The Second Line’s Play, And Chris Higgins’ Bounce-Back Season

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 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.

  • pheenster

    They’ve been absolute dynamite. Their shifts against the Kings in the first period a few days ago were the best hockey I’ve seen the Canucks play all season – such a shame about how the game ended up going, but it was not for the efforts of that line.

  • pheenster

    The fatigue was a possible culprit over the weekend. Having said that, the offence has been struggling for a while now (last couple seasons). Maybe once the top 2 lines are in place for a while, we may see some consistent, timely scoring.

    I also think we’ll have a solid line 3 and 4 once we’re healthy. I really would like to see Welsh take LW on a line with Richardson and Kassian.

    Torts will have some interesting decisions to make once Hansen, Booth and Weise are back around. I suspect Dalpe, Welsh and Archi will be gone back down.

  • pheenster

    It’s a great line, but are we ever going to see our actual centre depth of Henrik-Kesler-Santorelli on different lines? Frustrating to finally get a 3C and then play Kesler on the wing.

    There’s a couple of things on this team we know are really good. One is Sedins-Burows. The other is Hamhuis-Bieksa. Don’t think the alternatives are better (line for line or for depth). Be interesting to se if Kesler sticks on the wing when our 6 best wingers are healthy.

    • James M

      I agree that our center depth this year is the best we’ve seen in a while with Sedin-Kesler-Santorelli-Richardson-Schroeder.

      The problem is that besides Daniel, we don’t have any other natural scoring wingers. If Booth can step up his game, we have a lot more options once everyone is healthy.

  • James M

    You should “be” too. Sorry, grammar police.

    Anyways it doesn’t take 4 lines to win a cup. Boston is the exception. Most other teams had 1 pure scoring line, 1 score/Corsi line, 1 Corsi line with the odd goal, and one crap line to kill time.

    The Canucks potentially have it. As do 8 other teams in the league, not counting the leafs (who will for sure win it all haha)

  • James M

    Wow, pretty crazy. Stats line up with what the eye sees. They’ve been good, really good.

    The biggest problem I see (other than the horrible bottom 6), is Kesler not working out well with Sedins. Am I the only one who doesn’t see ‘added’ value in that line? Any decent player who plays with the Sedins sees boosted underlying #’s – we know this. But Kes’s WOWYs aren’t great w/ Sedins. I don’t think he adds enough value to that line to justify not having him centre his own line. After all, he’s finally healthy…. and he won a Selke playing as a centre. Not to mention Canucks don’t have enough centres.

    I’d like to see Burr back with them. Maybe Kassian finally gets a shot? Not sure, but I think for now that line needs a break.

    Also, you guys gonna write about Garrison/Edler? Man, what is UP with them. Almost like Garrisons having a bad yr and Edlers better off without him? Check his WOWYs.