Do the Canucks Really Have ‘Three Third Lines’?

Since the beginning of the season, it’s often been mentioned that this Canucks team had three third lines.  The Sedins are still first liners, but Nick Bonino didn’t seem like a typical second line centreman, while a promising rookie like Bo Horvat should possess more talent than your average 4th liner.  

But has this forecast turned out to be true?  Have the Canucks depth forwards all performed like third liners?  Continue past the jump as we evaluate the even-strength performance of all Canucks forwards thus far.

The underrated @MimicoHero has developed an awesome tool called HERO Charts (Horizontal Evaluative Ranking Optics) so we can see just how good (or bad) NHL players are.  The downside with this tool is that it is based on data for players from 2012-2013 to present which in my opinion heavily weights the representation to how good or bad the players were compared to how they have been playing this season.

This is an important factor since as players get older, especially when they are close to 10 years past the peak of NHL forwards, they are likely to fall off a cliff, and how a given player performed one or two seasons ago may not be the same thing we can expect today.  We performed a similar analysis of the defensive corps with this type of approach for the Vancouver Canucks.

With that in mind, we’ll use the same data features to look at all regular Canucks forwards this season. 

The Baseline

We included both possession and offensive statistics, all are at 5v5 and come from http://stats.hockeyanalysis.com/.  We used colours to bin the values based on how they perform in that facet.  Green is a first liner (top 90), yellow is a second liner (91-180), orange is a third liner (181-270) and red is a fourth liner (271-360).  Anyone worse than that is considered “replacement level” talent (meaning performing at the level of a fringe NHLer/AHLer) and is coloured black.  Only players with more than 300 minutes at even-strength were included to determine the minimums in each talent tier.

Here are the results:

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  • TOI/GP – Time on Ice / Game Played – how often they are on the ice playing, this is usually a reflection of a coaches attitude towards a player rather than their true talent level, however it generally reflects talent level in most cases too.
  • CF60 – Corsi For per 60 minutes played – Shot attempts directed towards the opponents net while the player was on the ice.
  • CA60 – Corsi Against per 60 minutes played – Shot attempts directed towards a player’s own net while he is on the ice.
  • Corsi For % – A percentage of CF60 and CA60 showing the percentage relationship between shot attempts for and against while you are on the ice.
  • CF% rel TM – Corsi For % relative to Teammates – How you being on the ice drives your common teammates corsi for percentages in a positive or negative way.
  • Goals/60 – Goals scored by a player per 60 minutes of ice time.
  • Assists/60 – Assists credited to a player per 60 minutes of ice time.
  • Points/60 – Goals and assists scored by a player per 60 minutes of ice time.

The Canucks Forwards

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First Liners

  • Ronalds Kenins has had an amazing start to his year, though it should not be a huge surprise given he has been producing at a decent clip in senior leagues for the past three seasons.  We know from his TOI estimates in Utica he was not being given many large opportunities, but he seems to have earned his stay in Vancouver for the next while.  In most ways he is playing at a first line talent level.  His shot attempt numbers have regressed recently to second line level but he is greatly improving his teammates and he is scoring.  The only downside is his personal shooting percentage of 15% is likely to drop. We shouldn’t expect him to continue performing like a 1st liner.
  • Daniel and Henrik Sedin can be grouped together since they are almost
    exactly the same (twins – go figure).  They are given first line ice
    time because they are still the best players on the Canucks, they can
    prevent shot attempts against like first liners, and they can set up
    goals like first liners.  What they are starting to fall in is their
    ability to score goals themselves. In fact, Henrik shoots the puck at a worse rate
    than a replacement level player, but shooting was never his style of
    game so this really isn’t a concern.  This is not to say that the Sedins are finished, they can still pull off
    some amazing Sedinery, but they are definitely starting to show signs of
    age.  Some positive regression on Daniel’s ~5% even strength
    shooting percentage will help their goal and point rates improve too.

Second Liners

  • Radim Vrbata shows he can still shoot and score goals like he is a first liner, but his individual possession and playmaking abilities this season haven’t been at a top-3 level. 
  • Nick Bonino is a concern defensively, but his goal scoring is that of a first liner.  He has a high shooting percentage at 5-on-5, but he has always carried one since he became an NHL regular. Everything else across the board suggests he is a second liner.
  • Chris Higgins is often described as a good middle-six forward despite being criticized for being invisible at times. He has continued to be a cost effective 2nd LW, and has seen his Corsi Against/60 numbers suffer since being placed with Linden Vey.  When his personal 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 5.71% improves he will likely see goal totals rise back toward his career norms.
  • Alex Burrows plays like a second liner across the board.  His assists per 60 is that of a third liner, but Burrows has never been a strong playmaker.
  • Zack Kassian has been playing like a legitimate second liner of late. His sky high shooting percentage has brought up his own goals per 60 while some formerly poor puck luck (his individual assist percentage – the percentage of on-ice goals Kassian assisted on – is unusually low this year) was likely driving down his Assists/60, while his teammates early in the year did not help him post a strong CorsiFor/60.

Third Liners

  • Brad Richardson sees poor defensive results, but generally plays like a third liner.  He’s seen an uptick in his assists and points per 60 despite low on-ice shooting percentage. Richardson’s value is almost entirely as an ace penalty killer.
  • Jannik Hansen is equal to a third liner but does drive shot attempts with his teammates.  Similar to Brad Richardson, he’s seen a rise in assists and points per 60 as his recent linemates have seen some favourable percentages.

Fourth Liners

  • Shawn Matthias is a fourth liner in almost ever statistic except in shooting and goal scoring (which raises his points rate) and is a bit better defensively.  He’s a fourth liner power forward, but would probably look a lot better playing on left wing with a strong centre.
  • Linden Vey is bad across the board, he does have some upside in his assist rate though he is not known to be a playmaker.  He is 22 so hopefully he still has room to develop.
  • Derek Dorsett is a fourth line player at possession but he has shown some ability to shoot and set up goals.
  • Bo Horvat has been a fourth line player in terms of possession this season, but has been significantly improving since Ronalds Kenins was called up.  His high shooting percentage has improved his scoring rates.  That is key as he is 19 and will improve.  His scoring is already equal to a middle-six forward, showing he has the talent to be an impact player.
  • Brandon McMillan is a border line replacement level player.  With a 2.22% shooting percentage and an on-ice PDO of 93% he is the worst forward in terms of scoring.  His possession numbers indicate someone of fourth line level talent.

Outlook

It seems that the Canucks aren’t so much a team with three third lines as much as they are simply have a surplus of low-end second line to high-end third line players.  Long term this is not a good thing though as many of these players are older, and a lack of bona-fide first-line talent other than the Sedins is a big reason why Vancouver’s possession statistics are down this season.

Management needs an acquisition plan to acquire first line talent that will still be 1st line talent 5 years down the road, which is when they should be aiming at setting up for a serious championship run.  The Canucks need top end talent to start pushing the rest of their forwards down the roster, and not just create depth, but create quality depth.  Recent acquisitions such as Sven Baertschi and strong drafting will strengthen the middle-6 down the road, but that top end talent is still lacking.

If Canucks wish to become a serious contender for the Stanley Cup again, they need top-end players.  The prospect pool has been made larger the last few years, but I do not see any players with a really fantastic shot at being high-end first line players.  The Canucks will have to draft exceptionally well if they want to build a core that will be able to take over from the Sedins and compete in the future.

  • allsportsfan

    “It seems that the Canucks aren’t so much a team with three third lines as much as they are simply have a surplus of low-end second line to high-end third line players. Long term this is not a good thing though as many of these players are older, and a lack of bona-fide first-line talent other than the Sedins is a big reason why Vancouver’s possession statistics are down this season.”

    I think many have been saying this for years. Asset management has not been good with this franchise. Gillis was on a quest for the fountain of youth so he could keep his core forever. I don’t think Gillis found the fabled fountain but the core remained.

    The Canucks need to deal desirable vets for youth with high-end upside. That way they keep their picks and continue to develop for the future.

    I’ve said it over and over, this roster cannot compete. I still don’t think they’ll make the playoffs and we can look back at this trade deadline as an opportunity lost. It was a time where they should have made pseudo-seller type moves. Move one or two vets for assets – a Hamhuis or Vrbata would have brought you back a high end prospect or two.

    I did like the deadline deal for Sven(a 3rd round pick would have been a bit more fair but what can you do – they obtained a guy that still has some upside).

    The NTCs absolutely kill the Canucks and their ability to turn over the roster. Gillis was a rookie GM and that continues to be proven day in, day out. Benning may have to get creative and look at dealing Tanev at the draft for some top line potential.

    My hope is Benning deals Vrbata, a goalie, Higgins, Burrows, either Hammer or Bieksa and Richardson for assets. If not then we’ll look forward to another year of mediocre results – some highs and lows that end up with us finishing in the middle. It’s what the Canucks have been doing for a long time.

  • Fortitude00

    Bottom Line: They have good middle-6 depth down the wings but are still paper thin down the middle.

    One would think that between Vey, Matthias, Bonino, and Horvat some one would have stepped up their game enough to be that 2nd line center they need.

    This is why they are likely to just barely make/miss the playoffs – not quite deep enough down the middle.

    If the goal is to make the playoffs and be competitive through the rebuild, picking up Mike Richards (even with his high cap hit) off waivers might not have been a bad idea.

    • allsportsfan

      I think that Mathias and Horvat have stepped up their games this year. Centre behind defense is the most difficult position to play in the NHL. Horvat is a 19 year old, a #7 1st round pick, so not top 3 talent but he’s shown that he’s growing into the position with more confidence. The first thing that the coach is going to look for is that the defensive side of the game is taken care of and Horvat did that and with the injuries to Bonino and Richardson both him and Mathias have taken major strides ahead.

      Mathias has the makings of that powerful big centre we’ve been wanting for years. 2nd in goals for the team. He’s as close as we’re going to get for a 2nd line centre for now, more like a 2B.

      Horvat is only 19 and has potential to either grow into that 2nd line centre or be a very good #3. Mathias if he plays hard for a whole season could be that lower tier 2nd line centre until our next group of talent gets developed.

      Mike Richards we couldn’t afford his cap hit, heck we’re going to have a hard time re-signing Tanev, Dorsett, Richard, or Mathias. I don’t think he’s any better than what we have either.

  • WTF2

    We are missing so much, unfortunately I don’t see a significant upside in the near term. A strong centre and scoring wingers, not to mention a d-man or two with scoring potential.

  • WTF2

    Hey Josh, could you do a visual like this for some of the leagues best teams for comparison? I would love to see this done for Chicago, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Montreal etc etc….

  • jung gun

    I don’t think the Canucks are poised to take a cup this year or next, but I can imagine a strong, filled out Kassian playing on the top line with the Sedins in two years supplementing their declining offence with what will probably be his career year in goals and shooting percentage. The style of play matc hes up. Below those, I think Bonino is an intelligent guy who can still refine his game. He may get a little faster, and if he does, that makes him a viable second C in my opinion. He’s got skill, but cement shoes. Horvat can handle the third line competently by that point. There, so we’ll have a strong centre depth (fourth line= whomever) and on the wings we’ll have baerschti, if he pans out, playing on the second line with bonino and some unknown variable (maybe vrbata?), perhaps mattias with horvat and burrows. That line up isn’t decrepit at forward, and I think the y could make noise in the playoffa. The one worry is that bonino wouldn’t be able to handle the intensity of playoff checking. If he can’t, game over. Anyway, based on the numbers, I can visualize a team that works well enough to push deep into the post season. Bieksa will hopefully be gone by then and replaced by clendening. Pedan might make the jump by that point too, and that kid looks like a demon who can stickhandle too. I’m pretty sure benning considers the core capable, and I do too, within limits. Kassian absolutely has to guard the twins during the playoffs. He lays into the defense and wears them down, injuring them over a couple games, and when they’ve slowed, sedinery ensues. The doom and gloom attitude seems exaggerated to me.

  • Dirty30

    “Recent acquisitions such as Sven Baertschi and strong drafting will strengthen the middle-6 down the road, but that top end talent is still lacking.”…”The prospect pool has been made larger the last few years, but I do not see any players with a really fantastic shot at being high-end first line players.”

    I have to disagree with the presumption that the Canucks can’t draft 1st line talent now that Benning is here. Listening to some trade deadline interviews with him on TSN, I was shocked to hear that the Canucks scouts didn’t have standardized methodology when evaluating players and were not given direction from management as to what to look for – no wonder why they sucked so bad at the draft. Benning started to remedy that.

    Virtanen, McCann and Demko all appear to have 1st line/starting potential, that’s pretty good if Benning managed to get an excellent centre, winger and goalie in one draft. Hell, that’s better than the entire draft record of the Canucks from 2003 to 2012.

  • Dirty30

    Much appreciated analysis and clarification of ‘we’re all third liners’ into something more discrete and realistic.

    Unfortunate that ownership is trying to make play-off money instead of taking the ‘in Benning we believe’ route and let him build a team that can compete — and pay the bills — long-term.

    I don’t agree with everything that Benning does but then I’m not the GM.

    And yes, everyone still seems to suffer playing with Vey — I wish him all the best and hope he pans out but not at the cost of other player development.

  • Dirty30

    Yep. Sedins are 34 and the cupboard is bare for replacements. The Canucks won’t tank to get any top-three draft picks so they are going to have to find late-blooming snipers and playmakers for a future first line.

    • Dirty30

      Like tanking has worked so well for teams like Edmonton. Yes I know Pittsburgh and Chicago did it, but Pittsburgh is not necessarily and elite team and Chicago now faces cap issues because of its tanking. You need a certain amount of luck but I think Benning is a sharp analyst of talent. I do believe Vey is a dud, but I think he was a dud brought in because Willie wanted him. The coach is good, but I am not sure he is the best judge of talent, witness his failure to use Kassian well, while continuing to play Vey who is weak and Higgins who is now I believe a fourth liner. I hope to see Higgins, Bieksa, Vey and Markstrom all gone this summer for draft picks.

      • Fortitude00

        Why do people use Edmonton as the example for reason not to draft high. Every team that has one the Stanley cup in past 40 years except for one has had a top 4 pick in their lineup.
        Drafting high is crucial to rebuilding a team to compete for the cup.

        • orcasfan

          Well, the Canucks have two top 4 picks in their line-up (the twins). Why haven’t they won a Cup too? Or is there a correlation between the time of the top 4 pick and the time of a Cup win?

          • Fortitude00

            That is a pretty weak argument.
            Vancouver hasn’t won the cup because they haven’t found the right players to build around. Its not complicated.
            On the other side of it the Canucks would not have been at the top of the league for so many years without the twins who were drafted 2 and 3. Anyway you look at it you still need to pick early in the draft to rebuild your core.

  • Fortitude00

    The problem with looking at how the scoring bears out as far as lines is that it depends on who this team plays.

    NJ, Buff now Arizona and complete garbage all the way around. When the Canucks are motivated they play solid 4 line hockey, with a true #1 PP and a great penalty kill. When they just come out… Out worked out hustled and the team Asa whole looks like a broke arse Harlem Globtrotters… Fancy passes that go the other way and try to spring a break away from behind Lack.

    If… I f they make the plAyoffs, good competition may just be what they need