There are a boatload of things that converged into one horrific perfect storm for the Vancouver Canucks this past season. Somewhere smack dab in the middle of that list was the play of Jason Garrison, whose tumble may not have necessarily been the most damning of them all, but deserves mentioning because of how it virtually mirrored what happened to the team as a whole.
It seems difficult to believe given what we know now – the way the human mind works in terms of memory repression is a hell of a thing – but there was a time near the start of the 2013-14 season where the Canucks were winning games, and Jason Garrison was not only eating up big minutes, but producing admirably as well.
Suffice it to say, none of those things lasted. Considering that much of his blatantly extensive and worrisome struggles in the 2nd half of the season were excused due to reports of a pair of injuries he was labouring through, it came as something of a surprise that he’d be representing his country overseas for the World Championships set to be played in Belarus in the coming month.
All of which leads us to needs to be addressed, regardless of how unpleasant it may be: should Jason Garrison be in consideration for the final compliance buyout the Canucks have at their disposal this summer?
The Track Record
By now we’re all familiar with Jason Garrison’s unusual path to the NHL as a player that took longer than his peers to fully blossom into what he has eventually become. After the Panthers rolled the dice on him as a 24-year old NCAA player, he rewarded them by producing quite handsomely with their AHL affiliate in Rochester the following season. The next year, he split time between Rochester and Florida, before finally nailing down a spot as an NHL regular in 2010-11.
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Playing on a cap hit of $675,000, he was quite the revelation on a shutdown pairing with Mike Weaver that season. The pair of unheralded defensemen led the Panthers in ice-time, and managed to come out looking pretty given the type of minutes they were being charged with handling.
That summer the Panthers took advantage of a Blackhawks squad that needed to shed salary, pouncing on the opportunity to bring Brian Campbell into the fold for next to nothing. Kevin Dineen, who took over from Pete DeBoer, split up the previously successful combination of Weaver and Garrison, instead pairing up Garrison with Campbell.
Garrison’s role became somewhat cushier (due in part to a far more talented running mate, and in turn a softer deployment pattern), but he still crushed it on all fronts. His underlying numbers were great, and with Campbell teeing him regularly, Garrison managed to score 16 times (with 9 of them coming on the power play).
Defensemen that produce like that offensively without being complete liabilities on the other end often get paid quite a bit when they hit the open market, and that’s exactly what Garrison did when he signed a 6 year, $27.6 million deal with the Canucks this summer (which was somehow considered a “hometown discount”, as if it wasn’t a boatload of money for a relatively unproven guy to begin with).
After getting off to a slow start last year, Garrison finished the year playing quite well on the top pairing with Dan Hamhuis, as the two controlled 54.2% of all shot attempts at 5v5 together, and 60% of all goals scored. He even chipped in with 8 goals in just 47 games, which had him tied for 7th best. While his on-ice shooting percentage of 10.54% was elevated, the other underlying numbers checked out, in what was generally speaking a successful first campaign with the team.
The Down Year
All of that is why Garrison’s struggles this year were as puzzling as they were, considering what he’d been able to accomplish in the 3 previous seasons. Back when his issues first started emanating in November, I wrote an article titled “What is going on with Jason Garrison this season?“
“I made a bet with Cam Charron about Garrison’s goal total before the season, in which we set the over/under at 14.5 I honestly couldn’t take the over quickly enough. Based on the reaction from my followers on Twitter, I certainly wasn’t the only one that thought he was poised for a huge season. I still think my rationale behind it was solid – he scored 16 in 77 games back in ’11-’12, and despite a very slow start to his career as a Canuck, he wound up with 8 in 47 last year (a 14 goal pace). In addition to that, he had only scored 3 PP goals in his limited time on the man advantage last season, and I figured we’d see a heavy dose of bombs from the point this year like the one from the video above.
.. But roughly a quarter of the way into the season, it just hasn’t happened for him.”
And months later, it *still* never really happened for him. He finished the year with just 7 tallies in 81 games, due in large part to the 3.9% shooting percentage; which was unfortunately for him, much closer to the ~5% league average for defensemen than the ~9% he’d shot the previous two years.
For whatever other issues he may’ve had, he certainly wasn’t shy about firing the puck; his 181 shots on goal were 11th amongst all blueliners. The most disappointing part of it all was what he managed to do (or not do, more aptly) with the man advantage — he scored just 4 times in those situations despite leading the league in shots/60 (and being 3rd in raw number of shots behind Ovechkin and PK Subban).
Heading into the year the thought was that the team – which had finished 22nd in power play efficiency in ’12-’13 – would revolve its top unit around Garrison’s bomb from the point. Given what we’d seen from his days in Florida, and the type of passing that we knew the Sedins were capable of, it seemed like a great idea on paper.. until we actually started seeing it play out before our very eyes.
Be careful what you wish for. The blueliner had 34 more shot attempts on the power play than anyone else on the team this season, so he’s as good a place as any to start pointing fingers at for the 26th ranked man advantage the team had. They generated a ton of shots, but weren’t able to convert much, probably in part because of where they were coming from.
At 5v5, Garrison was moved away from the successful partnership he had enjoyed with Hamhuis the previous season, to play with Alexander Edler (which is also something I thought would work prior to the season, and didn’t, so feel free to throw rocks at me). The two were negative possession players, and their goals for rate was horrifically low (which as Cam outlined recently, was all part of Edler’s forgettably unlucky campaign). Interestingly enough, Edler’s corsi for % actually jumped up from 49.8% with Garrison to an impressive 53.9% without him.
Which sort of speaks to the larger problem, because aside from Hamhuis, Garrison didn’t really work with anyone else. He and Bieksa were even worse together, posting a 47.6% corsi rate. Same goes for with Yannick Weber, and he was only just slightly better next to Ryan Stanton. The fact that Garrison only put up decent numbers this past year when strapped to Hamhuis’ hip is worrisome; Hamhuis is known for making everyone he plays with better, so his success with him doesn’t exactly give us much insight.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that we tend to preach sample size and refraining from making panicky, over-reactionary decisions on this platform. What we have to work with is 3 straight years of strong play, followed by one largely subpar one. Down years are hardly a novel concept; everyone has them, and will continue to have them. It’s an unfortunate part of the business. When it happens, though, you need to figure out whether there’s some underlying systemic issue causing it, or whether it’s something that’s easily fixable moving forward.
In Garrison’s case, it’s proving to be difficult to erase from the mind just how truly abhorrent Garrison looked for large stretches of games, as he glacially moved around the ice while everyone and their grandmother blasted past him towards the net. His campaign was one of those instances where the eye test and the numbers synced up perfectly, backing each other up.
From watching him closely he looked like a guy that was being hampered by something, and as the year we went along, we learned that he was in fact struggling with a groin injury. I’m reluctant to simply dismiss everything that we saw as something that’ll improve once that ailment is healed because of two particular hang-ups:
I understand that getting the chance to represent your country in International play is a very cool moment that would probably mean a lot to a guy like Garrison (particularly since he has never had a chance to do it before), but if that aforementioned injury was so bad that it was responsible for his decline in play, then wouldn’t he be using the offseason to sort it out? That’s a question I’d be inclined to ask myself were I the one responsible for signing his cheques.
Another question I’d be asking myself, is whether it’ll get better. After all, this is something that has plagued him for years now, yet was something he seemed to be dealing with rather aptly. Three words (amongst many others, I suppose) that you don’t want to hear regarding one of your investments: “managing”, “chronic”, “soft tissue injury”.
I have my concerns. Which in part, is why I’m in the camp that believes using the compliance buyout on Garrison come July is something that at the very least needs to be discussed internally by whoever it is that happens to be in charge of making such decisions by then. Were the team to do so they’d be due to pay him $8.4 million total over the next 8 years, which is more of an inconvenience than an albatross.
Purely from a value perspective, that route seems like a more fruitful long-term endeavour than blowing your load on buying one year of Booth out as most fans of them have been clamouring for. I imagine an $4.6 million worth of cap space in the years to come is something that a savvy GM would be able to make something happen with.
Then again, this is all just a hypothetical as we’re filling time in the summer by hucking things at the wall to see what sticks. There’s no way the team, under this ownership, is going to set themselves up to be on the hook for yet another expense like this. And considering that Garrison isn’t likely to waive his No Trade Clause to leave his hometown anytime soon, it looks like the Canucks and their fans will have to pray that the “chronic groin issues” don’t get worse over the next 4 years for a player that’s entering his 30s, and coming off of a season filled with red flags. Or they’ll be wishing they gave this some more open-minded thought.