The Higgins-Santorelli-Burrows line has been money since being put together.
Sunday night’s loss to the Ducks marked a league-high 20th game of the season for the Vancouver Canucks, meaning that for all intents and purposes they’ve reached the quarter mark of the 2013-14 campaign (24.4% to be exact, for you sticklers out there).
Since the beginning of the year there have been relative highs, and on the other end of the spectrum, relative lows; some games that the team won even though they had no business doing so, and some games that the team lost even though they did everything but actually score more goals than their opposition. You know, all of the things you’d expect to see when you follow a team as closely as we do over a long enough period of time.
The power play’s inability to find the back of the net (which has only been exacerbated by the team’s struggles in actually getting on the man advantage in the first place), the play of their $9.6 million pairing, and the bottom-6 as is currently constructed are all legitimate concerns for the Canucks at the moment.
It’s not all bad, though, as John Tortorella and Co. may’ve inadvertently stumbled into a gold mine – and given the team something they desperately needed – when the moved Ryan Kesler to Henrik Sedin’s right wing. The trickle-down effect of the move was the unit of Chris Higgins-Mike Santorelli-Alex Burrows being thrown together as Vancouver’s makeshift 2nd line. The result has been money for a team that couldn’t buy any secondary scoring to save their collective lives last season.
Alex Burrows made his return to the lineup on Monday October 28th as the team came back from their season-long roadtrip and played host to the Washington Capitals. With his old spot next to the twins being taken up by a red-hot Kesler, he was put on Mike Santorelli’s right wing (with Higgins on the other side).
I’ve gone ahead and broken down how the trio has performed on a game-by-game basis since then (a span of 7 games). You’ll note that I’ve included the opposing line they saw the most of at 5v5, and their shot attempt totals (as a refresher Corsi simply encompasses all shot attempts, while Fenwick removes the blocked shots out of the equation):
- vs. Capitals: Erat-Laich-Brouwer, 12-6 Corsi, 9-4 Fenwick.
- vs. Red Wings: Alfreddson, Cleary, Weiss, 14-18 Corsi, 11-12 Fenwick (Note: Started only 1 shift in Offensive Zone, and 10 in Defensive Zone)
- vs. Leafs: van Riemsdyk-Kadri-Kessel, 23-5 Corsi, 19-4 Fenwick.
- vs. Coyotes: Korpikoski-Hanzal-Vrbata, 20-16 Corsi, 16-11 Fenwick.
- vs. Sharks: Hertl-Thornton-Wingels, 9-12 Corsi, 8-8 Fenwick (Note: Held a 4-2 advantage in shot attempts in the ~5 minutes of "tied" play)
- vs. Kings: King-Richards-Toffoli, 17-18 Corsi, 14-14 Fenwick.
- vs. Ducks: Penner-Perreault-Perry, 18-14 Corsi, 14-10 Fenwick.
While there hasn’t been a noticeable weak link amongst the trio or anything like that, I think it’s fair to see that it has been Chris Higgins who has been most responsible for "driving the ship". I’ve been harping on this all season, but it bears repeating how fantastic he has been following a dreadful season which saw his underlying numbers plummet.
Through 20 games – according to Behind the Net – he is going up against the toughest competition on the team behind the Sedins, Kesler, and Alexander Edler. Unlike those guys, though, he is starting only 38.1% of his shifts in the offensive zone, which somehow hasn’t stopped him from posting a gaudy 17.2 Corsi Relative. Simply outstanding.
Unfortunately for him, he has only managed to shoot 8.7% on his 69 shots on goal this season (putting him on pace for over 280 for the year, by the way). That’s definitely considered unlucky given his 10.5% career clip, but he has also had some relatively low sh% seasons over that time, so it’s quite possible that it’s just who he is at this point. It’s a shame because if just a few more of those shots went in, people would likely be far more cognizant (and ready to appreciate) of what he has accomplished through 20 games.
If you still don’t believe that he has been the key to the second line’s success, let me direct your attention to his Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com page, where you can see how his teammates have done with him compared to without him. Basically everyone – other than Kesler, who obviously has benefitted from playing next to the Sedins – sees a noticeable uptick in their possession stats when they’re on the ice with Higgins.
Both Santorelli and Burrows have controlled >60% of all shot attempts when paired with Higgins. Their goal% doesn’t match-up with how much they’ve had the puck, and that’ll probably even out over the next however many games if they keep doing things like this:
It’s only a 7 game sample size, sure, but in this case the data matches up with what we’re seeing out there with our eyes, which leads me to believe in them more than I necessarily would otherwise. The trio is tenacious, reliable, and is winning a ton of puck battles. They just work together, for whatever reason.
While they’ll eventually have a few bounces go their way, I’d caution against expecting too many pucks to find the back of the net. I’d wager that they’ll probably continue to carry a low shooting percentage amongst them seeing as there isn’t what you’d consider a "natural" scorer amongst the bunch.
At the same time, all three have scored 20+ goals at the NHL level, so it should get better in that department. As long as they continue controlling the puck possession game like they have, I’m sure that the Canucks will take it. You should too.