On the surface, the answer to the question posed in the headline is a simple “no way,” but our thoughts and opinions on this aren’t the ones that matter.
As fans, we’ve all seen the pizza deliveries, the blown coverages, and the own goals this year. In addition to the poor play, Luca Sbisa is on an inconveniently back-loaded contract and will be enormously expensive to qualify this summer. Just retaining his restricted free agents rights with a qualifying offer will force the Vancouver Canucks to commit $2.9 million on a one-year deal (that is unless they take him to arbitration and seek to cut back his salary), which should be a non-starter.
Or it would be a non-starter if stuff like “the Canucks like Sbisa” and “the Canucks see Sbisa as a future top-4 guy” wasn’t being floated by those with more insider knowledge than we have. Vancouver, allegedly, believes Sbisa has taken a step forward and media speculation has him coming back next year, pricey RFA deal and all. But are the Canucks wise to think this way? We’ll investigate on the other side of the jump.
Jason Botchford’s Provies are always good for an interesting nugget or two of information, and after Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers he wrote the following regarding Vancouver’s much maligned rearguard:
Overall, I think the Canucks like Sbisa and like him quite a bit. They are not, however, delusional. They know he has struggled. But they believe he’s in the midst of an improved second half.
Right now, I think he’s coming back next year, and believe he will be tendered as an RFA at $2.9 million.
Just don’t see them turning their backs on a 25-year-old defenceman who they believe is improving, has become a PK contributor and who they’re convinced can grow into a top four blue-liner, as far off as that may seem some nights.
He has size, can be physical, and you don’t see a long line of blue-liners in the organization who provide these particular tools.
There’s a lot to chew on in this short passage, but we’ll begin by looking at the claim that Sbisa is in the midst of an improved second half. We’ll quickly fact check this by looking at Sbisa’s split-season underlying stats to try and find any material improvement:
Despite a rather significant upswing in offensive zone starts, Sbisa’s Corsi For percentage and ScoringChance percentage have remained close enough to his first half rates that we can say they’re basically the same. Sbisa is still getting routinely out-possessed and, more concerningly, remaining extremely permissive as far as scoring chances against go.
However, Sbisa’s Goals For percentage has improved significantly over his first 32 games of the season. Unfortunately for him, this very probably has nothing to do with his play. He is just as permissive as he was early in the year in terms of goals against, and has continued to make life miserable for the goaltenders behind him, the only difference is that other Canucks happen to be scoring goals when Sbisa is on the ice so he’s picking up more pluses – something that wasn’t happening early in the year.
Sbisa has also seen rather significant time on the penalty kill, and if Botchford’s opinion is accurate, Vancouver sees this as a positive. They really shouldn’t though, as Sbisa is a well below average penalty killer in a group of elite ones, and not just by relative measures either. Of the 111 NHL D that have seen over 100 minutes of penalty kill time this season, Sbisa is 69th in shots against per minute, and a significantly worse shot suppressor than Chris Tanev, Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa, and Dan Hamhuis. Relative to his teammates, Sbisa has the 7th worst shorthanded shots against per minute rate of this same group of 111 regular penalty killing defenders.
There’s really no sugar coating it: right now Sbisa is not good enough to be an NHL regular. He’s been terrible this season, and terrible for every other season of his NHL career. Since 2012, he has been one of the very worst defensemen to receive regular NHL minutes:
This brings us to the second bit we’ll briefly look at: should Vancouver believe that Sbisa has top-4 NHL potential?
Sbisa turned 25 in January, so I searched Hockey Reference for a similar group of defencemen to see how they grew in their next three seasons. Looking at guys who had a similar scoring rate and played over 1,000 minutes in a season in which they were 25, I found a group of 14 comparable players since the 2007-08 season. Here they are sorted by relative Fenwick% in their 25-year old season:
Narrowing down the field to just guys that were a drag on their team’s Fenwick percentage at this point in their careers, I looked at how they progressed in their next handful of NHL seasons:
On average, this group started below average and did improve. Still, only Josh Gorges managed to post two seasons where his team was better with him on the ice than on the bench, and those just so happened to coincide with being attached to P.K. Subban’s hip. Guys who were below average at 25 tended to remain below average throughout their primes.
Sbisa’s relative Fenwick percentage is also twice as bad as this group’s average right now, and he’s also already received ample NHL opportunity and development time as a former first-round pick. If he were to take a step forward, you would think that it would have happened already since it doesn’t appear that Sbisa-like players really grow into something more than what they already are at 25. There is improvement to be made for sure, but it’s usually marginal.
If the Canucks are right and Sbisa one day does become a legitimate top-4 guy and not just someone gifted top-4 minutes because of misplaced belief, he’ll have to come an unusually long way from what he is today. It’s not impossible that Sbisa might turn into a credible NHL top-four defender, but that’s mostly because nothing is impossible. His “put-up-or-shut-up” seasons should have been the last couple of years and he simply has not done enough of the ‘putting up’ to warrant a team committing nearly $3 million to him.
I highly doubt that Canucks brass are delusional though, so even if Sbisa is back next season, I can’t see it being for more than one year. Vancouver does have an abyssal drop-off of talent after Alex Edler and an aging Dan Hamhuis on the left side, and Sbisa is probably more attractive alternative to any in-house left-handed replacement, barring Ben Hutton taking training camp by storm. Willie Desjardins will still need warm bodies to dress, and Sbisa is a warm body at the very least.
Re-signing Sbisa for one year is likely akin to lighting money on fire, but it’s not the end of the world. On the other hand, re-signing him to a lucrative multi-year extension would be the first move in constructing a Panzer division to compete with Edmonton’s.