Will Things Get Better Moving Forward?

 

Admittedly, the outlook and dialogue on this blog has been pretty bleak lately. I guess that’s what happens when the team your blog is devoted to goes through an injury-induced malaise; which includes 1 win in 9 games since December 30th, a -14 goal differential, one of the most embarrassing group performances imaginable, and having the same number of points for the season as the Minnesota Wild.

All that considered, the tone seems justified and the situation seems dire. But just as fast as things have spiraled out of control over the past few weeks, I think they can be restored. There are some very tangible reasons to expect this team to right the ship, which we’ll get into right past the jump.

The Personnel

The biggest issue is plaguing the Canucks – well, maybe aside from Glen Gulutzan cashing cheques that he hasn’t actually earned – has been the fact that their biggest weakness on paper, their lack of depth up front, has been exposed due to the litany of injuries they’ve been dealing with. 

I guess this brings up the larger issue at hand, which is that the Canucks flat out weren’t prepared to brave the storm given the way that they were constructed. Every team deals with injuries over the course of an 82-game season; the Canucks are in the top 10 in the league, but two teams ahead of them are the Ducks and Sharks, who have continued to truck along just fine despite all of their injury woes. I’d say that this is for sure a knock against Mike Gillis and his staff, but that’s a topic of discussion for another day (like maybe one in June when we do that dance again in which we wonder out loud whether his days in Vancouver are numbered).

In the first game of the season, the team lost Alex Burrows for two weeks (to go along with the 5-game Zack Kassian suspension). By the time Burrows came back into the mix, Jannik Hansen had injured his shoulder and David Booth had strained his groin. That’s not to mention Jordan Schroeder, who lasted only 2 games and change before falling off of the face of the earth. 

The Canucks had their full cast of characters for a grand total of 8 games (November 17th -December 1st), before Burrows broke his jaw. Then came the Alex Edler knee injury the following night, and it was at that point that things really started to go on a downslope:

 

Here’s a fun fact for you, Ryan Stanton, and Ryan Stanton’s agent: in the first 35 games of the season, with Stanton healthy, the Vancouver Canucks controlled 52.9% of all 5v5 score close shot attempts, which is near elite. In the 14 games since Stanton got injured in Minnesota? Just 47.6%, which resembles a heavy, heavy dip.

I’m undoubtedly being a little facetious because, while I love Stanton and his story, he’s just a bit player in the grand scheme of things. You can manipulate the numbers to look like anything you want them to, and I think this is more of a coincidence and alignment of everything bad coming together at once rather than proof that Stanton is some sort of play-driving dynamo.

The important player here is Alex Burrows, which our good friend Rhys did a fine job of illustrating in last night’s game recap:

 

Look at that right there. As Rhys noted, the big difference is that the team is attempting ~6 fewer shots/game without Burrows around. It’s common sense, really, and our readers are privy to this by now, but it bears repeating that you’ll on average score less as a team if you’re shooting the puck less frequently. And that’s happening with the Canucks, who have scored 7 goals in their past 5 games. 

Which brings us to the good news: as far as we know right now Alex Burrows will be making his return to the lineup tomorrow night vs. the Flames, which also serves as a timely segway..

The Schedule

The schedule has certainly done the Canucks no favours as they’ve waited for the reinforcements to come off of the IR. Phoenix is the only one of their last 9 opponents that doesn’t currently hold a playoff spot, and they’re a good 2-3 game stretch away from being able to lay claim to that themselves. 

The average record of their 8 opponents in the month of January is 31-12-5, with a +34 goal differential on the year. That’s dominant, and highly unfortunate for the Canucks.. but with every bad stretch in the schedule comes a good one, and that certainly holds true for the Canucks moving forward. Travis Yost recently published a list of the remaining strength of schedule for every team (sorted by avg. opponent score-adjusted Fenwick). He found that the Canucks have the 3rd easiest remaning slate of games in the league, with only the Sharks and Lightning having more favourable opponents going forward.

More specifically, though, here’s the list of games the Canucks play to end the month (I’ve gone ahead and highlighted the only game in which they shouldn’t be the prohibitive favourite heading into it: v. CGY, @ EDM, v. NSH, v. PHX, v.EDM, *v. CHI*, @WPG. Yep, cake. And that Blackhawks game is one which you’ll probably be hanging out with us at The Pint, so even that one ain’t so bad.

Things will definitely get better for the Canucks moving forward. The injuries have to be the main factor for their tailspin of late, because otherwise there’s no rhyme or reason to it. For the first half of the season they were looking like a team that had a chance to jump into that jumbled up non-Blackhawks 2nd tier in the West (with San Jose, St. Louis, LA, and Anaheim) based on their underlying numbers. They more than held their own when they played those teams – 55.1% 5v5 FenClose in 1st 6 games v. Pacific Divison teams, 44.7% in 5 games since – looking like they belonged. 

Where does this team’s true ability lie, then? I still believe it’s ultimately much closer to the one saw in the first half, than this one:

.. but that still hinges entirely on the team’s health, which, while improving with the return of the Alexs is still a cause for concern going forward. Is Henrik’s broken finger something that he can manage? Ideally he’d be able to take some time off now and heading into the Olympics to let it properly heal, but knowing him – the ultra competitive nature, the ironman streak, the importance placed on representing his country – I don’t really see that happening. 

I think the same questions can be applied to Ryan Kesler, who has really cratered of late and looks nothing like the guy we saw earlier in the year. He has gotten through the year relatively unscathed compared to the past few seasons, but it’s a distinct possibility that he’s more banged up than he’s letting on based on the obscenely high usage rate in the early going. He, too, will be competing in Sochi instead of taking some time to get right, rested, and ready for the stretch run. That has to be somewhat annoying if you’re either a fan of the team, or part of the organization.

Back to the team, though. They’ll head into the Olympic Break with a mini 4-game trip out East, which when combined with the upcoming 7 games I laid out above, provides them with a nice opportunity to rack up some points, and improve the perception of what they’re capable of.

This’ll provide an interesting dilemma for the management team and the fans, since the trade deadline will be just one week after the NHL schedule resumes on February 25th. I don’t think it’s exactly farfetched to say that the way the next few weeks unfold could have a strong influence on the way in which the team handles their business around March 5th.

I personally believe that the team, much to most people’s chargin, will stand pat and do nothing of any significance on that day. At some point prospects and picks need to stop being sold off like hot cakes for 2-month rentals, especially if the franchise wants to establish the depth each of the top teams in the West has right now. Anaheim and San Jose have been handled a litany of injuries with ease, and the Blues and Blackhawks are absolutely loaded from the ground up with assets.

I’d like to think that MG and Co. are cognizant of that, especially since it’s looking more and more like this team just doesn’t even have a fighting shot to compete unless absolutely everything breaks their way. But it’s not impossible to envision a scenario in which that changes. Teams scrap their plans and succumb to pressure all of the time in professional sports. Either way, it’ll be an interesting time to follow hockey in Vancouver.

  • islander

    The real question is why is it acceptable that the goalposts have shifted from cup contender to wildcard contender?

    Because that really does not constitute an organizational reset…

  • Fred-65

    Frankly I discussed the “Stanton effect” last night with a friend. It’s not that Stanton is viewed alone it’s that Bieska has fallen out of any semblance of the playe we thought he was SINCE Stanton was injured. Hamhuis has had to play more minutes and it’s clear he’s unable to. It’s (Stanton) a compounding effect. Add to that the loss of another two lefties Edler and Alberts and boys we have a problem.

    Stanton you must remember was not part of the Gillis plan moving forward from the season begining. He was a fortuitous addition that fell into Gillis lap. So too was Santorelli, an unheralded player listed in the media guide as a Utica player and signed to a two way contract. Mr Gillis should get down and kiss the earth he walks on because frankly without those 2 players the teams early success would be but a dream. The team started the season woefully under manned and not ready for the season.

    I truly believe Gillis believed that some of the prospects would be playing now…he as much as stated that before the season started. Turns out they were far from ready….Vcr staff had misread the prospects development.

    There are no genuine “B” class players to step in down in Utica.

    Seems to me the team is in a difficult position and have few plan B available.

    This season was NOT well thought out. Saying that Gillis is undoubtly an intelligent man but has started to believe his own press clipping IMO. If reality kicks in he might be the best person to resolve the problem

  • BrudnySeaby

    The sample size is now big enough to arrive at an air-tight conclusion: the Canucks don’t have the horses to compete with the Cup contenders. Not even remotely close.

    Divergent opinions? Bueler, Bueler?

    For Gillis, the 9-1 romp must have sealed it. If he was deluding himself before that game, he can’t be now.

    The skunk against Phoenix…another slap to the forehead.

    So what does he do? I’ll be frustrated if he does nothing and he waits for OK but-not-great prospects to fill the void.

    Blow it up? The locals will buy less tickets, the media deals may get less juicy.

    Rebuild on the fly? Maybe, but I don’t trust him to make the right calls.

    We are stuck with this decent but far-from-elite team that has a long putt to beat the LAs, Anaheims or San Joses in the first round.

    Fack.

    • Marsh

      I doubt Gillis believes there’s a deviation from his reset plan. That and his mediocre trading record speaks for some years of average results. And apparently it was less AV than MG responsible for these results. Or would they be worse without Torts?

      Cheer up -we are Canuck fans but we could be Utica fans. My opinion is the Canucks will finish 7th or 8th in the conference and Gillis will sell it as an expected blip due to the reset. Fack indeed.

  • BrudnySeaby

    Dimitri, I really like what you guys do at this site and the statistics do give one a general understanding of where a team stands. Yet, the numbers cannot be regarded in pure isolation and just with a viewpoint on the own team. Yes, the injuries affect the Canucks side of the equation (of corsi, fenwick close, etc.). But let’s not forget the influence of the Canucks’ opponents on those very numbers. With the quality of competition going up, the Canucks numbers are bound to come down.

    Regardless of all the injuries, I still think the biggest problem the Canucks have, is that they cannot score (enough). They just don’t have (any?) enough snipers on the team that put the puck in the net. Watching Canucks games I often feel that the games could go on for 120 minutes and the Canucks can keep outshooting (most of) their opponents but it wouldn’t change the outcome of the game because they just wouldn’t, couldn’t score. I don’t know if you or any of the other readers have that same feeling. It’s like when in soccer a team misses a good striker, and they have all the possession, and many chances but they just can’t score. That’s how it feels watching the Canucks.

    Having said that, I think there are some other problems as well:
    – The power play is horrible (and Gulutzan should be fired rather today than tomorrow!).
    – Torts is perhaps a great motivator but I have my doubts about his coaching skills, does he make the team better on the ice and does he make the smart choices!? (Dalpe with the Sedins!?)
    – Roster skill. Team has 4 Top 6 players instead of 6 or more (Sedin, Sedin, Kesler, Burrows). Booth is nowhere near his Top 6 skill. Kassian apparently can’t bring it and isn’t trusted. Instead of finding Top 6 players that will push other players with skill down, Gillis can only find bottom 6 players. Santorelli has performed more admirably than anyone could possibly have imagined. And I would argue that without him, the hole would be a lot deeper!

    Those are just a few, and unfortunately not insignificant, things that hamper the team. And I don’t see Gillis being able to fix that during the season.

    Or after the season. If I was an UFA, I wouldn’t sign with him. He’s the guy who promised Schneider he is the new no. 1 and Luongo that he would trade him. Only to do a 180. That’s not a gentlemen’s way of doing business.

  • BrudnySeaby

    “it’s looking more and more like this team just doesn’t even have a fighting shot to compete unless absolutely everything breaks their way”

    This is pretty much how I feel. Is the team as bad as their current bad stretch? No way. But are they going to win the Cup this year? I’d say no, as well.

    And I know that some people take issue with the idea of Stanley Cup or bust. I’m sure I would feel differently if this team had ever won the Cup. But they haven’t, so until they do win the Cup, each year will be viewed as a success or failure to me based on whether they win the big shiny thing.

  • BrudnySeaby

    Great article guys, as usual.

    I’m not so optimistic. A few key injuries and this team sunk like the titanic.

    Yes, it speaks to management more than anything IMO. ANA and SJS could sustain injuries cause they had depth – both on their roster and in their system. LA can call up Tofoli and Vey, Vancouver can call up Welsh and Archibald. After 6+ years as a Canucks GM, Mike has yet to produce a single drafted player who’s played a full season with the Canucks. Not ONE. Not one folks. That alone should be a fireable offense. Of course he’s brought us Chris Tanev (undrafted), and Lack (undrafted). But that’s not good enough, not close. Teams like Chi can win the Cup 4 years ago, completely dismantle their team – then win the Cup again last season cause they drafted well. Vancouver has to rely on a weak free agent market and an old roster cause their drafting sucks. He’ also made some very bad trades which have further depleted the teams weak farm system.

    When is enough – enough? When does someone important look at this info and freak out? When does someone in charge do something about this? When the Canucks resemble the 11/12 Flames? Well, the resemblance is as close as I’ve ever seen it.

    Time for a change. Time for a focus on drafting well. Gillis better not hand away picks/prospects at trade deadline again for a bloody rental. He should have loaded up this past summer when assets were free to acquire. This lack of depth is on Canucks management. Therefore the Canucks freefall the last month is also on them.