out of the pivot spot. Do the Canucks really have the depth down the middle to play Derek Roy and Ryan Kesler on the same line? Andrew Ebbett will lineup as a third-line centre against Nashville on Monday, but he’s probably the team’s fifth best centreman (behind Sedin, Kesler, Roy, Lapierre and probably Schroeder too). I’m skeptical that Ebbett would last long in the top-nine against a playoff opponent with anything resembling forward depth…
What this comes down to, in my view, is what the Canucks think they need more headed into the postseason: a scoring power winger, or a two-way ace centreman in the top-six. Generally speaking, I don’t see Zack Kassian as ready to play a big role on a good team yet. If he’s not ready to be a top-six winger, then tapping Ryan Kesler to be that guy, especially because Derek Roy is a really solid two-way, top-six centreman, could make some sense.
Vancouver does have a few options beyond Andrew Ebbett for a third-line centre too: they can call up Jordan Schroeder and play him against soft competition (which he proved able to handle this past season), or they can roll with Maxim Lapierre in their top-nine. Lots of fans aren’t convinced that Jordan Schroeder is big enough or experienced enough to handle postseason hockey, but I’d argue that he proved himself a legitimate NHL-caliber player this season. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to describe him as one of Vancouver’s 12 best forwards…
My overall assessment of trying Kesler on the wing is that it’s worth a shot if you think you really need an additional top-six winger, which I’d argue the Canucks do. If that’s the motivation here, I can get behind that. If it’s just an experiment to see if perhaps Kesler can work as a winger situationally, however, then it’s too cute by half and a bit of an odd diversion for a club that has gone through a lot of turnover – with injuries, guys returning from injuries, and a big trade deadline acquisition – and should consider prioritizing "familiarity" and "chemistry" down the stretch.