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.
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.
— Money Puck (@MoneyPuck_) November 29, 2015
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.