In many ways, Luca Sbisa is an asset that many teams covet. He’s big, he’s young, he’s physical, he’s a defenseman, and he has a first-round NHL entry draft pedigree.
Then again, Cam Barker and Ryan Parent had the same things going for them.
Sbisa has struggled to gain his footing in the NHL so far in his career, being relegated to the 9th D role in Anaheim last season, and ultimately cast off by the Ducks in the Ryan Kesler trade. Jim Benning and Willie Desjardins have given Sbisa every opportunity to show he deserves a top-6 role in Vancouver this upcoming season, but that hasn’t gone all that well so far. Can Sbisa finally live up to his potential and become a legitimate NHL player? Or will he fail to make a good impression in what may very well be his last shot at being a long-term NHLer? Read past the jump.
Luca Sbisa actually had his best season in terms of puck possession since 2011-12, and the second best of his entire career last year. Even so, he was a frequent healthy scratch in favour of guys like Bryan Allen and Mark Fistric, and was bypassed on Anaheim’s depth chart by Sami Vatanen (who, to his credit, is quite good) by the end of the year. Sbisa was essentially the Ducks’ 9th defenseman last year on a blueline that prominently featured Ben Lovejoy, which is hardly ideal for a guy that Jim Benning and co. hope can be a regular top-6 contributor.
Still, Luca Sbisa was good with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but then again, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are generally excellent with everyone. What’s probably more relevant for Sbisa is that he was a trainwreck when not playing with elite two-way NHL players – for example, he carried a 41% Fenwick when sharing the ice with another new Canuck in Nick Bonino, and a 38% Expected GoalsFor%, according to Matt Pfeffer’s ProgressiveHockey.com. Vancouver’s second to fourth lines probably aren’t significantly stronger than what the Ducks had last season, and carrying the 45.9% Corsi he had away from Corey Perry away from the Sedins just isn’t going to cut it. Not as a top-6 D, at least.
We do have to give credit where credit is due, and Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were better with Luca Sbisa than without him last year, but at the same time this isn’t consistent with Sbisa’s performance through his tenure with the Ducks. It may be simple small-sample Corsi variance, or it may be that Luca Sbisa legitimately improved last year. Both are possible, but judging by how Sbisa performed with average teammates, an improvement to a legitimate plus-possession player seems like the unlikelier scenario.
There is no reason why Luca Sbisa should earn the $2.9 million he’ll make this season, and no reason to think that he’ll be worth $2.9 million at any point in his career. Sure, he’s only 24 and can potentially improve, but as a former 1st round draft pick, it’s not as if Sbisa hasn’t been given the opportunity to become an everyday NHL defenseman. Guys should be near their peak at 24, not still a “project.” Fortunately, Sbisa’s contract is off the Canucks’ books at the end of this season, so while it’s a bad salary as of October 5th, 2014, it won’t have any affect on the Canucks’ ability to do business going forwards.
Rapid improvement is obviously the goal with Sbisa, as he’s never really been close to an average possession player. If you subscribe to the theory that a defenseman’s primary utility is to drive possession, either through suppressing opposing shot attempts through strong physical or positional play, or by moving the puck efficiently into the hands of forwards, then playing Sbisa in a prominent role is akin to starting Ondrej Pavelec in 50 games per season – sure, he does things, but those things aren’t really what you pay guys of that position to do.
Sbisa shouldn’t be in the Canucks’ top-6 defensemen, but there aren’t exactly many better options. Frank Corrado is unproven, and Yannick Weber isn’t great at evens either – although at least Weber has a 50% Fenwick season under his belt and brings some powerplay utility. Based on what we know about Sbisa right now, it doesn’t seem probable that his performance this upcoming season will justify another seven-figure contract offer. But stranger things have happened, and it’s possible that Sbisa can put it all together this season.
It’s really unlikely, but still possible.