The Forgotten Man: What’s become of Luca Sbisa?

We’ve spent a lot of time on this platform this summer evaluating the return the Vancouver Canucks managed to muster for Ryan Kesler the day of the draft. Well, that’s not entirely true. We’ve discussed Nick Bonino ad nauseam and we’ve been enlightened on Jared McCann, but there’s another piece of the package that has been somewhat swept under the rug.

That’s Luca Sbisa, who has largely become an afterthought despite having been quite highly regarded not all that long ago. After all, he was once a 1st round pick that was moved as a key piece in a Chris Pronger trade from the Ducks to the Flyers. The difference is that back then he was still considered a blue chip prospect with skating, size, and the ability to move the puck effectively; all of which led people to project him as a top-4 defenseman.

Obviously things didn’t work out that way for him in Anaheim, but we’ve seen many an instance of a prospect taking time to develop and not making good until his 2nd or 3rd stop in the league in the past. Does Sbisa have that potential, and what can the Canucks expect out of him this coming season?

Read on for more.

Stalled Development

Fine, saying that things didn’t exactly work out for Sbisa in Anaheim is somewhat of an understatement. After taking some legitimately positive steps back in ’11-’12, things have quickly snowballed for him ever since.

Nothing about Sbisa’s career screams “play-driving defenseman”, but things were particularly bad last season. Context always has to be provided when talking about possession and this is especially true when analyzing former members of the Ducks (given their generally pedestrian data and success despite it). With that being said, there’s nothing all that inspiring about Sbisa’s underlying numbers, even relative to his team. 

His -0.9% corsi relative last season was a slight improvement from years, but the fact that he only suited up for 30 games needs to be accounted for. The more worrisome trend is that he hasn’t managed to break even relative to his team once in his career, spending more time in his own zone defending than you’d ideally hope for.

But numbers aside, things really unravelled for Sbisa last season. While battling through a litany of injuries and being saddled with Bryan Allen as his primary partner, he quickly fell out of favour with head coach, Bruce Boudreau. Some of the perceived downfalls of Sbisa’s game were his inability to take advantage of his size and skating. One Anaheim Ducks blog, Anaheim Calling, said of Sbisa:

He always seemed to be on the ice for a back-breaking goal against, and was not successful at clearing the crease.

Does this remind you of a certain Canucks defenseman? The key difference here, of course, is that Sbisa has never eclipsed 30-points; without the offense, defensive acumen is necessary for Sbisa to stay in the lineup.

For this reason, Sbisa spent much of last season being healthy scratched in favour of players like Mark Fistric, Bryan Allen and Ben Lovejoy. That’s three fringe blueliners who were utilized in favour of Sbisa, with regularity, if you’re keeping track.

Expectations

What’s intriguing about Sbisa is that – much like the Canucks of last year – things really can’t seemingly can’t get much worse for him luck-wise. Between a sprained ankle, and ambiguous injuries of the upper and lower-body variety, there’s reason to believe the nagging injuries have been suppressing his development thus far.

The base skills that most general managers fawn over are still there for him, which Jim Benning reiterated when he said “he skates, he’s physical, he can make the first pass. In 3 years time I can see him being a top-4 for us.”

Whether this is a realistic expectations remains to be seen. He’s never been much of an offensive asset, and has only reached double digits in points twice in his NHL career thus far (with his banner season being the aforementioned ’11-’12 campaign, when he potted 5 goals and 19 assists for the Ducks).

And for this coming season in particular, he’ll be battling for a spot in the lineup with the likes of Ryan Stanton, Frankie Corrado, and Yannick Weber. Even if Corrado gets sent back to Utica to receive more playing time, that leaves Sbisa battling against two competent players; particularly Stanton, whose first year with the team was a smashing success last season. 

But as we saw last year when the Canucks used 11 different defensemen, it’s always good to have extra options that are capable of stepping into the lineup and not being liabilities when they do so. Sbisa has just the one year left on his contract, so there isn’t a major commitment to him moving forward. 

Maybe he can put the injuries behind him and benefit from a change of scenery, finally tapping into some of that potential we’ve seen in the past. We’ll know fairly quickly whether it was a gamble worth making, or whether he’s simply reached that unfortunate point of no-return.

  • Admiral Ackbar

    i will add some things here to better inform your readers: sbisa looked far better in games when he played closer to 20 minutes, especially later in the season. his time in anaheim always had him with iffy partners, so it’s really tough to get too hard on him.

    what that anaheim calling quote foolishly omits is that sbisa HAS the puck and is trying to make a play in the times he’s visibly beaten on those goals against – he has talent, he just needs consistent play away from partners like allen or deadweight (possession wise) wingers like palmieri to improve.

    anaheim hasn’t run much offense from the points since pronger left, which seems like a coached thing. so nobody has really seen that sbisa can absolutely unload. his weakness there was in walking the line to create a lane, but some of that rushed behavior came from, again, lack of consistent minutes/play.

    i’m not saying he’ll ever be more than a solid four, maybe a three in certain situations, but he can capably hold down a 5 thru 7 slot no problem. hopefully he gets a chance with the canucks, he’s a fantastic dude to top it off.

  • Mantastic

    Many things can deter a big defenseman’s development and three were mentioned. Injuries, playing partner and expectations…

    Being traded for Pronger means that everyone is expecting you to come in and be the next Pronger. The good thing for Sbisa is that he will be a bottom pairing Dman that will probably play with a Stanton or Corrado. Both steady guys that don’t make too many mistakes. He is also a benefit in the fact that he is replacing Garrisons 4.5 mil contract and that should be a win in cap flexibility.

    Who knows what will happen in his career. Remember at one time it was a difficult decision for Ottawa between Reddin and Chara?? Sbisa won’t become Chara, but a change of scenery and who knows?

    Benning is doing two things and that is getting rid of players that don’t want to play for the Canucks and second getting rid of bloated contracts that don’t match production. Sbisa will be a useful Dman and if he has to play top 4 minutes, it will probably be because of injuries

      • Mantastic

        I think he is simply saying that Chara did not look like the beast he is today early in his career. AKA, defensemen are hard to project, and some follow slower development curves.

      • Admiral Ackbar

        Correct, Chara was a 3rd round not a 1st round pick; he blossomed in his sixth season I think in Ottawa after some truly abysmal seasons on truly abysmal Islander teams. Also very different kinds of players. The point, however — and it’s a valid one — is that 24 is kind of early to be writing off a defenseman, especially one that’s had some decent success. None of this is to say that he’ll have anywhere near the impact of a guy like Chara (I highly doubt it). But it also doesn’t say he’s a trash bin guy.

      • Admiral Ackbar

        No one is as big as Character but Sbisa is a bigger Dman and it usually takes them longer to develop. Ottawa chose Redden over Character and Character continued to develop into a better and better player.

          • Mantastic

            Chara was decent and then good in Ottawa, starting in his fifth season when he had 23 points, 156 PIM, and was a plus 30. In Chara’s fourth season (on the Islanders) he had 9 points and was a -27, with 157 PIM. Sbisa in his fourth season in Anaheim had 24 points, 66 PIM and was a -5 in 80 games.

            Again, no one is saying that Sbisa is Chara, but you’re being needlessly obtuse about a pretty minor point. Which is that it’s early to be giving up on Sbisa.

          • Mantastic

            many different D-men could have been chosen based on the criteria of having a change of scenery benefited the player but chose one of the worst comparable. Obtuse was using that comparable when there clearly aren’t many similarities and it doesn’t strengthen his own argument.

            Sbisa was traded away, Chara went to free agency. Sbisa, wasn’t very good and not trending in the right direction. Chara was good and was trending upwards.

          • Mantastic

            The criteria wasn’t a change of scenario. The criteria was giving up on a player too early. Ottawa, which is where Chara started to blossom, obtained Chara through a trade, not free agency.

            Again, this is a minor and kind of pointless argument because no one in their right mind would think that Sbisa is going to become a Norris-calibre defenseman. But you’re still being needlessly picky on this one.

          • Mantastic

            what are you talking about? he was referencing Ottawa’s choice between Redden and Chara but they chose to keep Redden instead… and Chara went to free agency.

            NYI also didn’t “give up” on Chara, he was a piece on a trade to get Yashin, which was really good at the time…

          • Mantastic

            uh… my comment #3 was in response to comment #2 of JFR. never, did i respond to comment #4… so… no idea where you’re coming from. because i never disagreed with comment #4.

            JFR was talking about Ottawa with Redden and Chara… which is a horrible example

          • Mantastic

            uh… he answered what he thought what JFR said. JFR didn’t say that, again he brought up Redden AND Chara situation in Ottawa. He clarified exactly what he was talking about in later posts!

            thus nullifying comment #4 BECAUSE I WAS RESPONDING TO JFR!

          • Mantastic

            OK.

            To sum up then:

            Chara and Sbisa aren’t particularly good comparables because of different styles of play and contexts

            24 is a bit young to be writing off a large mobile defenseman

            Sbisa may or may not develop.

            But he’s no Yann Sauve (yet).

          • Mantastic

            I haven’t disagreed with anybodies comments on the issue of Sbisa’s development, only JFRs comparison to what Ottawa had to deal with Chara and Redden, which is completely wrong.

            I agree with most of the stuff you guys are saying (which I don’t think I need to clarify because I never disagreed with them in the first place), I’m clearly not the one being obtuse here

          • Mantastic

            It’s almost impossible to get this point through, but I was comparing player for player, a situation in which Ottawa made a choice between Reddin and Chara in which they chose the wrong player. I used a player and situation that everyone knows in order to make a point about development of bigger defensemen in which they have to grow into their bodies. Guess I could have found a former first rnd pick at 6’4 that was traded for a star defensemen then turned around and traded again for a former Selke Award winning two way forward, but I’m not a columnist.

            Bottom line is that if the Ducks don’t win the cup before Kass bolts as a FA, then the Canucks win this trade hands down. Basically Bonino replaces Kess and Sbisa replaces Garrison and we add Mcarren in a year or two. Now talent for talent Canucks lose but figure in salary vs production and it’s not even close.

            Kess and Garrison made almost 10 mil and Bionino and Sbisa make 1/3 rd of that. Garrison was 3rd pairing Dman that scored mostly on the PP, well Webers shot is right handed and will replace Garrison and Sbisa will play at least as good defense as Garrison.

            Kess is addition by subtraction. Disruptive force in the locker room and 25 goals from a player whose skills are on the down swing. Bonino holds the fort, while Mac is an up and coming Kessler. Flexibilty is what the Canucks have and a team that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Mantastic

    Maclean was pretty pissy about Sbisa when he was talking about the return for the Canucks. Maclean seemed to think Sbisa was a dud. One guy’s opinion doesn’t count for a lot but I would have rather heard more upbeat comments about Sbisa.

    In fact, I didn’t really hear any pundit say anything bullish about Sbisa.

    He probably has room to improve if he’s gets good coaching, but I’m keeping my expectations in check.

  • Barnabas

    If you do a google videos search for Sbisa and hits you will see several examples of what he brings to the Canucks. This is an element of the game that Garrison never had and something that we have been missing for some time – a defence man that makes huge punishing hits. I am looking forward to seeing him play and expect he will quickly become a fan favourite and long term replacement for Kevin Bieksa.