If it feels like it has been quite some time since the frenzy of moves the Vancouver Canucks made in that hectic stretch bridging the end of June and beginning of July, it’s because it has been. With the summer now officially having been put in the rearview mirror as training camps are set to begin across the league, we’re running a 5-part series reviewing what the Canucks did this summer, and what it means for them moving forward.
This deep dive was executed by the excellent MoneyPuck_ on Twitter, who has contributed content for us in the past.
Ryan Miller (3 years, $6M AAV)
The Canucks went into the summer having traded two elite, fan favourite goaltenders in the past twelve months. With a rapidly deteriorating season ticket holder base, Benning and Linden needed to bring home a brand name to sell the “Change is Coming” message. They set their sights on Ryan Miller immediately, ultimately inking the 34 year-old to a three year, $18M contract.
It was clear that there was no way the Canucks should go into the 2014-2015 season with a Eddie Lack/Jacob Markstrom goaltending tandem that had less than a full season’s worth of games between them in the NHL. However, that wasn’t necessarily because Eddie Lack isn’t ready to be an NHL starter, as management has recently suggested; it had more to do with concern stemming from whether Markstrom could handle a backup gig effectively.
What may have been overlooked by Canucks management during the death throes of the Tortorella Era was just how good a goaltender Eddie Lack was in the first half of the season. For those who have blocked out the painful memories of 2014 Canucks hockey, Torts chose Lack to start in the Heritage classic over Luongo, thus igniting Canucks goalie drama 2.0. After the dust settled, Luongo was shipped to Florida, Eddie Lack was anointed as starter, and Jacob Markstrom was inserted as his backup.
Before the heritage classic, Lack was posting a .925% save percentage on a backups starting rotation where he had five rest days for every game day. If he had maintained this save percentage throughout the remainder of the season he would have finished with the fourth highest mark in the league, behind only Tuuka Rask, Semyon Varlamov, and Carey Price, and would have presumably been a potential Calder trophy nominee. However, with Luongo gone Torts decided to run Lack into the ground, providing only one rest day for each game day. Unsurprisingly, Lack’s save percentage took a beating as effects of this ridiculous workload wore him down:
As shown above, a typical starter will see about 2.3 rest days for each game day, so clearly the 1.12:1 ratio Lack was saddled with was ridiculous, unsustainable, and predictably lead to poorer results. With this in mind, you would think that Lack showed enough in the first 24 games of the season to get a shot at the starter’s role this year, rather than spending $18M on Miller, who is now a middle of the pack starter more than anything else.
Amongst the 25 goalies who played over 41 games last year Miller was 12th in Sv% and 21st in even strength Sv%. By comparison, Lack ranked 20th and 14th in those categories, respectively, despite the disastrous schedule in the second half.
While Miller was the most well-known goalie on the market this summer, he was by no means the only quality netminder available. Below are the top goalies available this summer and the amounts they signed for:
My preference would have been to sign a goaltender like Thomas Greiss to a backup role, allowing Lack to see if he can replicate the .925 sv% we saw in the first half of last season. Obviously, neither Lack nor Greiss have accumulated the same body of work that Miller has over his career, so there would be risk associated going with a less proven tandem. However, from where I sit, considering the Canucks scored the third fewest goals in the league last year, signing Miller is a $6M a year solution to the wrong problem.
Radim Vrbata (2 years, $5M AAV)
Having one of the worst offenses in the league last year, addressing goal scoring via free agency was an absolute must for the Canucks this summer. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot to choose from to begin with. Here are the 2014 UFA forward who scored 20 or more goals last year:
On the positive side, Vrbata has been one of the best possession players amongst this group for the past three seasons. He’s an obvious upgrade to the top six, and the Canucks didn’t have to overpay in terms of contact length (2 years) or AAV ($5M) to sign him when considered in the context of other high scoring UFAs available this summer.
Management is selling Vrbata as the Sedin’s new winger, and that is where I think there are some pretty interesting question marks:
As we can see from the table above, Vrbata is a perimeter shooter who takes a significant amount of long distance (61% of shots greater than 30 feet from the net), low percentage shots (sh% 4% from greater than 30 feet). Generally, we’ve seen that the further away from the net you shoot, the lower the chance the puck actually goes in the net.
Now this doesn’t mean he’s an inferior player, as this can be an effective strategy with many of these shot attempts at least being given a chance to turn into goals off of rebounds or deflections. Vrbata’s center for most of his time in Phoenix was Martin Hanzal, and we can see from his shot data that Phoenix’s coaching strategy enabled him to take a fair amount of shots closer to the net (presumably many resulting deflections and second chances initiated by Vrbata):
The thing is: over the course of the past four seasons, part of the success of the Sedin’s top line has been having Alex Burrows clean up the scraps in front of the net:
Over the past four years, Burrows has taken 53% of his shots from inside the 20-foot mark. He has been a very high percentage shooter in these situations, contributing greatly to the success of the line overall. This is a very different style of play as compared to Radim Vrbata, who only took 20% of his shots from those same distances.
Are we really going to see a future where Vrbata fires a ton of low-percentage perimeter shots, with the Sedins up front looking for rebounds and deflections?
Maybe Vrbata will be able to play the type of style that made the Sedin line so successful when Burrows was playing his best, but I think there’s at least some reason to question whether Vrbata would be a better fit on the second line with Bonino, who plays a style complementary to what made Vrbata successful in the desert:
Miller will accomplish a lot for the Canucks when it comes to building credibility with the fan base going into next season. However, looking at the other options available it’s hard not to think their salary cap money could have been used better elsewhere if they signed a promising young backstop for lower dollars.
It was clear that they were hoping to land Iginla, which would have been a much better fit with the Sedins than Vrbata. That didn’t work out, but they still managed to get one of the better forward options available, when you consider it in the context of salary and term. He’s not a perfect fit for the twins, but he is clearly a very solid addition to the top six. The fact that they only had to give 2 years instead of 3 must also be taken into account as a win for the team.
Previously in this series: