It may be a surprise to many people, despite the fact that I am active in hockey analytics, I don’t focus only on the spreadsheets. I am often thinking about the game, thinking about the teams as a whole, thinking about management of the team and paying attention to all the news and semantics of words the team’s public relations have coached them to say.
With that, here’s five recent thoughts, related to the Vancouver Canucks, that I have been pondering.
1) Bo Horvat
I am strongly in the camp that Bo Horvat should have not played in the NHL this season, but that ship has long sailed. A big reason the Vancouver Canucks were determined to keep Horvat with the big club is because of his success at faceoffs. This was initially true as he was posting a faceoff win rate of well over 60% and even challenged Manny Malhotra, known faceoff specialist, for the league lead. But that dominance in the faceoff has not lasted; had he qualified to be ranked among the NHL’s faceoff leaders, he would currently be ranked as 40th out of 82 with an efficiency of 51.5%. His early on success might have been the result of a small sample size and he is currently regressing to his true 19 year-old NHL talent.
Here’s the kicker: faceoff wins and losses mean little in the grand scheme of things. By the time you need to fine-tune your faceoff abilities, you should be quite comfortable with the possession and scoring abilities of your players. Providing the faceoff reasoning seemed like a stretch for the Canucks to keep Horvat with the big club – it appears to be more a PR move to say to the fans, “We may not be elite anymore, but our first round picks are developing!”
Game 40 for Horvat is soon approaching (he has played 34 games) and the Canucks will have to decide if they wish to keep him past that deadline and burn up a year towards being a UFA, or if they want to return him to the London Knights. We have already seen both the New York Rangers (Anthony Duclair) and the Edmonton Oilers (Leon Draisaitl) keep a junior-aged player past the first games played limit only to return them later to avoid burn a year towards their UFA eligibility. I am still firmly in the camp that Horvat should have been returned to London, though arguably he isn’t even the best centre on that team either with the emergence of Christian Dvorak.
2) Zack Kassian
The situation with Zack Kassian is an interesting one, and one we at Canucks Army have spilled much digital ink analyzing. Ultimately it appears that Canucks management do not understand what they have in this player and are expecting him to play in a very specific style. Kassian has been a healthy scratch many times this year over worse possession drivers such as Linden Vey, and you can tell by Kassian’s comments to the media that he is not the happiest player on currently on the roster.
It comes as no surprise that Jim Benning is willing to trade Zack Kassian if in their opinion it will make the team better. What is most frightening about that statement is that management appears to have little interest in Kassian’s skill set and is likely we will see any type of return in a trade for him that will improve the team. Remember, Benning was one of the men who was wanted to trade 21 year-old Tyler Seguin, already an elite scorer in this league, because he didn’t want to have to babysit him over extra-curricular activities.
3) Trade Deadline
The previous thought surrounding Zack Kassian touches on the next point. The trade deadline is coming up shortly and the Canucks have stated they will use the next handful of games to determine if they are buyers or sellers. They have also said they want to return to the post-season, seemingly regardless of long term success, and will be buyers at the deadline. Almost contradicting this train of thought, Benning has said the Canucks are not in a position to get rid of draft picks (which is a good thing) – but then how can they be buyers when they have little to give in return?
The Canucks wish to be active but they do not have much of anything of value to give up. Anything the Canucks have of value they are not likely willing to give up so it seems their only remaining option is a “hockey trade”. Hockey trades where one team is able to drastically improve rarely happen since the very idea of a “hockey trade” is based on equal value going each way. I would guess the largest move on the horizon would be a Zack Kassian in exchange for spare parts at best.
4) Hot Hand
Playing the hot hand in goaltenders is an issue that appears to not be only Canucks related, but hockey-wide. Mathematical-based thinking has taken a long time to propagate in NHL decision makers, but one issue that seems to be the hardest to fight is to not play the same goalie in back-to-back games. This has been shown time and time again that playing your starter in the second game of a back-to-back is akin to playing a replacement level goaltender – they’re still going to perform at a level indistinguishable from an NHL starter in that one-game sample, but will be worse in the long run. Yet coaches keep doing this, most likely an issue of cognitive bias, but I cannot figure out why they are so resistant to change.
The Canucks did this recently playing Ryan Miller in back-to-back games where he luckily posted a shutout (even a replacement level goaltender can do that in a single game). Eddie Lack does not seem to be given the same rope; when he posted a shutout against Pittsburgh in December, Willie Desjardins did not opt to play Lack again. We even see this issue at the AHL level with the Utica Comets where Travis Green has shown a number of times he is willing to play the same goaltender in back-to-back situations despite all the advice suggesting he should not.
Eddie Lack seems to be a very upbeat and happy person based on what he presents to the world on his Twitter account and in the media. He’s a very fun goalie and quite a great character. But I imagine that he can’t be too happy with the situation right now in Vancouver – it should have been his year to finally shown he is an NHL capable level goaltender. Instead, the Canucks management do not seem to be trusting of Lack, starting Ryan Miller in almost 80% of Vancouver’s games in 2014-2015.
The Canucks have some interesting goaltending options upcoming this summer. Ryan Miller has two more years on his contract at $6M a year and will decline in skill as he ages. Eddie Lack is going to become an Unrestricted Free Agent and Jacob Markstrom, who only 18 AHL games ago who was thought of as a bust, is a Restricted Free Agent. I can see a situation where Lack is traded (but don’t expect high returns – given that Devan Dubnyk had a longer track record and the Recency effect looks on him more favourably, it seems like Lack wouldn’t fetch much more than a 4th round pick) while Markstrom is brought up to be the back up for the next year or two. It will be an interesting situation to watch how it plays out.
One final thought to touch on; it’s not really worth it’s own spot since it was covered very well by Face Off Circle. A few weeks ago, Reto Berra scored a goal in an AHL game and then went to celebrate by high-fiving everyone on his bench. Unsurprisingly, the outrage that followed was a predictable old argument: this celebration was classless and players shouldn’t be involved in that type of behaviour, especially in their opponents building. Face Off Circle covers why this old hockey mentality needs to change and why it is coddling of players.