December Deep Dive

Writing is a funny thing. Back in my November deep dive, I
boldly stated that I thought the Canucks would be able to make the playoffs on
account of them accumulating 33 points in October and November, which was
likely enough of a cushion for them to get in even if they play .500 the rest
of the way. Wouldn’t you know it, the Canucks proceeded to pick up a measly 12
points in 11 December games, finding themselves in a four way tie for 5th
place in the west at the end of 2014 with a few games in hand. I’d prefer it if the
Canucks didn’t try so hard to prove me right, but here we are…

Find out more about the month that was after the jump.

THE
COMPETITION

The Canucks entered December in the midst of their longest
road trip of the season, a seven game odyssey on which they played the Blue
Jackets, Red Wings, Capitals, Penguins, Maple Leafs, Senators, and Canadiens. Between the 2010-11 season and this year, the Canucks have only played in two seven-game road trips; the other being between October 15 and October 25th of last year, and as you would expect, there was a noticeable decline in puck possession in the last few games of each trip as the team ran out of gas:

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This wasn’t a particularly easy trip in terms of
competition, with Washington, Detroit, Montreal, Pittsburgh all currently
holding down playoff spots in the East. The highlights were impressive
wins over the Capitals and Penguins. Considering how difficult a road trip of
this length can be, walking away with 7 points isn’t terrible.

They were an utter mess upon their return to Rogers Arena, though. In their first game back
against the Rangers, the Canucks promptly served up three odd-man rushes that
wound up in the back of Ryan Miller’s net within the first 7 minutes of the game.
Against Dallas, a team better than it’s record indicates and is currently 8-2-0 in their last 10 games, the Canucks offense
sputtered again, wasting a particularly solid goaltending effort
by Eddie Lack.  Thankfully, the schedule
gods served up the Flames and Coyotes, which seemed to help the Canucks get
their groove back, before they finished the month with strong efforts against the
Ducks and Sharks. 

THE GOALTENDING

The graph below shows the save percentage for Lack and Miller in the first three months of the season: 

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December was an interesting month for Ryan Miller, who was
lights out in the latter half of the month, but struggled mightily in games
against Toronto and New York. As the season wears on, it’s becoming more and
more clear that Miller runs either red hot and ice cold. To illustrate this, I looked at his
percentage of quality starts percentage in the table below. Quality starts are
defined as the percentage of a goalies games where they earn a save percentage
in excess of the league average (current SV% .911). I have added a few other
well-known goalies to provide context: 

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When looking at the graph above, we again see Miller
provides quality starts less consistently than Lack or his peers.
It’ll be interesting to see how this progresses throughout the season, but the
lesson for Willie Desjardins may be to keep a closer eye on Miller and get him out of the crease earlier
if he’s having one of his off nights.

Although Eddie Lack only played 4 games in December, he had
a great month, posting a sparkling .954 save percentage. This was Eddie’s
second month in a row posting an above average save percentage and is now up to
.916 on the year, and as we see from the Quality Starts table above, he has
been remarkably consistent in the crease this year. This monthly review is
beginning to sound like a broken record, but it would behoove the Canucks to
find a way to get Eddie Lack into more games.

THE DEFENSE

The table below shows even-strength CF% for each defender, by month:

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From the table above, we can
see that every Canucks defensemen, with the exception of Ryan Stanton, saw
their possession numbers decline in December as the Canucks really began to feel
the impact of the injury to Dan Hamhuis and the fatigue of a long road trip.

Since joining the Canucks in 2010-2011, Hamhuis has been Kevin Bieksa’s most common defensive partner,
and they’ve enjoyed pretty significant success, posting a 54.0% CF% when on the
ice together over the past 5 seasons. Here is a look at defenseman corsi-for
percentage with each of their most common playing partners:  

1st D Partner (CF%, %TOI)

2nd D Partner (CF%, %TOI)

3rd D Partner (CF%, %TOI)

Chris
Tanev

Edler
(53.7%, 87%)

Sbisa
(42%, 6%)

Stanton
(37.1%, 3%)

Alex
Edler

Tanev
(53.7%, 84%)

Bieksa
(51.1%, 7.5%)

Weber
(50%, 6%)

Kevin
Bieksa

Stanton
(41.7%, 33%)

Sbisa
(51.4%, 30%)

Hamhuis
(51.9%, 25%)

Ryan
Stanton

Bieksa
(41.7%, 57%)

Weber
(51.4%, 34%)

Tanev
(37.1%, 5%)

Yannick
Weber

Sbisa
(50.2%, 41%)

Stanton
(51.4%, 29%)

Hamhuis
(49.6%, 16%)

Luca
Sbisa

Bieksa
(51.4%, 38%)

Weber
(50.2%, 35%)

Hamhuis
(35.5%, 16%)

Dan
Hamhuis

Bieksa
(51.9%, 48%)

Sbisa
(35.5%, 24%)

Weber
(49.6%, 21%)

Without Hamhuis in the
lineup, Willie Desjardins has been playing Bieksa with Stanton, which has been
one of the worst second defensive pairings in the league from the standpoint of
possession (CF% 41.7%). With Hamhuis not expected back in the lineup until mid
to late January, it remains to be seen whether Desjardins will stick with the
current pairings of Bieksa/Stanton and Weber/Sbisa, given the struggles the
Bieksa/Stanton pairing has had.  It may be wise to reunite the Weber/Stanton and Bieksa/Sbisa pairings which have been
possession positive so far this season.  

It’ll
be interesting to see who will come out of the lineup upon Hamhuis’ return, but
it will likely be Ryan Stanton. Stanton has had the most sheltered minutes
amongst Vancouver defenders, starting the highest percentage of shifts in the
offensive zone (Offensive ZS% 61.6%) and has been deployed against the weakest
competition (Corsi Competition % 49.2%).

THE FORWARDS

December was not a great
month for the forward group, particularly the 2nd line, which saw
their point production absolutely plummet after they carried the team at even strength for the first two months of the season:

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The problem for the second
line was that their on-ice shooting percentage, which had been unsustainably
high in October and November, fell off a cliff for Higgins and Bonino in
particular: 

6

In an effort to shake things
up, Desjardins moved the most productive member of the second line, Alex
Burrows, to the fourth, with Jannik Hansen moving from the fourth to the second. Unfortunately, this hasn’t solved the problem of lack of production so far.

What’s more, Burrows had been carrying the second line from the perspective of possession. Here is the forwards even strength CF% by month: 

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The Sedins/Vrbata line has cooled at even strength as well, with their
possession and on-ice shooting percentage numbers in particular taking a
beating in December. The on-ice shooting percentage decline is making me wonder
whether my original concerns around Vrbata’s tendency to focus on a high volume of low percentage perimeter shots is impacting the line’s effectiveness. 

Desjardins has a riddle to
solve with his first two lines, but it’s clear to me that the decision not to
utilize Burrows’ talents in a top 6 role is questionable at best.

There is also some good
news on the injury front, with Zack Kassian set to return. In October and November, he was a better possession player than any other forward outside of
the top six, so it might be time to see him switch places
with Linden Vey in the press box. However, with Jim Benning insistent on seeing Kassian play a “power forward” game, which he may be ill-suited for, it seems like Kassian is potential trade bait rather than in Vancouver’s long-term plans.

TEAM LEVEL

The table below shows key statistics for the Canucks when at
even-strength, on the power play, or on the penalty kill, by month and
year-to-date:  

Oct-14 Nov-14 Dec-14 YTD
Record 7-3 9-4-1 5-4-2 21-11-3
ES CF% 51.06 (14th) 50.7  (15th) 47.5 (23rd) 49.1 (22nd)
5v5 ES SH% 8.36 (13th) 8.28 (15th) 6.45 (25th) 7.6 (17th)
5v5 ES SV%  89.96 (24th) 91.55 (21st) 92.46 (13th) 91.5 (24th)
PP CF/60 104.7 (11th) 88.17 (25th) 117.1 (7th) 101.1 (13th)
PP GF/60  8.62 (8th) 4.59 (24th) 8.37 (8th) 7.06 (11th)
PP SH% 15.09 (10th) 10.64 (21st) 12.7 (15th) 13.16 (13th)
PK CA/60 87.46 (5th) 70.88 (1st) 107 (22nd) 86.1 (2nd)
PK GA/60  4.56 (5th) 7.18 (17th) 2.0 (1st) 4.75 (4th)
PK SV% 88.89 (7th) 80.49 (28th) 95.7 (1st) 88.1 (13th)

I’ve spent a fair amount of
time lamenting the decline of the Canucks possession metrics at even strength, but the real story
of the month was how much worse it could have been if the Canucks’ power play hadn’t got back on track and if the goalies hadn’t stood on their heads while
shorthanded.

CONCLUSION

There were definitely reasons
for optimism in December when keeping in mind just how brutal and unusual a 7
game road trip is. Eddie Lack had another great month, the power play improved,
the penalty kill saw fabulous results, and the Edler/Tanev tandem turned in
another outstanding month. However, there are major concerns around the
offensive production coming out of the top six, the reliability of the 2nd
and 3rd defensive pairings while we wait for Dan Hamhuis to return
to the lineup, and the overall team decline in even-strength possession metrics.

At the beginning of the
season, I predicted the Canucks would be a wild card team, at best and last month I leaned more to them being in the
playoffs than out on account of their strong start through to the end of November

The reality is that the Canucks are one of the
tougher teams to predict this year. They did a great job accumulating points
early in the year, but their current trends are pretty concerning. This is echoed
in the point projections done by twitter’s Micah Blake McCurdy (@ineffectivemath). Vancouver is the dark blue line which is dancing with the
dotted playoff cut-off line in his latest prognostications below (as of January 2, 2015): 

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They have another tough month
ahead of them in January against some of the league’s best teams, including the
Kings, Red Wings, Islanders, Predators, Lightning, and Ducks. At this stage,
it’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll actually be able to make it to the playoffs
this year, but with the trade deadline coming around the corner on March 2,
2015, the month of January will be critically important in determining whether
management will be a buyer or a seller. 

  • acg5151

    Great post – the deep dives are some of my favourites here as they give meaning and context to some of the fancy stats. While it seems obvious, I think you are right in how critical January will be for us – 1 win and 1 blown win so far isn’t too bad. January should also give us an idea of who will be up for trade in Feb prior to the 2 Mar deadline.

  • acg5151

    Excellent post! Love me some deep dives. 🙂

    It’s funny how the second line’s unsustainable production early on made me forget my largest concern in the off-season: namely, where were the goals going to come from? I agree with some of the comments on the recent Kassian post that I’d like to see Burrows back in the top 6, and maybe even on the top line again so that we can see a game or two of a Kassian/Vrbata second line.

    My primary concern now is how Willie is going to respond to the current adversity. The early signs aren’t incredibly encouraging. Leaving Kassian in the press box, “demoting” Burrows, being slow to shuffle around the defense pairings… none of these things are Torts Era bad, but I’m definitely less ecstatic about the coaching than I was at the start of the season. Gulutzan aside, of course: the special teams are looking quite good, and they even seem to have managed to re-tool appropriately and get out of that PP slump they were in.

    • acg5151

      Yes. Although the goaltending comparisons are kinda Canuck-centric. Have no idea why there aren’t any Pacific Division goalies on the graph, yet Price, Lu, and Schneids are. Goalies that we seldom compete against and see Eastern shooters far more than goalies in the West.

      Also, what goes into determining a quality start? Does it have any relation to a quality finish? Because I’d technically call the LA game a quality start…it’s the finish by Miller that killed us.

  • acg5151

    Don’t think it’s fair to compair Lack and Miller’s numbers since Lack has played so few games. The graphs/numbers doesn’t say anything statisticly!! (One really need at least 32 entities of x objects to state anything at all really.) So to draw any conclusions from these numbers aren’t fair.

    The facts are; Lack had some pretty awful games at the start, and some pretty good one’s at the end. Not consistent at all really.

    And Miller’s had a couple of really bad strecthes, but also some good one’s. Consistent within the strecthes.

    Why not start Lack directly after a soft game by Miller in order to try to stop a soft stretch!?

  • acg5151

    The team needs to think about what they want to do at the deadline. Their ES CF% isn’t good enough (even in Oct and Nov it wasn’t good enough) to compete with the really good teams in the conference. People can talk about intangibles all they want but this team simply isn’t good enough.