The Sedins watch from the bench as Derek Dorsett takes another offensive zone start, probably.
Watching Canucks games these days can be a bit of a chore given the lineup they ice on a nightly basis. The resurgence of Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi certainly helps matters, but for the most part, I’m just here for the Sedinery. On too many nights this season, it seems like I’m drifting in and out of games, bearing witness to seemingly endless shifts of Derek Dorsett and Brandon Prust, waiting for the sweet relief of the twins’ ageless magic.
Often it seems as though this could be some psychological trick. Does time slow down when I’m forced to watch Dorsett and company muck around and speed up when the twins do their thing, similar to a work day that stretches on beyond measure and a night out with your friends that slips by too fast?
Unfortunately, our eyes are not deceiving us. Willie Desjardins is doing some odd things with his player deployment and it’s getting on my nerves.
Perhaps I could have chosen a more delicate title, but this is something that I’m passionate about. I spend so much of my free time obsessing over the game I love and I’m feeling more than a little short-changed.
The problem is simple: I want to see the Sedins work their magic. I am and always have been an unabashed Sedin supporter. This team could capsize and sink straight to the bottom of the sea and I’d still be there watching every second of it waiting for just a glimpse of wonder twin powers. A couple months back, I gave some unsolicited advice regarding how to tank in style and one of the tenants involves making sure your star players are still performing to the best of their ability when the rest of the team is performing well below average. That’s how you keep the fans engaged when things are going poorly.
There is a multitude of ways to increase the likelihood of success for your best players. A number of years ago some of these methods seemed groundbreaking and impressive – now they are commonplace. So when an NHL coach refuses to take advantage of these methods, it’s incredibly frustrating.
I’m not the first person to notice that the Sedins are not being utilized in an optimal fashion. Hell, I’m joining a pretty long line of fans and analysts who have voiced their opinion on this matter. Daniel Wagner of Pass It to Bulis noted how frequently Derek Dorsett plays when the Canucks are down a man, and our very own Petbugs recently chastised Willie Desjardins’ player deployment decisions in late and close situations. Even more damning, both regional and national broadcasters have noted these issues during the games themselves; John Shorthouse and John Garrett did so during the Arizona game and Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson during the Tampa Bay game. If I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned “I don’t know why the Sedins aren’t out right now”, I could stop going to work and do this writing thing full-time.
It’s all the more frustrating that the aforementioned techniques were the bread and butter of the coaching staff two previous the current iteration – the ones employed during the years in which the Sedins were the most dangerous players in the league. Some people even threw shade on the Sedins, suggesting that they only put up such massive point totals because of the way they were deployed, to which I would say “so what?”. Why wouldn’t you put your best players in the best position to succeed? That’s just common fricken sense.
Yet here we are in 2016, with Willie Desjardins making deployment decisions so irrational, I’m beginning to think that he’s the secret lieutenant of #TankNation. He can’t possibly be playing to win games when Derek Dorsett plays a greater percentage of time that the twins when the Canucks are down a goal. He can’t seriously be trying to encourage goal scoring when his best players sit on the bench for 10-plus minutes of real time.
And yet. Here. We. Are.
Each game has its head shaking moments, but Saturday’s tilt against the Lightning was the pinnacle for me. It seemed that nearly every time an advantageous opportunity came up to get the Sedins some extra ice time, they were nowhere to be found. Sure, the twins were in and around the region of their average ice time – Henrik played 21:00 minutes while Daniel played 18:21. Of course, that’s the grand total including overtime. During regulation, it looked like this:
You could make the argument that Henrik’s ice time is still within the realm of reason, but having your leading goal scorer and point-getter playing less than 17 minutes in regulation seems less than advisable to me.
But wait, it gets worse! Both of the Sedins spent more than two minutes killing penalties on Saturday, well above their season average and easily the most time they’ve spent on the penalty kill this season. Once shorthanded time is removed, we’re left with this:
I shouldn’t have to say it, but this is not real good.
This isn’t to say that I don’t think the Sedins are effective penalty killers – in fact, I think their ability to keep the puck away from opponents makes them two of the best penalty killers on the team. But make no mistake: the twins were not out there killing penalties because they’re good at it. They were killing penalties because Willie Desjardins routinely failed to get them out at even strength, due to a plethora of questionable deployment decisions.
There are three areas which I would like to focus on regarding this topic: offensive zone starts, shifts after icings, and shifts after TV timeouts and other delays.
Offensive Zone Starts
Back when Alain Vigneault ran the bench, Henrik and Daniel Sedin started their shifts in the offensive zone so frequently that it was borderline ridiculous. But who would complain? They used this opportunity to feast on their opposition, each topping the 100-point mark a single time.
To be fair, Willie Desjardins hasn’t ignored this method completely. The Sedins are still leading the team in fraction of offensive zone starts versus defensive zone starts (ZSO%):
This deserves a small commendation though it still pales in comparison to the advantages that they used to be granted (in 2011-12, the Sedins’ ZSO% hovered around an incredible 80 per cent). An argument can be made that their presence is required a little more often in the defensive zone these days given the general lack of skill on the other lines, particularly in the faceoff dot. If for any reason Bo Horvat isn’t available to take an important defensive zone draw, they pretty much have to send out Henrik.
Even during the Tampa Bay game on Saturday, there were positive signs: Henrik Sedin started eight shifts in the offensive zone compared to three in the defensive zone, at five-on-five. The following chart shows when they occurred, the reason for the stoppage, and which line was on before Henrik came out to take the faceoff.
The chart shows us that Henrik had eight offensive zone starts. Twice, he was already on the ice, so all Willie Desjardins had to do was not pull them off the ice. Six times, the Sedin replaced another line for a draw in the offensive zone.
Kudos! He’s learning!
Oh. Wait. Nope.
On all six of those occasions, the Sedins were the next line in the rotation. Once Linden Vey and Adam Cracknell swapped lines early in the game, the deployment rotation followed this pattern incessantly during five-on-five play:
On the three times that the Sedin line took over for the Vey line during the first and second periods, Linden Vey had already been on the ice for at least 40 seconds – already longer than his average shift length of 36 seconds, meaning that there wouldn’t even have been a second thought to changing the line. In the third period, his shifts prior to the change were slightly shorter, so perhaps this is where I give my congratulations.
Thank you, Willie Desjardins, for pulling Linden Vey off the ice after only 24 seconds to grant Henrik Sedin an offensive zone draw.
The final occurrence seems like a deviation, as the Sedin line comes on after the Cracknell line at the 17:50 mark of the third period. The explanation? It was a close and late situation and Linden Vey’s line was no longer receiving regular shifts, thus the Sedin line followed the Cracknell line in the rotation.
The cold hard truth is this: none of Henrik Sedin’s eight offensive zone starts broke Willie Desjardins’ line rotation. He was simply next in line.
Shifts After Icings
Icings were basically covered in the previous section, given that they are always offensive zone starts per the rules, but this deserves extra emphasis.
This seems like another no-brainer: using your best offensive players against tired defenders who have just iced the puck. Throughout their careers, one of the twins’ greatest weapons has been wearing opponents and taking advantage of the mistakes they make when they’re tired. It’s a fundamental part of how they’ve built their legacies.
Despite that, it’s unsettling how often we see any other line come out after the opponent ices the puck.
One might think that there must be an alternative explanation. Perhaps the Sedins were just on the ice and required a rest themselves? Sadly, that excuse is not usable nearly enough.
On Saturday night, there were thirteen icing calls. The lines before and after played out as follows:
Tampa Bay icing calls are highlighted to clarify when the Canucks had the ability to make line changes. On the surface, this doesn’t seem so bad. The Sedins started in the offensive zone five times following the icings, but as we saw above, this was a product on the line rotations rather than a strategic effort.
Just to top it off, note that the other two occasions that Vancouver players changed lines following Tampa Bay icings went as follows: Horvat to Cracknell, and Sedin to Horvat. Once again, following the rotation. The bottom line: the Tampa Bay Lightning iced the puck eight times on Saturday and Willie Desjardins broke his line rotation on exactly zero of those occasions.
I’d love to give Willie Desjardins credit for using icings to his advantage, and it almost looked like he had, but I won’t do so if he arrives there purely on luck.
Shifts After TV Timeouts/Delays
This one bothers me above and beyond the rest. A TV timeout is like a free reset that each team is granted three times per period, per game. For two minutes the players on both sides gather at the benches for a bout of banter while we on our couches are inundated with Boston Pizza commercials and video documentation of Mark Messier’s ongoing stalking of Connor McDavid.
During running game time, that is virtually the same as three shifts, assuming no play stoppages. This means that players finishing a shift at the time the TV timeout begins would have roughly the same amount of rest as they would if play had never stopped and the coach rolled the other three lines. This means that players could take the shift following a TV timeout even if they were on the ice prior to its occurrence and still have a reasonable rest. Okay, maybe you don’t want to make a habit of that, but how about late in close games?
Not to mention, if said skilled players weren’t on the ice before the TV timeout began, there’s really no reason not to upset the rotation and sneak them in for an extra shift. Unless of course you’re rolling lines so religiously that to deviate from your predictable and premeditated cycle makes your mustache twirl faster than it does when Alex Edler taking six minutes in penalties in a seven-minute span.
Last game, there were nine TV timeouts, as per usual. The following chart shows which lines were on the ice before and after each timeout.
As you can see, the Sedins took to the ice just on just two of the nine faceoffs following TV timeouts. The first such incident followed a Tampa Bay penalty, and with the Vey line drawing the infraction, the first power play unit would, of course, take the ice. The second such case occurred in the third period when the Sedin line was on the ice both before and after the final TV timeout. I’d praise this decision, but the TOI charts show that Henrik Sedin took the ice at 15:58 of the third period, just ten seconds before the timeout took place.
In most other cases, Willie is simply putting out the next line in his ceaseless rotation. The most unfortunate decision occurred in the second period. Following a TV timeout at the 13:56 mark, Desjardins iced the line of Adam Cracknell, Derek Dorsett and Brandon Prust, rather than the Sedin line despite the fact the Horvat line had finished the shift before the timeout.
20 seconds of play later, the Canucks’ fourth line iced the puck, which was then followed by an extended break used to fix a crack in one of the glass panes. This extra rest could have been a gift from the heavens, a free break for your top line to continue to get more ice time. As a result of placing the Cracknell line on the ice after a TV timeout, combined with some unforeseen circumstances, the Sedin twins were left sitting on the bench for more than ten minutes of real time.
Why you would ever think to deploy that line following a TV timeout is beyond me; they are literally the three least skilled players on the team. The fact that all of this occurred on home ice, where the coach has last change, added to the disturbing nature of the spectacle. This is about as close as one can get to four-dimensional television at home, as I could practically feel Desjardins reaching through the television set and slap me across the face as if punishing me for continuing to watch his team.
I’m not here advocating for Willie to get canned. I think he has enough redeeming qualities that he should be granted a longer leash than this, particularly after what he managed to get out of his team last season. Even these player deployment issues seem overcomeable. I mean, all you have to do is send your best players onto the ice sheet more often. The question is, is he just unwilling to change his deployment, or unable to?
When it comes to head coaches, the grass is always greener on the other side. Firing the bench boss is one of the easiest things to do in pro sports, often done in the name of enacting change. I can give no guarantee that another coach could coax more goals or wins out of this team given its initial construction, adherence to youth, and the injuries it has sustained. In fact, sitting at 42 points in 42 games actually seems rather impressive.
All the same, when the kids get good and things get serious, I sincerely hope that Willie has learned a few things. Another playoff series like the one last April against Calgary – where the twins are receiving well below their regular season average allotment of ice time in the campaign’s most important games – will have me pulling my hair out.
If he cannot eradicate these problems by the time the Canucks are ready to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup, he simply cannot be trusted to handle that team.