Luca Sbisa’s Unique Skills Aren’t Helping and Weren’t Missed

At some point, you have to feel for Luca Sbisa. For all the abuse he takes in this market, Sbisa seems like a genuinely nice guy. Not to mention, just as it appeared as though the maligned Suisse defender was turning the corner this season, the injury bug took hold and derailed an otherwise encouraging start – all things being relative, of course.

One of the less expected side-effects to this extended absence has been a yearning for what Sbisa brings to the Canucks lineup. Tops on the list are physicality, nastiness and the ability to separate the opposition from the puck. Qualities you’d want in a defender, old and new school thinkers alike.

How much value do these unique, anecdotal skills bring to the table, though? 

It’s often remarked that defenders are rivalled only by goaltenders in terms of the divide between observational and quantitative analysis. It’s hard to really make out what makes a player like Dan Girardi so inept at suppressing shots; it’s often the little things that add up in the bigger picture. The blocked shots and occasional hit, though, grab your attention almost immediately.

It makes it hard to weigh the importance of these qualities in the grander scheme of things, relative to the more subtle skills otherwise lacking. They’re evident more often, often mean less and always stick out when looking back on any given game. I can remember Jake Virtanen’s bone crushing hit on Connor McDavid at the Youngstars Tournament, but I can’t remember the breakout passes Virtanen did or didn’t make himself available for.

The trap is easy enough to fall into and almost everyone has at one point or another. The list includes Jim Benning, who went at length to describe what Sbisa brought to the Canucks lineup in an interview with TSN 1040 on Monday.

“Well.. for the most part I thought we were good at.. a lot of the shots were from outside. And if there was a rebound… I think having Luca back in the game helped us around the net, being physical and taking their guys out from getting second and third opportunities to score. Once we get our injured players back and we get our team up and going I think we’ll see where we’re at. I think we’ll be able to compete in most games.”

It’s not an unfair observation to make. Sbisa’s best attributes are his speed and physicality. Why wouldn’t one assume this makes Sbisa exceptionally good at taking away space in close? Well, you know what they say about assumptions.

This theory was put to the test by Matt Cane at www.Hockey-Graphs.com. In short, Cane looked to find out which defencemen did the best at preventing what he described as “follow-up shots”. A follow-up shot being any shot-attempt taken immediately after a landed shot on goal. Sbisa is a full two standard deviations from league average in terms of initial shot attempts against and follow-up shot attempts against per sixty minutes. 

So, while we can surmise that Benning has isolated and identified a useful skill, our ability to check these theories using readily available data suggests he’s picked the wrong defender to get behind. Halfway there, really.

Similarly, Thomas Drance observed at Sportsnet a few months ago that Sbisa is exceptionally good at separating the opposition from the puck. A skill otherwise lacking in the Canucks lineup.

The Canucks, for example, rank in the bottom 10 in defensive-zone hits that successfully separate opponents from the puck, according to Sportlogiq. Luca Sbisa, however, ranks 11th among defensemen who’ve logged at least 150 even strength minutes by this category.

continued…

The 25-year-old Swiss-born defenceman is also among the 10 best defenders in hockey when it comes to completing defensive-zone passes, according to Sportlogiq.

I remain highly skeptical of Sportlogiq’s data in general. All the more so when I compare Sbisa’s supposed ability to complete defensive zone passes, against the data manually tracked by Dimitri Filipovic. Were Sbisa such an excellent passer from the confines of his own end, surely he wouldn’t have the highest failed attempt percentage exiting the zone on the team. 

What matters though is the impact that these anecdotal skills have towards outscoring your opponent. Were these unique and highly sought after abilities added value in the grand scheme of things, this would show in the Canucks ability to create a net positive environment for goal differential with Sbisa on the ice. It doesn’t matter if Sbisa can separate opposing players from the puck, any more than it would if Sbisa were exceptionally good at skating on one leg if it doesn’t create an environment wherein his team can outscore the opposition.

Clearing the crease, separating players from the puck and disrupting the forecheck all have added value that you can observe in short term results. It might very well be the difference in one goal here or there. Maybe even a few over the course of a season.

Inherently, though, one has to be chasing the puck to put these skills to use and the fact remains that Sbisa has done that far too often this season for the Canucks to really “miss him” in the traditional sense. Among Canucks defenders who’ve skated in 21 or more games, only Alex Biega has a worse score-adjusted Corsi For%, with 43.4% to Sbisa’s 44.67%. 

It’s great to know what is happening, but more important to know what actually matters. We care about shot attempts because they lead to favorable goal differential. Sticking in that vein, we care about zone exits and entries because they have a huge impact on your ability to tilt the field by that metric. Until we can say for certain that Sbisa’s unique abilities help move the needle by either regard, I think it’s fair to question the value in what’s brought to the table.

  • Squibbles

    I guess grammar isn’t a requirement when you’re a blogger.

    I still don’t mind Sbisa. It’s a team in transition and they’re developing youth. They also have vets that are, for the most part, beyond their prime years. If Sbisa had better talent around him then he would be better; we still have Bartkowski and Weber around and they are struggling.

    I’m not saying Sbisa is great nor will be win a Norris. What I am saying is he’s still young and I don’t mind seeing if he turns into a player. We’re not competing for a Cup and I don’t see the point in making the playoffs and getting bounced in round 1. Let the team develop and see if our next wave of youth can make us contenders.

    I think we have lots of young talent. I’d like to see them add a #1 centre of the future and another potential top pairing D man.

    • There’s a serious problem with the logic in this post: You seem to be suggesting that the Canucks are inherently bad, or inherently a rebuilding team, and not that they’re bad because of players on the team like Sbisa.

      The Canucks are bad because the roster is full of middling players on bad contracts. If you took all the money Benning has spent on mediocre or bad players and used it to bring better players into the organization, this could very well be a decent team. The money they have wrapped up in Prust, Dorsett, Sbisa, and Miller could be used to sign two or three genuine star players. Heck, just the money they have committed to Sbisa and Miller next year would probably cover 90% of the contract Steve Stamkos is going to get.

      Also, stop with the “Sbisa could still turn into something” nonsense. He’s 25. He’s in his sixth full season in the NHL. He is almost certainly in his prime. Could he be an outlier and actually peak at 27 or 28? Sure, but that peak is not going to be anything higher than “okay third pairing guy”.

      • Cageyvet

        Well, allow me to clarify. Most of our players are not great right now. We hope our young guns (Bo, McCann, Sven, Hutton, Etem, Vrtanen, Sbisa etc) turn into very good players. I think they will but that’s not a certainty.

        So, our young guys are developing = not great right now. We have some vets and they are there as stop gaps to teach the kids and allow us to be competitive. These vets are not great (other than the Sedins). So, yes, the current roster is at the middling level. These are the lumps you have to take when developing youth. Its unavoidable. We’ll find out what we have and move on.

        There is no way Benning is making this team a contender anytime soon. Sorry. Not happening. This team will is mediocre and will be for a while. Gillis didn’t leave us with much and it’s really showing right now.

        • You’re making the same mistake again. The Canucks have a legitimate top line in the Sedins and Hansen/Vrbata/Burrows, and a legitimate top defensive pairing in Edler/Tanev (all either signed or re-signed by Gillis). There are young players in Utica who could be contributing right now, or will be contributing in the next season or two – Shinkaruk, Grenier, Gaunce, and Subban (all Gillis picks). Hutton and Horvat are making meaningful contributions (Gillis picks) right now. McCann is contributing, while Virtanen is doing a whole lot of nothing.

          Benning has pissed away useful players like Lack, Richardson, Matthias, Corrado, and Garrison. The team is bad because, as you note, the kids aren’t ready to carry a full load yet, and there’s not enough legitimate talent above them. My point was that Benning had the ability to bring in or retain legitimate talent, and chose players like Sbisa and Prust instead, which is bad management and has resulted in the team being where they are now.

          Imagine a Canucks team where Benning retained Lack, Richardson, Matthias, and Corrado instead of Dorsett, Prust, Miller, and Sbisa. The four retained players I listed are all superior to the four Benning chose to keep. The team would also have $7-$8 million in cap space with which they could sign a top line scoring winger or elite two-way centreman to play behind Henrik, pushing Horvat down to the third-line role he’s more suited to at 20. Or they could have signed another genuine top-four defenceman instead of the Bartkowski/Sbisa/Weber trainwreck the team has going on now, with enough money left over to sign another scoring top-six winger. Also, this isn’t just “hindsight” – all these moves were criticized at the time, all these arguments were made at the time, and all have borne themselves out.

          Benning has been running the team for almost two years now. Aside from the top line/top pairing talent, most of players on the team are his acquisitions or players he has chosen to retain. This is his team, and it’s not a very good one, because of the poor decisions noted above.

          • Dirty30

            Yeah, sorry, no, no and no. Give me a break. The Canucks do NOT have a legitimate top line. The Sedins are excellent regular season players. All-Star type stuff. Hansen is not; a very useful player but he is not a top 6 player. Get real. Vrbata is older and OK during the regular season but, like the Sedins, cannot carry the weight of line 1 responsibilities during the playoffs. Burrows is well beyond his prime and isn’t really a top 6 guy on a contending team.

            So, in your infinite wisdom, you think all of the guys noted in Utica could be good, right now, in the NHL. Yeah, I’ll disagree with you for sure on that one. It’s called developing your players. Oh, news flash, most people wait until players contribute and do something in the NHL before calling them good NHLers. Give me a break!

            If I had to pick a playoff team and had to pick between Lack or Miller,it’d be Miller. All day and any day. Corrado can’t even crack the Leafs lineup so stop with that crap. I’d take Dorsett over Matthias (need the edge and heart plus he is decent on the PK), Richardson is very replaceable and Garrison was ridiculously overpaid by Gillis. You’re just making yourself look bad with that commentary. Those players we had are gone and aren’t really key contributors. They’re all replacement level guys.

            I think you’re delusional if you think Gillis would have done better. Gillis was here for 7 years or so and never drafted a top pairing D man or a top 6 forward. He never drafted a forward, after round 1, that played in the NHL. He made some horrid trades. He then re-signed some key guys and planted them with no trade clauses so we are hamstrung when we try and deal older players for good assets (Kesler, Garrison, Bieksa).

            You’re at the level of NoMind00 with that logical post. The more I look at your post, the more I think you have no idea what you’re talking about. You don’t even recognize how Benning was handcuffed by the stupidity of Gillis. Unreal.

          • You’re picking and choosing the Benning moves you dislike and taking for granted the Benning moves you like (or should like).

            Let’s deduct Vrbata, Miller, Prust, Sbisa, Dorsett, Sutter and give you $23 million in cap space.

            You also get Lack, Corrado & Kassian back.

            But you also have an aging Kesler, Bieksa, Garrison on the books with NTC.

            That pretty much blows into your cap space right there.

            You also don’t have Baertschi, McCann & Vey as these were the kinds guys that could only be acquired by moving veterans on NTC and getting picks back.

            Would you feel better off with Kesler, Bieksa, Garrison, Lack, Corrado & Kassian as opposed to Vrbata, Miller, Sutter, Prust, Sbisa, Dorsett, McCann, Vey & Baertschi?

            Would you rather Horvat & espescially Hutton not have the roster spots that may have gone to veterans?

            Depending on free agents like Stamkos to build your team is a fool’s game.

          • Dirty30

            I am fairly new to this analytical view of hockey so bare with me please. I have found some “advanced stats” to be useful resourse for evaluating players over long term, but some stats i file under information purposes only.

            Now, in your quote above you mention Benning pissed away useful players…..& Garrison. So I checked back on some corsi stats and find Garrison rated #223 of 237, so being new to this stats stuff I thought maybe he wasn’t as bad as i thought (he never passed my eye test ever). Then I re-read the title for the corsi stat & it was for worst defensemen corsi.
            So does this make him the 223rd worst of 237, which I would call 14th best or does this mean only 14 other defenseman were worse than him?

          • Dirty30

            Preach it, brothah Goon!

            There are very good reasons to be upset with how the team has been run the past few years.

            It’s like watching Colbert’s old character run the team. He’s going to trade for Prust and Dorsett. Why?

            He can feel it in his GUT! They’ll be great!

          • Dirty30

            I disagree that this years team and the long-term development of the prospects would be better off if Lack, Richardson, Matthias, and Corrado were on the team instead of Dorsett, Prust, Miller, and Sbisa. In reality, the Canucks would be in the same spot (with respect to the standings) with a bunch of guys that play the same positions as the prospects the team is trying to develop. The players you want to get rid of fill a 2 to 3 year stop gap, where as the players you think the team should have kept would just be blocking the prospects.

            Shinkaruk, Grenier, Gaunce, and Subban all need AHL seasoning; you could argue the same about McCann and Virtanen but they can’t play in the AHL so, being closely monitored by the team is the next best thing. Benning has said clearly that over the long-term he wants prospects to over season at the AHL level, getting to that point does not happen over night. At the moment he is building up prospect depth and cap space…which by this summer will be greatly improved compared to any other time in recent history.

            Also, without getting rid of Garrison the Canucks don’t get Vrbata and without signing Miller all the pressure is on guys like Lack and Markstrom (which didn’t work out so well for Markstrom in Florida).

    • Cageyvet

      Naturally, your comments receive more trashes than props. That’s a given on this site. I feel that much of the fan base let’s the media lead them around instead of forming their own opinions. Sticking up for Sbisa, even marginally, pretty much guarantees you a negative response.

      Hamhuis was brutal, especially compared to his role, for much of this year. Edler is a crap-shoot on any given night as to whether he’s good or bad. Bartkowski can post a -4 in a 4-1 game and barely get mentioned. Weber, an offensive defenseman (please don’t tell me he’s a defensive stalwart) can go with zero points for a dozen games, and that’s no big deal. Tanev, after signing his deal last year, looked like a different (not in a good way) player for 15+ games.

      None of these things seem worth mentioning. Sbisa got more grief when he was on the bench and we were going 2-15 or something ludicrous like that than these players, and as soon as he comes back, he’s the problem again.

      I give up. Thank goodness these so-called fans don’t have any say in the direction management takes.

  • Squibbles

    In this market Benning is portrayed as a scouting deity, which is funny because he doesn’t have a scouting record that puts him at the peak of the industry, he’s tasked with being a GM, and that’s about all that is said of him.

    And then you read his take on Sbisa.

  • Squibbles

    I glanced through the two zone exit tracking articles and it wasn’t clear to me what an in-zone pass is counted as. When a D man passes to the other defender is that a pass-out? If that’s the case does the defender receiving the pass also get a zone exit attempt or is it all counted under one umbrella?

    Or is a pass to the opposite D not a zone exit attempt, in which case Sbisa’s propensity to fob the puck off to the other side and force his partner to make the exit attempt fudging the numbers (for or against?) him?

  • Dirty30

    Mised? Really? How could someone “miss” something that obvious in a headline.

    My view of Sbisa is that the problem is not so much his crap play but what he is getting paid for such crap play.

    Its one thing when Bartowski makes a mistake as he is on a one year contract for a reasonable salary and can be dumped for whatever whenever.

    Weber is also a reasonable salary and same situation as Bart — dump at no great loss.

    Sbisa has salary and contract that far outweigh his play and his trade value. He finds positioning to be difficult, waffles the puck likes its fresh from a urinal and makes outlet passes that turn the opposition plodders into snipers.

    If he was dude #7 on the depth chart and we had some really great guys in front of him, his salary was closer to Bart’s and his play was trending toward better, it would be fine.

    Benning has a blind-spot when it comes to evaluating Dmen and it shows most in his reluctance to resign Tanev and then did so at a discount that he then gave to Sbisa whom he sees as the next Great One.

  • Squibbles

    Thanks for an intelligent, quantitative piece in the old style CA vein. Keep it up.

    IMO, there has been a drift over the past few years from stuff like this, that made CA stand out, to more mainstream narrative pieces.

    That`s been reflective in the comments as well, with a increasing regression back to lazy narrative opinions trumping evidence.

  • Charlie Allnut

    How do you quantify something which is subjective to the attitude of the team, players on the ice and on the bench? This happens when Sbisa contributes in a way in which they greatly appreciate because it is unique and welcome like water in a desert. Not so many players have his ability, which is to rock an opponent with sheer physicality, strength and determination. It lifts a team through a psychological influence when it sees him do what they cannot, and which is done to them by the enemy. He has a rare capacity, not only on his team but around the league. So, who cares if he screws up a pass once and again. His team mates cut him the slack they feel he deserves, and that is immeasurable. That’s why he has the contract.

    • Charlie Allnut

      Except he doesn’t really do that. He has a hard time clearing his net, which is where his alleged physicality should shine. A bunch of teammates feeling sorry for him doesn’t mean a hill of beans when it comes to wins and losses.

      • Charlie Allnut

        Where was it said anywhere in my post that a bunch of teammates feel sorry for him? Maybe you can’t see the ice the same way you can’t read?

        And what do you mean Sbisa has a hard time clearing the front of the net? Where is that coming from? Analytics nerds? In today’s game don’t you realize how un-straightforward that task has become? Players are so much more athletic now in claiming position, and the rules more restraining in trying to act like Tim Horton in his prime.

        I’m tired of all these self-appointed money puck elitists out there Sbisa bashing. How would you like to be evaluated by a cyber cult you never see?. And who do you plan on running out of town next? Who praytell is replacing Sbisa, Phaneuf?

  • Full disclosure, I like Luca Sbisa. He seems like a nice person and I would be happy with him on the team as a 6/7/8th D earning a league minimum salary. The criticisms he receives are based on being signed to a long term deal and being paid as a top-4 D.

    The fact is that Biega, Weber, Bartkowski, Hutton and probably Fedun and Pedan (not to mention Corrado) are as good or better than Sbisa. They are also remunerated appropriately. He is not only overpaid but is taking up a roster spot and has an untradeable contract. It’s a problem.

    We are stuck with it unless we can frame him for a drug possession charge and Mike Richards him a la LA Kings.

    He’s not the only overpaid player on the team, so let’s at least be grateful that Prust will be off the roster by July 1st or, hopefully, earlier (unless JB is truly stupid and crazy and re-signs him).

    Great article! Nice to see a classic CA article: dispassionate, analytical, supported by empirical evidence and advancing a critical perspective that counters a popular narrative. Reminds me of the old Rhys-Drance-Charron days. Good job!

  • Dirty30

    I find it funny how a large section of this fan base continue to complain that the team is terrible but analyze the current players as if they are a part of a contending team (and further to that point believe Benning’s public statements of wanting to make the playoffs is proof that he thinks this team is a contender).

    Guys like Sbisa…and Dorsett…and Prust serve an important purpose on the current Canucks (i.e. a team in prospect development mode). Yes, Benning is not tanking but he is also putting development ahead of all else. His draft record shows that his long term view favours speed and skill (with size if possible) over truculence.

    Guys like Sbisa and Dorsett will be around for the next few years, not because they are world beaters, but because they provide support and room for the younger players. When the talent (accumulated by Benning) comes of age, more talented versions of Dorsett will be patrolling the fourth line.

    Teams don’t evolve over night but maintaining a winning culture, while developing prospects (in the AHL and the NHL), is better than a decade plus at the bottom. I have a feeling Benning is going to make a lot of people eat their words.

    • I agree with you about Dorsett and maybe even Sbisa but Prust seems to me to have lost that mantle of leadership through this last prima donna move and his general unremarkable play. I also tend to agree with a commenter above that for someone with vaunted grit skills Sbisa does an awful job of clearing the front of the net — that said he’s young and I totally disagree that he’s worse than Weber, Bartkowski or Biega; at least he seems to have more upside than any of them if he can put it together.

      I’d love to see a metric (if such a thing exists) that measures the amount of time a defenseman takes to make a pass or clear the zone. That’s one of my biggest concerns with Sbisa — when he is not playing well he takes too long to make decisions and reverses the puck when doesn’t need to, allows the forecheck to get in too quickly.

      The pluses with him are that he’s a big body who absorbs hits well (other than Edler and Tanev he seems to be the only one who doesn’t get bumped off the puck — even Hutton keeps it more though being good with his stick than his positioning) can skate and occasionally hits well. The knock on Sbisa in Anaheim was that he wouldn’t pick his spots with those but I haven’t seen that as a problem here. Maybe he is improving and we should give him the benefit of time to develop?

  • Dirty30

    The biggest difference with Sbisa this year and last is that he hasn’t been making the “brain fart” give aways we saw last year….

    Cut down the big mistakes that lead to goals and he has automatically improved

    • Cageyvet

      Good point. Where are those willing to point out that both Hamhuis and Edler, the “veteran stalwarts” on our blueline, have replaced Sbisa in the brain fart department?

      Watch the games without prejudice. Sbisa is not worth the current contract, but he has so much company on the blueline when it comes to mistakes it’s ludicrous to keep blaming him.

      Tanev and Hutton are the only 2 who have been consistent performers. Biega has shown promise, have a little patience there.

      This site has become so negative it’s a wonder I keep reading. The team is rebuilding, just as everyone said we should, but it’s bash, bash, bash. Fans? No wonder this town gets a bad rap around the league.

  • Not sure why commentor’s on this site are expecting miracles from Benning after 1 & 1/2 seasons. Taking over an aging team with empty cupboards is a difficult task for any GM. To question stop gap signings is always open for healthy debate, but you still need players to fill in those positions. Just because a fan favourite gets moved along (ie:Lack,Bieksa etc.) does not make a GM incompetent.

    If you take a look at the 2 most successful GM’s over last 10 years, Stan Bowman Chicago & Dean Lombardi LA Kings you will see that success for them comes through draft table and a few key trades along the way.

    Lombardi took over the Kings in 2006. His team was not even in playoffs for at least 3 seasons afterwards, but have won the Cup twice over the past few seasons. A major player for Kings Drew Doughty selected in draft in what was Lombardi”s 3rd Draft.

    Stan Bowman on the other hand took over as GM in 2009 & his team has won the Cup 3 times recently. Since 2000 Bowman though was Asst. GM or Director of Hockey Operations which means he would have been very active/influential in the drafting of the current stars on the Blackhawks. Again like the Kings noted above the team struggled before making it to playoffs then winning it all.

    Point being it takes several years to build a winner, not just a couple of drafts that several of the commentor’s on this site suggest.

  • At this point, I don’t even see it as ‘is he good or bad?’ but rather ‘what situation can he be put in where he can earn his contracts value?’
    Whether it’s analytics, the good ol’ eye test, or his mothers’ estimation of his abilities (he’s a good boy) I just don’t see as how he is ever going to justify the money spent. That part isn’t Sbisas’ fault. Maybe he grows into it, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe Benning really does believe he sees something no one else does (that’s his job after all). The way things stand I’m beginning to think that Sbisa is in a no win situation here (as are we all). If Benning really wants to impress he’ll take ownership of a failed experiment and work on turning water into wine.

    Or maybe I’m biased because I really don’t want to watch two and a half more years of pizza deliveries.