The hockey season may be over and done with, but the wound that is this last season as a Vancouver Canucks fan is still relatively fresh. There’s plenty of meat left on these bones and with the draft and the opening of free agency now in the rear view mirror, it’s time we got cookin’.
The process starts with a series of player-by-player reviews for the season that was. Today’s will be centered on the much maligned, Luca Sbisa.
Let’s break it all down on the other side of the jump.
That the two videos I’ve included even exist tells you a lot about Luca Sbisa’s first campaign with the Vancouver Canucks. Bearing the weight of being a formerly well thought of first-round pick and a part of the return for Ryan Kesler, it’s safe to say that Sbisa buckled under the pressure of the lofty expectations those qualifiers would carry in tow.
Sbisa came to this franchise a relative unknown, but his first round pedigree was enough for most to see him as a physical defender with some upside – a reclamation project of sorts. Physically speaking, Sbisa possesses all the requisite tools to flash top-four potential. The passing ability, physicality and skating are all there. The lacking pieces have all come from upstairs though, as Sbisa is one of the poorer decision makers this franchise currently possesses.
An intelligent defender can compensate for most physical shortcomings if he has a fundamentally sound understanding of defensive zone coverage and great anticipation of the play. It doesn’t go the other way, though. For all Sbisa’s great footwork, I’ve never seen a defender skate himself into as much trouble as Sbisa does, as frequently as he does. When Sbisa isn’t under duress, he can also make a relatively OK breakout pass as well – turn the pressure dial up a notch and you get the above YouTube footage.
All this made for a very rough first season. Sbisa was primarily used on a third pairing, alongside Kevin Bieksa. For Willie Desjardins, they were to be the physical, stay-at-home presence of the Canucks three pairings. Problem being, they happened to take the “stay-at-home” part of their title far too literally. The pair struggled at evens to transition the puck and often found themselves pinned in their zone for minutes at a time.
A brief glance at Sbisa’s WOWY statistics gives us a pretty good indicator as to the general cause of this repeated failure to launch:
These numbers don’t shine an overly favourable light on Sbisa. Then again, one shouldn’t be overly surprised by this. Rare are the extended stretches in which any pairing with Sbisa on it looked passable. To be fair, though, Sbisa did look his best (all things being relative) during a brief stretch in the middle of the season when injuries facilitated a consistent spot in the Canucks top four.
Despite being one of the league’s more permissive players at evens by every metric imaginable, the Canucks leaned especially hard on Sbisa for penalty kill ice-time. Unsurprisingly, no Canuck regular on the penalty kill fared worse in terms of shot suppression, where the Canucks were surrendering 55.89 Shots/60 with Sbisa on the ice. This wasn’t enough to keep Sbisa from the ice shorthanded, as the Canucks went to that well regularly, resulting in Sbisa posting the third most ice-time among Canucks on the penalty kill.
Say what you will of the Canucks brain trust, but they are men of conviction. There is a very legitimate case to be made that Sbisa was the ninth-best defenseman within the Canucks organization last season, yet they stuck to their guns throughout and even went so far as to re-sign Sbisa to a
indefensible lucrative three-year extension, with an AAV of $3.6-million.
The playoffs weren’t exactly a redemption tour for the struggling Swiss defender, either. Playing alongside Bieksa and seeing regular shifts against the much heralded Micheal Ferland line, Sbisa looked completely lost against the Flames unrelenting fore-check and the physicality that they brought to the table. If Sbisa performed well in the scrums – as Benning infamously suggested – I’m not entirely sure it was in this series.
Those are some highly unimpressive numbers. By that same token, Sbisa is recognized by everyone as a “stay-at-home” defender, so it’s not overly enlightening to find that he struggled to put up points. Given his ice-time, though, one would expect maybe a little more from Sbisa.
Among regular Canucks defenders, none had a lower CF%Rel than Sbisa, with a paltry -3.1%. In essence, the Canucks were a considerably worse possession team with Sbisa on the ice than without and I’d imagine much of this is due to Sbisa’s inability to transition play. Sbisa’s 58.6 CA/60 is on the low end of the Canucks roster and suggests that much of the Canucks inability to control play was due to their inability to suppress attempt volume with Sbisa on the ice.
Over the seven year span of Sbisa’s career he has never had a positive GF%Rel. So if you really want to reach, his -6.3 GF%Rel is actually a step in the right direction, given last seasons abysmal -9.4%. Surprisingly, his teams ability to generate offense with him on the ice actually took a marked step forward. Unfortunately, it wasn’t at a quick enough pace to keep up with the volume of goals against, which spiked by almost an entire goal against per 60-minutes.
There isn’t a long list of NHL regulars who performed worse at suppressing scoring chances. For that matter, only Zack Kassian performed worse in that regard among Canucks. Pretty daunting, given Sbisa’s perception among management as a reliable defensive defenceman.
Where the ten-bell chances are concerned, Sbisa looks even worse. Surrendering a high-grade scoring chance every 3-or-so minutes isn’t a good look by any means, but when one considers Sbisa’s inability to contribute at the other end of the ice as well it’s especially daunting.
Sbisa does about as well by shot-metrics as he does any other underlying number. Which isn’t overly encouraging, given that the team performed considerably better with Sbisa off the ice, than on. Among Canuck regulars, only Bo Horvat surrendered more SA/60 than Sbisa. That said, his SF60 is about middle of the pack, so there’s something for Sbisa to hang his hat on, I suppose.
At 25-years old, it’s becoming increasingly likely that what you see is what you get with Sbisa. Generally speaking, players should have reached their peak by now – or be close to it, anyways. I’m willing to leave a margin for error where Sbisa is concerned, though, given that taller players generally take longer to develop and this is especially true of defenceman. Even so, I can’t imagine that the ceiling is significantly better than what he currently is by any means.
At best, the Canucks might be able to develop Sbisa into a third-pairing or replacement level defender. He hardly makes the grade for either mark now, so we’re not exactly reaching for the stars here. Forget “top-four,” it simply isn’t happening.
For Sbisa to develop into an adequate NHL defender, he will have to take massive strides forward next season. He’ll likely have to attempt as much alongside a rookie defender or a newcomer in Matt Bartkowski. When he’s not riding shotgun to these newcomers, he’ll likely be fending them off, one at a time.
The Canucks coaching staff will have to start by simplifying the game for Sbisa. On a personal level, I could not be more diametrically opposed to defenders of the “glass and out” variety, but to mitigate Sbisa’s shortcomings, I think Vancouver will have to take this approach with their project defender next season. It’s not ideal by any means, but at this point it might be the best option they have.
If given the time and space, Sbisa will find a way to skate or pass himself into trouble. If the Canucks can slow down the game for Sbisa, he might be able to not-fail. Again, not exactly reaching for the stars, but isn’t that what the Canucks are all about now, anyways?