Canucks’ McCann has left no doubt, but Desjardins is right to be concerned about his defense

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:

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.

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“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

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. 

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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.

  • pheenster

    Not sure the Horvat/McCann early struggles comparison holds up. Horvat was tethered to Dorsett’s side till January. He rarely had the benefit of quality line mates. McCann started the year between Hansen and Burrows – more or less the ideal wingers to help a young centre drive play – and they still got slaughtered.

  • Larionov18

    Keep McCann. The defensive side of the game can be taught. Skill can’t. The kid can score goals, which the Canucks desperately needed early in the season.

    There is something to be said about youthful enthusiasm. It rubs off on the older guys.

    Willies concern about his physical durability isn’t valid. Young guys can deal with just about anything. It’s older guys that can’t.

    Keep him.

  • Larionov18

    It the end it does not matter what WD thinks. The move to keep the young guns including McCann is also a business decision. The Canucks need to strengthen their fan base and corresponding revenues in preparation for selling the team.

    The Aqualini’s (cant spell that for the life of me) want out and having a solid foundation of youth backstopping revenues with fans hopeful for the future is a cash flow positive mindset and also a prudent business move.

    Remember this is a business and will be managed accordingly.

    Mr R

  • Larionov18

    What is truly puzzling is how Coach Willie was portrayed when he took the Canucks job?

    He was a hockey lifer that did things the right way and was a teacher at heart. Now when did this narrative become Tortian in his refusal to play young players and describeMcCann in negative terms, when obviously he has been a huge surprise to this club.

    Expectations are fine, but lay off. The kid is leading the team in goals and you think going back to Juniors and defending future car sales men will be his leap to stardom. Do what you said was your essential skill and teach the young guys how to play the position and have some patience. How many vets are such well rounded hockey plYers.

    • BuffaloBillsOfHockey

      If you’ve seen any interviews with mcann he says how much the coaching staff has been teaching him. They know way more then any of us on the outside. They’ll know if he’s ready or not. They kept bo because he was ready they’ll do the same with any other young player.

  • Larionov18

    McCann should stay and Virtanen returned.
    Virtanen can skate, shoot and hit, but he doesn’t have good hockey vision for the play. Another year in junior will hopefully make him a better playmaker.

    Ehlers is 4-4-8 in scoring with 15 minutes playing time. Virtanen is 0-2-2 in nine sheltered minutes. Virtanen can hit but you win with talent. Also, Canucks have the best Danish connections of all NHL teams.

    • BuffaloBillsOfHockey

      Why, for the love of all things holy, are we trying to force a square peg into a round hole by changing Virtanen into more of a playmaker?

      For years we’ve really only had Daniel as a pure sniper, albeit one year of Vrbata; Old 17 was more of a puck hog/black hole. All this while us fans yelled at the Canucks players from our couches/chairs to shoot the damn puck rather than make that cute extra pass.

      We need snipers, finally have what looks like a couple good ones in our system (McCann, Virtanen, Boeser). Tee it up boys….

  • Larionov18

    Willie is not an NHL coach as evidenced by his consistent insistence on sending out pluggers in the third period to play zone defence instead of aggressively in the offense. No try in the NHL WD. Go back to junior.

  • Larionov18

    Willy Desjardins should be sent to junior again,lol!

    Look on a 5 on 3 or 3 on 3 we should see what this kid McCann has to offer! A great quick release,leading the team in goal production with zero powerplay time. Remember last yr and Shawn Mattias? He had zero pp time and was second on team next to Vrbata in goal output.
    Worried about defense? Instead of playing kitty bar the door blown 3rd period leads hoe about trying to go for the jugular and knock teams out when we have the lead?

    Willy would rather put Dorsett or Hansen out before the kids in an offensive advantage. Doesn,t that say a lot right there.

  • Larionov18

    McCann’s unexpected offense makes this a tough call.

    I certainly am concerned about his bleeding shots to the opposition and his slight build risks him being ground down or injured over the course of an NHL season. If it weren’t for the offense, the easy call would be to sen him back to Junior with instructions to hit the weight room and report to camp next season at 190+.

    But his scoring makes it almost impossible to send him down – even though there’s a risk of ruining him, a la every Oilers’ prospect.

    I suspect he stays, but gets bolted to a good defensive player for most of the season to learn good habits.

    Jake, I’m less worried about. As he has NHL size going for him.

  • Dirty30

    Here’s a simple metric — who’s playing better than McCann? Vey? We’ve seen that gong show Willie … Over and over and over again. Sven? Not a Centre so not gonna fill that spot even if he starts scoring or defending?

    Are you going to release the Kracken to light it up out there?

    By all means manage McCannns minutes to keep him safe and rested. But the kid has moves and brains we haven’t seen in a prospect in some time and unless WD has a route picked out to go with his prom dress what the heck is wrong with playing an exciting young prospect?

  • BuffaloBillsOfHockey

    I remember another very young Canucks center from years back who had a lot of people concerned that he was all flash and offensive upside with no ability to play defense. His name is Henrik Sedin.

    Get your heads cooled off and on straight, guys: McCann is 19 years old and he’s played in nine NHL games. Or do I need to pull out ol’ Small Sample Size Fallacy the deceased horse from the stables and beat him again?