With the Vancouver Canucks 2014-2015 regular season set to begin in just one week, you may have noticed that CanucksArmy has been kind of light on season preview-type content. As Dimitri promised back in the summer, we did have plans for an extensive pre-season series, but some recent changes to our staff put those plans on hold. Well, the show must go on, and it must go on in bigger and better ways than it did last year, so not having a season preview was out of the question.
Starting today, we’ll be running a handful of individual player previews each day until the start of the regular season, focusing mainly on all the highs and lows (and oh, there were lows) of the ill-fated 2013-2014 campaign from hell, and what we can expect from each player this coming season. First on schedule is one of the anchors of Vancouver’s blueline: Kevin Bieksa.
Kevin Bieksa actually saw his individual shot rate at 5-on-5 increase from the lockout shortened 2012-13 last season, but his goal scoring was virtually non-existent thanks in large part to a paltry 1.5% shooting percentage at even strength. He also saw an uptick in Fenwick% under coach John Tortorella from 47.3% to 51.2%, and had his best season in terms of goal prevention at 5-on-5 since the fantastic 2010-2011 year, which was driven in large part thanks to an inflated on-ice save percentage.
Bieksa’s penalty killing was quality as well, as he was 9th among all notable NHL D in 4v5 FenwickAgainst/20 – easily the best rate of his career. Where Bieksa struggled, as did all Canucks, was producing offence. Thanks to the lowest individual and on-ice shooting percentages Bieksa has seen in his career, he posted personal lows in both goals/60 and points/60 this past season. This, more than any erosion on the defensive side of the puck, is the reason for his first minus season since 2009-2010.
While he was notably worse away from his most common teammates than with them, Bieksa still appeared to have a positive effect when he was on the ice. This mutual benefit makes sense when you consider that if you weren’t playing with Henrik Sedin this past season, you were playing with Brad Richardson or Zac Dalpe, so your “without quality C x” numbers should look awful.
It’s also worth noting that Bieksa spent much of January and February dealing with a “bruised foot” that sent him to the IR around the time of the Olympic break. He only missed 6 games all season, but had Sochi not happened, that number could have been higher. I’m far from a doctor, but taking a month to heal from just a bruise seems odd, which leads me to believe that Bieksa wasn’t just contending with a “bruised foot.”
Overall, it was a decent but unlucky season for Kevin Bieksa. He was good when playing with good players, and mediocre when playing with not-good ones. There aren’t really any red flags in his statistical profile yet, and he appeared to be the same defenseman last year as he’s been for years now, despite the Canucks’ struggles. Especially if the Canucks can maintain their PK prowess under a new coaching regime, Bieksa looks like he’s going to be an effective top-4 guy once again.
*Need help understanding some of these fancy stats, click here
Unless Willie Desjardins turns out to be Randy Carlyle West, there’s no reason to believe that Kevin Bieksa won’t be an effective top-4 defenseman in 2014-2015. Had his underlying numbers declined under Tortorella as they did under Vigneault in his last season with Vancouver, there would be major cause for concern. Instead, Bieksa saw his OZstart% cut by nearly 5 percentage points, his QoC increase, and his Fenwick rebound to a level you’d expect. 33-year old rough-and-tumble defensemen don’t generally get better at this stage of their careers, and Bieksa is in the midst of a bit of age-related decline for sure, but he shouldn’t be in fall-off-a-cliff territory yet.
If Bieksa can even maintain his possession numbers with similar deployment, he should see an uptick in production just due to simple regression towards the mean. Scoring on 4% of his shots instead of 1.5% should give him 5 goals at 5v5 instead of 2 – which in itself if worth one point in the standings for the Canucks, on average. If his on-ice shooting percentage is also closer to his career mark of 8% instead of last season’s 6.95%, then there’s another extra point or two. It’s marginal improvements like these that will allow Vancouver to scrape and claw their way back into the playoffs if all other things remain constant.
The pairing of Bieksa and Ryan Stanton worked well last season, and he’s also been effective with Dan Hamhuis in the past. Bieksa and Edler have been dynamite from a possession standpoint too, but just can’t not get outscored by a whole ton when they’re together. Personally, I’d expect to see Bieksa reprise his role with Stanton, although it also wouldn’t surprise me if Willie Desjardins instead used Bieksa as a veteran right-handed shot to insulate the left-handed Luca Sbisa, which seems like a disaster waiting to happen.
The bottom line though is that Kevin Bieksa was an effective top-4 NHL defenseman last year, and there’s no real reason to suspect that this will change. He should have a bounce-back season, and once again be a critical contributor to Vancouver’s defensive corps.
One last note: we will not be profiling the guys covered in our summer prospects series, such as Bo Horvat, Nicklas Jensen, or Hunter Shinkaruk, in this series. Our authors have already done some fantastic work covering Vancouver’s top prospects, and I suggest you go read the whole series again because it’s wonderful and awesome. You can find all the links to each profile at the bottom of this post.