The Canucks need another Scoring Winger, maybe Ryan Kesler is that guy

Kesler played some good hockey on Mats Sundin’s wing a few years back.
Dave Sandford/Getty Images North America

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 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:

2007-2013 EV TOI GF GA GF/60 GA/60 CF% CF/60 CA/60 Corsi-On/60
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.

  • Fred-65

    I’ve long believed that Kesler would shine on the wing with the right play making centre. In fact IMO the piece that was missing last summer long before a Garrison was signed was a play making centre. Thank heavens they may get around to what at first glance was obvious. It doesn’t mean that Kesler can’t be the down low coverage in his own end. In fact the Canucks basically play like many teams the first forward back becomes the centre any way.

    Nice to see a decent face off man now that kesler is back

  • orcasfan

    Good post overall. It will be interesting to see what happens with this particular juggling. I do, however, think that your comparison to the effectiveness of Kesler, as a winger with Sundin to his overall time as center is a little misleading. I don’t think there is any doubt that Kesler has evolved as a much more potent offensive player in the years since his time with Sundin. So that might weight the stats a bit.

    It may have been more relevant to compare his stats with Sundin to his stats without Sundin during the same season. Can you do it, Thomas?

  • orcasfan

    If you’re planning matchups for the postseason, Burrows-Roy-Kesler might be the best defensive line we could put together. If the original plan was to have Roy as the defensive centre, they might’ve worried about him losing all his d-zone faceoffs to guys like Kopitar. This line would match the best offensive lines pretty well and allow you to shelter a Schroeder line, if necessary (but can you win a cup sheltering your 3rd line?).

    If you don’t have faith in Roy as your defensive centre, you’d have to match Kesler’s line with the best and obviously Kassian couldn’t handle that.

    How important is chemistry over the next few games given that this group has been together so long? We only really have to bed in Roy, on whichever line he’s going to play on. With Higgins injured, he wasn’t going to get a chance to do that anyway. Come playoff time, if these lines have success, I’d expect Burrows to move back to the Sedin line and Higgins to take his place with Roy-Kes.

  • orcasfan

    I don’t particularly like this move as I don’t think having an AHL centreman on your 3rd line is conducive to success. And despite your praise of Jordan Schroeder in this post, his NHLE’s with the Wolves (and production in 30 NHL games this year) are at the level of a mediocre 4th line C. At 5’9 with poor faceoff ability and limited PK use, that’s not an NHL player, at least not this season. He may make the jump to a 3rd line C next year but I don’t think he can contribute yet even if his positioning and defensive play are solid, which they have been while he was with the big club.

    Kesler to the wing tells me two things about how they view the lineup right now: 1) they don’t think that they have enough depth on the wings with Kassian struggling and Booth and Higgins injured to be able to roll 3 lines and attack, and 2) that deploying Derek Roy in a primarily defensive role is a waste of his offensive abilities. Yeah, Roy could be a great acquisition and produce more than he has in the tiny sample of games he’s been here, but giving him an OZone start rate of something like 40% is like buying a BMW to go off-roading. You got yourself a really good model, but at the end of the day it’s irrelevant because you’re not using it properly.

    I think this move and the resulting impact on the roster really shows that Mike Gillis’ biggest mistake on deadline day wasn’t not trading Luongo, but it was not acquiring a Boyd Gordon or a Marcel Goc or some other NHL body that they could plug in to a regular bottom-6 role. Unless he too becomes Derek Roy, the Canucks aren’t going to win the Stanley Cup with Andrew Ebbett playing significant minutes.

    All this being said, a healthy group of wingers with Higgins and Booth both in the lineup make this team a legitimate contender in my view. Unfortunately, I don’t know if that’s possible this season.

  • yugret

    I think this decision, like a lot of decisions made by Gillis/AV since June 2011, is basically to add more flexibility. I can see the appeal of getting Schroeder in the lineup in situations where the other team plays power vs. power and (Higgins/Raymond)-Schroeder-Kassian play against 3rd liners, especially since the Sedins have been good at taking on tough competition this year.

  • Graphic Comments

    Until they can ice a legitimate 3C that can eat up tough minutes against the opposition’s top lines, the move to the wing should wait. As you’ve pointed out before, Kesler is at his most deadly when he can feast on the soft underbelly that is exposed when opponents focus their checking line on the Sedins and the Canucks have their own checking line to handle the heavy lifting against the other teams’ top line. That rules out Schroeder, so leave Roy on the 3rd line and give the lines some time to gel before the playoffs…

  • @Rhys J be careful with using NHLE for a single player. Schroeder’s production was p. low in VAN this season but so was his on-ice sh%. Don’t think it means much. What matters a lot more is that Schroeder was in the black in terms of possession in a prescribed role. It’s possible that VAN can get enough out of a Kesler/Roy second line that getting a guy who can just hold his own while playing as a third-line centre makes that tradeoff worth it.

    @petbugs I think VAN might simply need another top-six scoring winger badly enough that this move could make sense.

  • asdf

    I liked Schroeder with Raymond and Hansen when they played together for a bit. Play them soft minutes and spread the tougher minutes b/w KesRoy line and Sedins.

    Sedins – Burrows
    Higgins – Roy – Kesler
    Raymond – Schroeder – Hansen
    Weise/Pini – Lapierre – Kass

    Doesn’t look bad at all on paper.

  • asdf

    It’s also worth nothing that after playing with Sundin, Kesler famously set up a net in his backyard and was shooting ~300 times a day the following off season. He went from having an okay shot to one of the hardest in the league, which obviously makes it hard to determine his capability as a winger as we haven’t seen him in that position since this dramatic change in his ability.

  • asdf

    Thom – My point is that given his production at the AHL level, I think it’s unreasonable to expect real significant offensive contributions from Schroeder this season. Because of that, he gives you pretty limited value at the NHL level this season. I don’t think the team can really go anywhere with Schroeder playing a 3rd line role unless he experiences a Kadri-like explosion in on-ice shooting% or something similar.

    • asdf

      I don’t think we need Schroeder to put on an offensive show, as long as he is a plus possession player, the synergy of Roy and Kesler may be worth the tradeoff of having a rookie in the 3C spot.

      And the translation of success at the AHL level as an indicator of success at the NHL level hasn’t exactly been reliable either.

  • @rhys it’s a valid point, my rejoinder is that JS doesn’t need to be enormously productive in a third line role so long as he can wins matchups and be a reliable two-way guy. He’s done that this season, and strikes me as a marginally better bet to be ready for a top-9 role in the postseason than Kass, frankly.

    • BrudnySeaby

      Given how poor Kassian has been of late, I can’t argue with you there. Although I’m still not sold on Schroeder being able to win 7 games worth of matchups against Krueger/Bolland, Stoll/Richards, Berglund/Sobotka. I just don’t think he’s good enough at this point in time.

  • BrudnySeaby

    Okay. let’s wait out this latest experiment.

    After that, how about playing Roy as the 2C, being a real playmaking C, with skilled wingers who can score (Raymond & Booth when healthy and perhaps Kassian for now). Then Kesler can be the 3C or 2D (as in D for Defensive 2nd line C) with Hansen and Higgins. They can shut down the opposing scoring lines while still having a scoring touch.

    That Roy was played as defensive centre boggled my mind all along. He’s the best playmaking centre on our team not named Sedin.

  • BrudnySeaby

    But what it basically boils down to, is that management failed to acquire that Top 6 Winger like Clowe who is both physical and can play. And potentially a 3C, although that would have been hard cap space wise.