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.
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.
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.