Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports
At this point it’s hard to imagine the Vancouver Canucks deciding to send their leading goal scorer back to junior. In the unlikely event that the club does decide to sent 2014 first-round draft pick Jared McCann back East to winter in the Soo though, it will be because of his still iffy defensive play.
McCann, 19, wasn’t supposed to be leading the team in scoring. He wasn’t even supposed to be in the NHL. The teenaged centre has exceeded expectations for the past couple of months though, and now it seems impossible to imagine that the Canucks would elect not to utilize the first year of his entry-level deal.
On Friday night McCann scored a mammoth tally – his fifth goal in nine games – to open the scoring against the Arizona Coyotes. It was a goal-scorers goal, a remarkable display of pure skill and an exclamation mark on McCann’s increasingly strong case for remaining in the show past the 10-game mark. From the horses mouth, one hell of a quote:
McCann on scoring in Game No. 9: “It leaves no doubts.” #Canucks
— Brad Ziemer (@BradZiemer) October 31, 2015
That’s great stuff. If you’re a Canucks fan, you have to love this young man’s confidence.
The only remaining suspense regarding McCann’s fate, really, is whether or not head coach Willie Desjardins buys that his defensive game can hold up in the NHL. Well, that and the organization’s concerns about whether McCann, who weights 180 pounds soaking wet, can hold up physically over the course of a full season.
Of late though Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins, who is still reluctant to play McCann late in the third period of close games as evidenced by Thursday night’s game in Dallas, has discussed McCann’s lack of defensive quality at length.
“You can send him back,” Willie said in answer to a question about whether McCann could be sent back earlier this week, by way of Jason Botchford of the Vancouver Province. “f you look at the (Montreal Canadiens’) opportunities (in Tuesday night’s 5-1 Canucks in). He was on the ice for the goal they scored. You have to be able to defend.
“But I do think he’s getting better defending. If he was absolutely awful on his D, even if he was scoring it wouldn’t matter.
“How do you play a guy if he can’t defend? You can’t play him late in a game. But his defending has been okay. He hasn’t been bad at defending.”
To the eyes McCann looks like he has mature level of defensive awareness. His positioning is generally pretty good, and he certainly works hard on the back check. The on-ice results have been less than stellar though.
In even-strength situations the Canucks are giving up shots against at a way higher rate with McCann on the ice than they’re surrendering with any other forward on the sheet. It isn’t even close. Vancouver’s opposition is generating over 38 shots per 60 minutes on 5-on-5 ice time, which is a ghastly number. Relative to the performance of the rest of the team, McCann’s defensive results by this metric are the third worst among forwards in the NHL so far, according to hockeyanalysis.com.
The Canucks are outscoring the opposition with McCann on the ice at even strength, but that’s largely the result of favourable bounces at both ends of the rink (McCann’s combined on-ice shooting and save percentage sits at 107.4). Even though McCann’s on-ice save percentage is sky high, the Canucks are still surrendering goals against at a very high rate when he’s on the ice.
When regression hits, which it will, the Canucks will likely begin to bleed goals against with McCann on the ice if his two-way results don’t improve significantly over the balance of the campaign (assuming they keep him, of course).
There is some good news here. McCann is playing a premium position with a high level of defensive responsibility, and he’s only 19-years-old. His early season struggles in this area are entirely expected.
In fact, Bo Horvat was the Canucks’ single worst player by team relative shot differential a year ago, and his results in the first half of the year were particularly troublesome. He’s figured it out, and is now Desjardins’ preferred defensive centreman. The learning curve for very young NHL centreman is a real thing.
And anyway McCann’s offensive value surely outweighs his defensive issues. A good portion of McCann’s hot goal scoring act is the result of fortunate bounces – he’s shooting 31.3 percent which, yeah, isn’t going to last even if his wrist shot is hot fire – but his healthy shot rate is a positive indicator. As is the fact that the Canucks are generating shots at a higher rate with McCann on the ice than they are with any other forwards aside from the first line and also Sven Baertschi.
The Canucks should keep McCann past the ninth game. As McCann convincingly said on Friday, there’s really no doubt that he’s ready to play and contribute at this level.
If Desjardins’ continues to be skeptical about McCann’s play on the defensive side of the puck and monitors his young forward’s minutes in the third period of close games, well, that would be a well founded tactical choice as well. Especially as McCann works through the two-way growing pains that are inevitable for a 19-year-old centreman at the NHL level.