Drance Numbers – How Sustainable is Vancouver’s early season success?

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With 18 points in their first 13 games, the Vancouver Canucks are off to a stellar start to the 2014-15 campaign, but will it last?

Let’s look a bit deeper at how this club has performed by the underlying numbers, and do our best to determine whether or not this team has staying power in the tough Western Conference. Read on past the jump.

Even Strength

Let’s begin at five-on-five, the most important game state.

The Canucks have actually be outscored by two goals at five-on-five this season, but largely that’s a result of getting blown out twice by the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche respectively during their first road-trip of the year. Still, those games were so ugly that Vancouver’s goaltending – which has been strong, in my opinion – registers as well below average through their first 13 games.

At even-strength, the Canucks rank 24th out of 30 in the NHL in save percentage so far, which goes a long way towards explaining their negative five-on-five goal differential. Eddie Lack has been a major culprit (his ugly .872 even-strength save percentage ranks 51st out of 52 goalies who have played at least 100 minutes this season), but Miller’s raw even-strength save percentage is similarly middling. I’d just emphasize once more that I think these numbers under-rate the performance of Vancouver’s goalies (and Miller in particular) in the early going.

The point of this is that, going forward, Eddie Lack is sure to do much better in his spot appearances and Ryan Miller’s even-strength save percentage is likely to get better over the balance of the season too. At least in net, Vancouver’s performance seems unsustainably low, which actually makes their stellar start to the season rather more impressive. 

Offensively it’s a different story, as the Canucks are humming at five-on-five. Through the first month and change of the season the Canucks have scored the third most even-strength goals among all NHL teams, and are cashing in goals at the sixth most efficient rate at five-on-five. They’re doing this with some favorable bounces, including an 8.52 even-strength shooting percentage, but for the most part 8.52 isn’t insanely high (even if it’s likely to regress somewhat).

Perhaps most importantly, the team is doing a decent job of controlling the proceedings at even-strength. This early in the season I prefer to use just raw, unadjusted Corsi For percentage – which ranks them 12th in the league. By adjusted Fenwick percentage, they’re the 10th best team in the NHL so far. That a team with Daniel and Henrik Sedin and a solid, veteran defense corps is a solid possession team isn’t a huge surprise – though perhaps we could have reasonably thought that the loss of Ryan Kesler might’ve have been a bigger loss to Vancouver’s team two-way game.

If we break this down on an individual level, we’ll basically see that one Canucks line (the second group featuring, most commonly, Nick Bonino, Alex Burrows and Chris Higgins) has been the primary driver of Vancouver’s solid shooting percentage; while the twins have been the primary driver of the club’s solid puck possession play. Of those two facts, what the twins are doing is much more likely to persist; while the second-line is likely to cool off a bit going forward.

Bonino’s six even-strength goals have him posting a super elite goal scoring rate – third in the league behind RIck Nash and Nikita Kucherov! – and while he’s possibly a modestly above average finisher, the club is also converting on better than 11 percent of their even-strength shots when he’s on the ice, which won’t continue.

As for the twins, their on-ice shooting percentage isn’t very high at all (the Canucks are converting on roughly seven percent of their shots at evens), while Radim Vrbata’s shooting percentage is below seven at even-strength, so he’s likely to benefit from a bounce or two going forward. The twins used to be super elite shooting percentage drivers, but they haven’t managed to sustain that level of efficiency in a few years now. Whether or not they’ll regress to their careers norms is anyone’s guess.

Finally looking at the bottom-six, we see that Zack Kassian – who has really been the club’s only permanent fixture on the third-line in the early going – is coming out even by Corsi For percentage, which is great. Among the forwards who have spent more than 20 minutes playing both with and apart from Kassian this season (a group that includes Shawn Matthias, Brad Richardson, and Linden Vey), all three have done better by Corsi For percentage with Kassian than they’ve done without him. To my eyes, Kassian is evolving into a very legitimate threat through the neutral zone, which has helped him have some two-way value despite his still too permissive defensive play.

The rest of Vancouver’s forwards are below water by Corsi For percentage, though I suspect that the third-line is coming out roughly even in the shot attempt battle, while the fourth-line sort of takes it on the nose. 

While the fourth-lines ability to control play has been a middling issue, their results have still been driven in large part by unsustainable bad fortune. All of Jannik Hansen, Derek Dorsett, Richardson and Matthias have a PDO (combined on-ice save and shooting percentage) below 98 in the early going, so as a group the fourth line should be outscored by a less dramatic margin going forward. Perhaps a permanent addition to Bo Horvat could further bolster this group too.

Piece it together and you’ve got a decent five-on-five team that is likely to benefit from improved goaltending going forward. As for Vancouver’s newfound offensive potency at even-strength, their early season offensive production seems a bit fortunate, but not entirely luck based. Though the second line’s habit of busting open the heads of opposing defences and feasting on the delicious goo inside is something of a mirage, we might reasonably expect more offensively from the twins and certainly from the bottom six going forward. 

The Power Play

The Canucks power play has slumbered for a couple of years, but has come alive in the early going this season. Currently the Canucks are eighth in the league in power-play conversion rate, and sixth in raw power-play goals scored. 

Most of Vancouver’s power-play success has been the result of a new look first unit that features four forwards (Linden Vey, Radim Vrbata, and the Sedin twins) and one defenseman (Alex Edler and Kevin Bieksa have both been given looks in this spot). Though the conversion rate is impressive and the power play has been productive, in terms of overall rate stat efficiency, the Canucks are just average at generating goals for at five-on-four. 

I’d suggest that the Canucks power play probably isn’t as good as the early season results would suggest, although we’re dealing with a pretty tiny sample here, and it’s tough to know for sure. So far at least the team isn’t generating shots for at a particularly good rate, and though the percentages aren’t insane – the club’s five-on-four shooting percentage is hovering just above 13 percent, which is only just above average – if the club doesn’t figure out how to generate shots more efficiently, the 20 percent conversion rate is likely to make like a migratory bird and fly south over the balance.

In terms of the individual contributions, it’s perhaps notable that Daniel Sedin has taken on more of a play-making role at five-on-four, and actually has the lowest power-play shot rate of the four Canucks forwards who are playing on the first unit. Though he’s currently a top-five power-play playmaker (by primary assist rate), you’d like to see that shot rate tick up a bit, lest the Sedins get a bit too predictable five-on-four.

So far Vancouver’s primary power play triggerman has been Radim Vrbata, who is keeping some elite company by managing a top-10 shot rate with the man-advantage. Linden Vey, however, has been Vancouver’s most elite power-play goal scorer and is sticking goals into opposition power-plays at top-15 rate so far, though the sample sizes we’re talking about are still tiny.

The final point worth making, I suppose, is that Vancouver’s first unit is generating shots at a roughly average rate so far (roughly 50 per 60 minutes of 5-on-4 time on ice). Vancouver’s second unit is pretty much toothless, and has generated shots for at a rate of 40 per sixty minutes of five-on-four time on ice. You’d like to see both units do better, but the second group in particular will become a liability if they don’t work out that shot rate issue. 

One thing I’d like to see numbers-wise is for the club to perhaps adopt a four forward approach to the second unit. Bonino has been Vancouver’s most reliable finisher and he excelled playing off of Ryan Getzlaf on the Anaheim Ducks’ right point on the power play last season. I’d love to see the club give Zack Kassian an opportunity to play the half-wall on the second unit, and see if perhaps Bonino can find his old magic with a right-handed playmaker sending him feeds at the blue-line. Horvat (or Matthias), Higgins, and Bieksa could fill out this second unit.

Anyways, Vancouver’s power play is tactically coherent, which it hasn’t been since Newell Brown left, and is functioning at a high-level in the early going. If the club doesn’t fix its second unit issues and find a way to direct shots on goal at a higher rate though, it seems unlikely that they’ll sustain the level of performance they’ve managed through the first 13 games of the year.

The Penalty Kill

This Canucks’ penalty killing has been superb this season, and this is one phase of the game where – so long as the goaltending holds up – the team seems like it might be elite. 

Through 13 games the Canucks are the fourth best team by penalty-kill conversion rate, they’re the third best team at suppressing shots against five-on-four, and they’re the third best team at generating shots for when short-handed. The club has definitely benefitted from unsustainably good goaltending when down a man, but even as that regresses, this club is poised to be extraordinarily stingy short-handed if they can continue to prevent shots against at a rate they’ve managed so far.

Let’s get into usage and other things, because there’s lots of fun stuff to unpack. 

Firstly, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Chris Tanev is a very special two-way player, and he actually might be the league’s single best penalty-killing skater at this point. Between what he accomplished last year, and what he’s done this year, it’s really quite remarkable. 

Tanev leads all Canucks skaters in short-handed ice-time so far this season, and he also leads the club in defensive zone starts when down a man. He’s clearly the first defender off the bench every time a Canucks skater takes a penalty (or when the Canucks bench takes a penalty for too many men, which really this club has to work on), and he’s having a remarkable level of success. When Tanev is on the ice at five-on-four, opposition power play’s are managing just over 32 shots per 60 minutes of ice-time, a figure that qualifies as patently absurd. It’s unlikely that Tanev will manage such a low rate over the course of a full season, but still, it’s rather impressive.

Aside from Tanev, Alex Edler, Kevin BIeksa and Dan Hamhuis are Vancouver’s most commonly used defenders and they’ve all had a decent level of success. Edler is the worst shot suppressor at five-on-four in the early going, which makes a lot of sense – but even with Edler on the ice the Canucks are surrendering shots against a rate well south of 45 per sixty minutes of four-on-five time on ice, which is a top-15 mark among regular PK’ers, and would make him the best shorthanded shot suppressing D on nearly every other team in the NHL. It’s really quite remarkable how stingy Vancouver has been when allowing shots against shorthanded so far.

Up front, the Canucks have primarily relied on Chris Higgins and Brad Richardson to start shifts in their own end of the ice shorthanded. Though they’ve been thrown to the wolves usage wise, both forwards are permitting fewer than 40 shots against per sixty minutes, which is a pretty sick replication of what Ryan Kesler managed last season. If there was one area where I thought the Canucks would miss Kesler enormously in the early going – this was it. So far, they haven’t missed a beat.

Behind Vancouver’s first penalty-killing unit, it seems like Willie Desjardins is rolling four regular groups of penalty-killing forwards (that guy really loves to spread out the ice-time). One group including Shawn Matthias and Jannik Hansen and has been Vancouver’s least successful group. Alex Burrows and Nick Bonino are another, and they’d done decently well. Finally the twins are still killing penalties and, actually, they’re kind of awesome at it.

I marvelled in the first game of the season when the twins actually pulled off a pretty slick set entry down a man, but that’s become common place. You want to see neutral zone drop passes while short-handed? Vancouver is the team to watch.

Perhaps my favorite early season small sample Canucks stat involves their penalty killing. So far, when the Canucks are down a man and the twins are on the ice, they’re generating the same number of shots for as they’re allowing against. The twins are even in four-on-five shot differential so far, and while it won’t last, it’s all kinds of hilarious.

TL;DR

Through 13 games the Canucks have racked up an impressive 9-4 record despite a sub 100 PDO, which augers well for the club going forward. The second-line’s destroying everything offensively at even-strength won’t last, but more should probably be expected from the twins and the bottom-six offensively going forward, which should mask it. The club is controlling games decently well, and appear poised to exceed preseason expectations if they can keep it up and stay healthy. It’s a long season though, so who knows.

In terms of their special teams, the penalty kill has been nails while the power play has been a bit fortunate and won’t continue to pulverize opponents unless the shot rate ticks up significantly going forward. The second unit in particularly is a dogs breakfast, and could use a creative solution or two.

As for the goaltending, it hasn’t been that good (though the numbers undersell what Ryan Miller has accomplished because of one big blowout loss to the Dallas Stars). Miller and Lack aren’t Schneider and Luongo – obviously – but it would be a surprise if they combined to post a bottom-10 even-strength save percentage at seasons end. 

  • Steampuck

    Great post Thomas.

    Looking down the road a bit. It would be nice if the Canucks can make the playoffs as a bottom seeded team(5th to 8th) this year, and then make some noise by upsetting a top team in the West. We seem to match up well against teams like St. Louis or San Jose.

    Benning should keep injecting more youth into the lineup as the season progress. Canucks also need Weisbrod and the pro scouts to go incognito and steal us a couple of players through trades with other teams.

  • Steampuck

    Thomas – awesome recap of the season so far. I’m blown away from what I see of Tanev’s PK performance. In my mind, he is our most steady and reliable defender overall and has helped to calm Edler’s game. If he can stay healthy all year, he’s on track for an amazing season and a nice new multi-year contract. I think he has passed Hammer as our most reliable defender and I didn’t think that I would ever say that especially considering that Hammer was selected to the Olympic team. I thought initially that his upside was a decent 2nd pairing defenceman but he is proving me wrong.

  • Steampuck

    I assume it’s just a coincidence that this piece was posted hours before the Canucks play three games that could really depress these fairly positive numbers…

    All kidding aside, great post Drance.

    Keep it up…

        • andyg

          What is this bandwagon of which you speak?

          I pegged the Canucks at 8th in the conference prior to the season and they have yet to play many of the teams (including 3 in their division) that I (and others, I am sure) projected to be ahead of them.

          They have played St Louis and Dallas.

          It’s hard to get a gauge of where the team stacks up in the ultra-competitive conference until the schedule begins to balance out.

          Though those who have paid attention will note the curmudgeonly NM00 has been subtly optimistic just as he was early last year with the pleasant surprises of Santorelli & Stanton.

          The bandwagon is for the silly, delusional, reactionary Canuck fans & bloggers that were losing their minds this past January because they were silly & delusional with their expectations…

  • andyg

    I know we don’t have Corey Sznajder writing for us here at canucksarmy, but does anyone know how the second pp unit is doing on zone entries? It feels like every time they go on all I see is dump ins and turn overs, and I’m curious if that’s really a problem or just my imagination.

    • andyg

      I might be wrong but I think the second unit were doing dump-ins alot more against COL the other night than they have in previous games. I think Bieksa or Hamhuis usually try to walk it in, but maybe they were more confident dumping it in because the Avs are famously bad at clearing the zone.

      Great article BTW.

  • andyg

    Watching Tanev out there is something to see. We always marvel at the Sedins cause they are magical, but Tanev also has some sort of watcable appeal. He’s so smooth. He never panics. His passes are crisp, his vision is Sedin-like, and his host actually looks like it got a bit better over the summer.