Vrbata, who has out produced any number of more famous forwards over the past three years including Rick Nash, Mike Cammalleri, Scott Hartnell, T.J. Oshie, and Alexander Semin, has routinely led all
Phoenix Arizona Coyotes forwards in scoring, and he’s done it seemingly without ever making a major headline. The Czech winger’s uncanny ability to hide in plain sight could prove a more useful skill in a rabid hockey marketplace like Vancouver, where the media’s glare can be paralyzing even when the demand for tickets is soft, than even Vrbata’s right-handed shot on the power play.
Entering training camp Vrbata’s story line – can the 33-year-old first line winger revitalize the Sedin twins offensively – is arguably the most critical question for a club that couldn’t buy a goal last season. Yet the attention was focused instead on Vancouver’s burgeoning youth movement, on Nick Bonino’s impossible task of replacing Ryan Kesler, on the possibility of a redemption season for Alex Edler, or on the three-way goaltending controversy…
So let’s give the anonymous Czech volume shooter some due attention on the other side of the jump.
When the topic of “players who have worked well with the twins” is broached, the first two players who come immediately to mind are Anson Carter and Alex Burrows. There’s a third player who had instant chemistry with the twins though: Mikael Samuelsson.
Signed as a free agent in the summer of 2009, Samuelsson logged just over 450 even-strength minutes alongside Henrik Sedin during his Canucks tenure. In those 450 minutes, which is roughly equivalent to a half season worth of even-strength time on ice for a top-line winger, Samuelsson scored 13 goals. For the sake of illustrating how impressive that is: only 9 players scored 26 even-strength goals during the 2013-14 season.
Aside from being European born right-handed shooters and being inexplicably left off their respective nation’s Olympic men’s ice hockey teams in recent years (Samuelsson was left off of Sweden’s 2010 team in favor of Matthias Weinhandl, while the 2014 Czech team took Petr Nedved’s corpse and left Vrbata in Arizona), Samuelsson and Vrbata don’t have a tonne in common. Samuelsson had about 20 pounds on Vrbata, and it showed in the velocity of his shot. Where Vrbata is understated and quiet on and off the ice, Samuelsson had a penchant for controversy and was often in the middle of post-whistle scrums.
The Samuelsson comparison is apt for Vrbata though because of a particular shared characteristic that goes well beyond personality and style.
There’s really only one thing that Vrbata has consistently done at an elite level in his NHL career: generate even-strength shots on goal at an astounding rate. Over the past three seasons, 113 NHL forwards have logged at least 2500 even-strength minutes and Vrbata ranks 12th in even-strength shot rate (amusingly, Henrik Sedin ranks dead last).
Vrbata’s prolific shooting is reminiscent of Samuelsson’s performance in the years before he joined the Canucks. In the two seasons from 2007 through 2009, 206 NHL forwards logged at least 1500 minutes, and Mikael Samuelsson ranked 5th among those forwards in even-strength shot rate.(*)
(*) It’s worth noting that in those two seasons, three of the top-five NHL players in this category played at least one full year with the Detroit Red Wings, so Samulesson’s number here is probably inflated somewhat by team effects.
For a variety of reasons, Samuelsson was a good fit with the twins offensively. He had excellent hands in traffic and scored a good number of goals off of deflections – Vrbata excels at this as well – and the twins were able to take advantage of his “shoot from anywhere” mentality and his hard right-handed shot. When Samuelsson skated with the twins at five-on-five, the Canucks produced 3.59 goals per sixty minutes of even-strength ice-time, which is a higher rate than the 3.32 goals per sixty rate the club has managed with Henrik on the ice at evens over the past five years.
Put simply: Samuelsson appears to have been more than just a passenger with the Sedin twins during his Canucks tenure – he actively made them more dangerous offensively. It’s also worth noting that the Canucks produced even-strength goals slightly more efficiently with Samuelsson than they did with their most common triggerman: Alex Burrows.
Though the twins are no longer in the prime of their careers, I wouldn’t be shocked were Vrbata to have a similar effect on the club’s even-strength goal scoring rate. Already in the preseason we’ve seen Vrbata’s “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality fit in nicely with the twins’ “pass the puck around forever” approach.
There’s also a “but” however, and as it was for Samuelsson, Vrbata’s particular “but” is Burrows. Though Samuelsson made the twins marginally more potent offensively, he was unable to permanently supplant Burrows on the top-line.
Samuelsson may not have liked it, but then Canucks coach Alain Vigneault’s preference for Burrows with the twins wasn’t irrational in the least. Samuelsson may have made the twins a more potent offensive line, but Burrows’ two-way abilities made the twins more formidable in every other aspect.
Let’s go with Henrik as a proxy for “the twins” here (as we usually do because he’s proven the more durable Sedin). Henrik logged just over 450 minutes of ice time with Samuelsson, and in those minutes the Canucks scored over 3.5 goals/60 while attempting 66 shots per 60 minutes of even-strength ice-time. As we’ve mentioned, those rates are both better than what the twins have managed with Burrows in over 3000 even-strength minutes together over the past five seasons (3.37 goals/60, 62 shot attempts/60).
Burrows’ impact on the twins isn’t in the offensive end though – it’s in Vancouver’s. In comparison with Samuelsson, when Burrows has ridden shotgun with the Sedins, the Canucks have allowed a full goal against fewer per sixty minutes while also permitting 3 fewer shot attempts per 60. So though the Canucks weren’t scoring or generating offense as efficiently when Burrows skated with the twins as they were when Samuelsson was, they were outscoring their opponents by a wider margin.
Though Vrbata is now slouch defensively, his impact on his most regular line-mates appears to be principally in the offensive end(*).
(*) All 16 players Vrbata has logged at least 200 minutes with over the past three years generated more shot attempts with Vrbata than without him, 15 of 16 manufactured goals at a higher rate and the exception is Zybnek Michalek whose “without” you minutes were spent with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. Vrbata has been really, really good for a long time.
Maybe at this stage of their careers the twins need a guy like Vrbata, who can drive offense on his own a bit, more than they need a player like Burrows, who makes them a more imposing defensive line. As a result perhaps Vrbata will stick with the twins where Samuelsson never could. Or maybe Burrows’ Chris Kunitz-like impact on the Sedins will prove too persistent and too valuable for Willie Desjardins to pass up this season.
[Stats in this piece compiled from stats.hockeyanalysis.com]