The Vancouver Canucks have won six of their last seven games, they boast the league’s best penalty-kill, and their controversial bench boss has been even keeled (mostly) while earning praise for his handling of the media. The John Tortorella era is off to about as good a start as anyone could’ve reasonably expected, well, except for the nihilist disaster fetishists waiting impatiently for Tortorella to go Vesuvius on the local press.
It has been a redemptive fall for Tortorella in some ways, especially with his old team the New York Rangers already in the "players only meeting" stage. If the Canucks as a whole are benefitting from the impact of a coaching change, and they seem to be, then we figured it might be worth our time to take a closer look at three players on Vancouver’s roster who have particularly benefited from the Tortorella hire.
A quick note before we get started. The ultimate "Tortorella player" is probably Mike Santorelli, but he wasn’t on the team last year and so I’ve excluded him for the purposes of this blog post.
Tanev prevents power-play shots by any means necessary.
.gif via theScore
Somehow when the discussion this summer turned to "which Canucks players will breakout or chafe under Tortorella," Chris Tanev’s name never came up. It seems surprising in retrospect, of course Tortorella would have a particular appreciation for an unassuming, hyper-efficient, shutdown puck-mover like Tanev.
Tortorella has spoken repeatedly about how Tanev’s play stood out to him when he was studying up on Canucks game tape this offseason. ”I have a whole different respect for him, watching him live and being with him and how he handles himself from shift to shift," Tortorella said of Tanev this past weekend.
"He doesn’t say ‘boo,’ is ready to go, blocks shots, has learned to have a really good stick,” the Canucks head coach continued. Tortorella’s comments won’t come as much of a surprise to Canucks fans (or Canucks Army readers) who’ve long appreciated that Tanev is an excellent shot-blocker, has a good stick, and in’t a ghost.
Tanev started the season in a role very similar to the one he occupied a year ago under Alain Vigneault: he was a third-pairing defenseman and occassional penalty-killer. Tanev only played more than 17 minutes one time in the first five games of this season, and that was during a comfortable Canucks win over Calgary in the second of back-to-back games.
But Tanev’s steadiness, situational awareness, and defensive reliability have clearly caught the attention of Vancouver’s coaching staff, and his role has expanded enormously as this season has played itself out. Tanev’s minutes have particularly spiked over the past two weeks as the young Canucks defenseman has played more than 20 minutes in six of Vancouver’s past seven games (all of them victories).
The emergence of Tanev as a top-pairing defenseman seems significant, but his spiking ice-time only hints at the seachange in his deployment. Tanev, after all, played more minutes than a typical third-pairing defenseman last season as Canucks coaches (and Rick Bowness in particular, presumably) carefully metered the ice-time logged by Vancouver’s "top-four". While Tanev may have chewed up a good deal of ice-time last year, he did it all against bottom-six competition.
That isn’t the case this year though. Tanev is consistently tasked with shutting down the league’s best for really the first time in his young NHL career. Tanev is facing the toughest competition among all Canucks defenseman according to Behindthenet.ca‘s shot metric based "quality of competition" (QoC) estimate, and the second toughest matchups behind only Dan Hamhuis according to extraskater.com‘s time-on-ice based QoC metric. He’s still coming out ahead too…
Tanev is also leading all Canucks defenseman in short-handed icetime this season. I’ll have more breaking down Vancouver’s league leading penalty-kill for you later this week (or early this week depending on when I finish the video work), but let’s just say that it might not be a coincidence that Tanev’s taking on a primary penalty-killing role has coincided with the metamorphisis of Vancouver’s 4-on-5 play, which has become super-elite under Tortorella and Mike Sullivan.
I’ll put it this way for now: Chris Tanev has spent nearly 79 mintes on the ice in 4-on-5 situations this season. In those roughly 79 minutes Vancouver’s goal differential, in 4-on-5 situations I’d remind you, is even. Yep. Even.
This is Tanev’s goal, but Higgins’ work along the wall and deft pass out of the slot creates the opportunity.
The following is a list of NHL regulars who are generating even-strength shots on goal at a higher rate than Chris Higgins is this season: Alex Ovechkin, Marian Hossa, Evander Kane, Jamie Benn. That’s it, which is pretty amazing really.
When Vancouver extended Chris Higgins last Spring, management referred to him repeatedly as a "seventh forward"; an excellent third-liner with the ability to play up the lineup if necessary. Well Higgins has been more like a fourth forward for Tortorella so far this season, and his production and play has been consistent with what you’d expect from an excellent top-six winger.
At the moment Chris Higgins is on pace for 20 goals despite converting on shots at a rate 25% below his career average. He’s also on pace for 47 points despite carrying a very normal 7.8% on-ice shooting rate at evens. In other words: the secondary scoring punch Higgins is providing appears to be very much sustainable, in fact, we might reasonably expect his goal scoring rate to increase if he continues to generate the shot volume he has so far this season.
Tortorella and Higgins are an interesting case. Higgins played for Tortorella in New York, but was injured and snakebit and ultimately trade fodder at the deadline. But Tortorella reached out to Higgins after the trade, and was sufficiently impressed by Higgins’ performance that he told him that he hoped their paths would cross again. Higgins meanwhile has credited Tortorella with helping him through a difficult time in his career when he was briefly a New York Ranger.
Now that their hockey paths have crossed again in Vancouver, Tortorella is riding Higgins and the American-born forward has become a mainstay in Vancouver’s top-six. Higgins’ burn is way up and he’s playing almost two-and-a-half additional minutes per game this season. Some of that is a result of Higgins’ power-play ice-time being doubled this season over last, but most of the bump is at even-strength.
There’s no doubt that Higgins is earning that extra time, as he’s been one of Vancouver’s most reliable forwards in all three-zones. The Canucks have a 60% share of shots on goal with Higgins on the ice at five-on-five this season, and are controlling a higher percentage of shot attempts with HIggins on the ice than they are with any other skater besides Henrik Sedin. Across the board Higgins’ underlying numbers have bounced back in a major way after they were uncharacteristically underwhelming a season ago.
Basically there’s no forward in Vancouver who has benefitted more from the Tortorella hire than Higgins, well except for maybe…
Photo via wikimedia commons
It would be disingenuous to pretend that the Tortorella-hire has had as much of an impact on Kesler’s return to form as, say, his return to full health after a multitude of injuries over the past couple of years. Still, Kesler’s having his best season in a long-time, and Tortorella’s heavy and flexible usage of Vancouver’s two-way ace is certainly a part of the correlation of factors causing it.
The slamdunk American Olympian is leading all Canucks forwards in ice-time this season. His special teams minutes are virtually unchanged from what they were under Vigneault, but Kesler is playing over three-minutes more at even-strength per game. He’s also bouncing around the lineup and has spent time playing his natural centre position, while also getting some looks on the wing with the Sedin twins.
Kesler’s most common line-mate has been Chris Higgins this season, and they’ve done pretty well together while dueling the opposition’s best forward line on most nights. When Kesler has played with Henrik Sedin at even-strength (roughly 220 minutes), however, that line has totally crushed the opposition. The twins and Kesler have outscored opponents two-to-one when skating together, and have controlled 57% of shot attempts. It’s a look that arguably makes the Canucks a bit too top-heavy, but it’s a good wrinkle to keep in the toolbox (especially if the Canucks can add another centre at the trade deadline).
Under Tortorella, Kesler has also dealt with a reduced workload in terms of defensive-zone starts. His "O-zone start rate" is back over 50% for the first time since his 40 goal season, and lo and behold, the former Selke winner is well on his way to his second career 30 goal season.
He’s also converting at a rate that’s eerily similar to his career average, so his gaudy goal totals in the early going certainly appear sustainable. Actually Kesler’s goal scoring production this season, while impressive, might undervalue his actual offensive contributions.
For example, Kesler has capitalized on 19% of his 5-on-4 shots on goal since 2008-09 (45 goals on 237 total shots). This season he’s managed just two goals in 5-on-4 situations despite having taken a hearty 38 shots with the man-advantage. That number will regress, and looking at it, I have to think Kesler has a very serious shot at hitting 40 goals again this season, especially if the Canucks power-play has legitimately turned the corner…