February may well have been the most impressive month of the Canucks season so far. They managed an 8-6 record, their best month since November, despite missing significant time from three quarters of their top four defense (Bieksa, Tanev, Elder), their second line center (Nick Bonino), their starting goalie (Ryan Miller), a top six winger (Alex Burrows), and bottom six center (Brad Richardson). Considering they only managed a .500 record in December and January despite having a relatively healthy roster, February’s results are reason for excitement.
What’s more impressive that their February record in the face of adversity is that the wins last month came against teams currently holding down playoff spots: the Penguins, Bruins, Islanders, Jets, Wild, Rangers, and Blackhawks, although their two losses against a Minnesota Wild team hot on their heels could very well come back to bite them. On the flip side, they played down to the level of their competition in losses against the Flames, Devils, and even the lowly Sabres who had zero incentive to win.
The team will need to capitalize on a relatively easy, yet compressed, March schedule. 9 of the 16 games in March are against teams not currently in the playoff picture, and they only have one back to back contest schedule for the end of the month versus the Blues and Predators.
The graph below shows the save percentage for Lack and Miller, by month:
Before his injury against the Islanders, Ryan Miller was having a very Ryan Miller month, standing on his head against the Penguins, Bruins and Flames, but let two stinkers get away against the Wild. Luckily, for the Canucks Eddie Lack was solid again in February, posting a .923 SV%, with strong performances across the board, with the exception of the last game of the month against the Sabres. With Miller on the shelf for the foreseeable future.
Below is the quality appearances for Lack & Miller. Note: a “quality appearance” is defined as a game where the goalie’s save percentage is higher than the league average rate of 0.910 (includes relief roles):
As we expected, Miller and Lack have been very comparable goalies throughout the season, so the impact of an extended injury to Miller won’t as much be the drop off in talent between him and Lack, but rather the drop off of talent between Lack and Markstrom in the relief role.
It’ll be interesting to see how Desjardins manages Lack and Markstrom’s starts during the course of Miller’s injury. Last year, after the Luongo trade Tortorella ran Lack into the ground,
With Markstrom appearing to have gained the confidence of management because of his strong play in Utica this year, Lack should be able to get the rest he needs to be effective down the stretch. However, if Markstrom struggles at the NHL level, as he has in the past, that could spell trouble for the team’s playoff ambitions.
The table below shows even-strength CF% for each defender, by month:
This month, the Canucks missed a significant number of games from Edler, Tanev, and Bieksa, not to mention January call up Frank Corrado, who posted a solid January before getting injured in the first game in February. As a result, the Canucks have tried to make due with a makeshift defense core which includes AHL call up, Alex Biega and newly acquired Adam Clendening.
Biega has predominantly played with Luca Sbisa, and they’ve been outclassed both from the perspective of possession (CF 43.6%) and goals scored (GF 44.4%), despite receiving relatively sheltered offensive zone starts (OZone 54.9%). With Tanev expected to return March 1st, it should be expected that Biega will get bumped out of what has been top 4 deployment.
Adam Clendening has spent most of his time paired with Ryan Stanton, and they appear to have developed some strong chemistry. When paired together, the tandem was solid both from a possession standpoint (CF 52.2%) as well as goals scored (77.8%) in sheltered minutes (OZone 57.5%). After a rocky start to the year, Ryan Stanton has been slowly improving each month as the year has gone on, which has to be great news for the Canucks front office.
With Desjardins protecting the Sbisa/Biega and Clendening/Stanton pairings, the real heavy lifting has fallen on Yannick Weber and Dan Hamhuis, who managed to stay in the positive from a possession standpoint. On the year, the tandem has actually performed better from a possession standpoint (Hamhuis/Weber CF 54.7%) than Hamhuis had with longtime partner, Kevin Bieksa (Bieksa/Hamhuis CF 51.4%), which should make for some interesting decision for Willie Desjardins once Bieksa returns to the fold later this month.
After being missing in action for much of December and January, the forward corps emerged from their winter hibernation in February, with a number of players posting their best month of the season offensively:
The way the team rebounded after a truly awful January is pretty remarkable. In January, the Canucks offense was “led” by Bonino, Hansen, and Matthias at 1.3 P/60. In February, 10 out of 13 forwards eclipsed that mark, with Henrik, Daniel, Vrbata, Matthias, Horvat, Hansen, Kassian, and Kenins posting their highest P/60 month of the year.
Much of this improvement in scoring was the result in sky high shooting percentages, which rebounded solidly after bottoming out in January:
February was also a solid month from the perspective of possession metrics:
February was a great month for the Sedins. Prior to his injury, Alex Burrows was on their wing, a move I’ve been recommending since the pre-season. The results were outstanding possession metrics and solid offensive production.
When Burrows went down with a lower body injury, Kassian was given a shot with twins, and his offensive production has been exceptional. During February, 1 out of 5 five shots Kassian was on the ice for at even strength found the back of the net. While no one expects him to be able to keep up the February pace which saw him score 6 even strength goals, its hard not to be excited for the Big Guy. If Benning was waiting for a “sell high” moment, he’s was given one, but from a fans perspective it great to see him still on the roster, just as he appears to be reaching the potential we’ve long been waiting for.
The second line was in flux for the second half of February after Bonino’s injury forced Vey into the 2C spot, centering Vrbata, Higgins, and/or Dorsett. This was the least productive offensive line for the month, and it’ll be clear the Canucks will need a healthy Nick Bonino going forward.
With the second line faltering, the offensive slack was picked up by the third and fourth lines. Shawn Matthias contributed 7 goals at even strength for the month. The big pending UFA is having a breakout season. Since Benning decided not to move him at the deadline, he better have a strong indication that he’s going to re-sign in the summer as its very much looking like Matthias will be in for a sizeable raise.
The fourth line also had an outstanding February. The two rookies, Horvat and Kenins, have shown great chemistry, combining for 8 goals in the month. Perhaps key to this lines success has been the veteran leadership from Jannik Hansen, who has really demonstrated his versatility this season playing up and down the lineup. Horvat is clearly finding his way as a first year pro, having his best month offensively, but more importantly, demonstrating consistent improvement each month from a possession standpoint.
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:
In February we continued to see the same trend with overall even strength possession, the Canucks being a middle of the pack at best team. The success we saw this month came from the 9.8% shooting percentage, their hottest month of the year offensively.
The most notable impact of the Edler and Tanev injuries has been on the PK, where we saw their shot attempts against baloon to 111 shot attempts/60 minutes on the PK in their absence. When you consider how average this team has been from the perspective of goaltending, possession, and power play, in a lot of ways it has come down to the penalty kill to keep them in the playoff hunt, so the return of their two PK aces will be key to the Canucks success down the stretch.
February was an incredibly fun month to be a Canucks fan, with players like Ronalds Kenins, Alex Biega, and Adam Clendening coming out of nowhere to make pretty significant contributions to the team. Bo Horvat continued his steady and rapid improvement, Shawn Matthias was an impact power forward, and Zack Kassian emerged from Desjardins’ dog house with a vengeance. But most importantly, they won more than they lost.
It’s unlikely we’ll see the sky high shooting percentages continue indefinitely, meaning we can expect Kassian, Matthias, and Horvat to come back down to Earth a bit, but in the meantime it sure is fun to watch.