Drance Numbers: Radim Vrbata Could Work With the Twins, But Still Lose His Job

Drance

There isn’t a more anonymous consistent 50 point scorer in the entire NHL than new Vancouver Canucks first liner Radim Vrbata.

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]

  • J.D. Burke

    What has impressed me about Vrbata is his ability to get himself into quality shooting positions. His style brings the play out into the offensive areas in the attacking zone. Something I think the Sedin line got away from last year. Also having a shooting threat that likes to hang out in the high slot should benefit by bringing some of the defensive focus from the low cycle the Sedins like to play. In short I think Vrbata sticks, and the line thrives with a much different look because of the way the offensive attacking zone will get spread out. With Burr it was more cycle down low to crash the net. A much smaller area to contain and defend…and why I think Burr is the one to lose his position on this line, not Vrbata.

  • J.D. Burke

    interesting article. i do believe vrbie stays on the line simply because he’s benning’s man. also, he looks kind of alien, like the sedins. super sexy passing in the preseason from those martians. should be fun to watch.

  • Seems like a can’t-lose situation (as it was with Samuelsson). You can load up offence on the top line, or you can make the top line a little more defensively-responsible and add additional offence to the second line.

    One of the big advantages of having Samuelsson in Vancouver was that it gave AV flexibility – he did play Samuelsson quite a bit with the Sedins in different situations. Having two wingers who can be effective in different situations with the Sedins is a huge plus for the team.

  • I’m a big proponent of Vrbata on line 2, but on PP1. However, the coaching staff has so far treated Sedins / Vrbata as a fait accompli, that this is simply the top line in Vancouver, no ifs, ands or buts. Did Vrbata spend a single ES minute of the pre-season with Bonino? I don’t believe he did, at least not intentionally.

    Now, maybe this all changes if the Canucks again prove unable to score. But I think as long as the top line is reasonably productive as it stands, they won’t mess with it, notwithstanding that even if they DO produce, there may be a better all-around option for the lineup.

    The coaching staff needs to clue into the fact that Vrbata can basically carry a line on his own at least as far as “decent 2nd line”, as he has done that and more for years (due respect to Martin Hanzal). But they’ll never get a chance to find that out so long as he’s the passenger on a top line that will always see Henrik driving the bus.

    • I think if the Sedins-Vrbata line starts struggling defensively, you will see a change. In one of the preseason games, that line was getting outshot pretty heavily at 5v5 even though they produced on the PP.

      Gaunce-Vey-Hansen on the other hand was killing it possession. Desjardins ended up moving Vrbata onto Vey’s line and put Hansen up with the Sedins. That tells me the coaching staff is paying attention and not just blindly trying to force a Sedins-Vrbata line.

  • Vrbata seems to have that rare chemistry right off the bat connection with the twins, and imo a way better cycling game/passing style that fits el perfecto with the Sedins compared to sammy.

    add to the fact he has a great NHL shot and this lineup should do great!

    Re-sign em all right now. :p (yes can’t do that right now)

  • For a comment that actually relates to the story, a major difference between who plays with the Sedins now and then (The Samuelson/Art Ross era) is the Sedin’s. Their scoring rates have obviously dropped out of the elite level but their GF% have risen. The Sedin’s may not need the two way help anymore as much as they need the GF help. Just a thought.

  • The way Samuelsson was used really took advantage of how versatile of a player he was. It was really unfortunate that Mikael didn’t seem all too happy with his role at times, because his deployment was basically to say “you can make any line better by being on it”. I doubt that Vrbata will quite that versatile, and will probably never get moved below the 2nd line.

  • I had never heard of Vrbata until he was signed as a free agent.

    I have seen only a few highlights here and there of Vrbata and like what I see.

    We’ve complained a lot that the Sedins are reluctant to shoot and having a guy like Vrbata on their line will give them a quality trigger man to feed.

    I’m most excited to see how Vrbata will change how the team sets up the PP. I’m optimistic that we will see a strong uptick in PP performance this year and that we can field a legitimate second line on the PP.

  • The other benefit of Vrbata on a line with the Sedins is the power play. Looks like the first unit could be Edler-Tanev-Sedins-Vrbata which is a unit that could get a lot of 5v5 time as well if Edler reprises his role as Sedin caddy. We won’t get anywhere near the playoffs without a string power play.

    As for the Sedins they’re pretty consistent with pretty much whoever in terms of GF%. Stick Hansen or Kassian there and they’ll still hit 60-65%. The more important question is who out of Burrows and Vrbata (or both) would do better on L2. Bonino’s going to need all the help he can get.

  • Was it not CanucksArmy that did the article many months ago that showed just how ridiculously good the Sedins have become at two-way play since AV’s last season? They have transitioned their game to replace a lot of what Alex Burrows offers. They lift sticks, win board battles and move pucks out of their own zone exceptionally well now.

    If anything, I think Samuelsson would make a better fit with the Sedins now than in 2010. I would also argue Vrbata is more defensively apt than Samuelsson which should make for a very solid first line which will be effective even in the post season.