The Canucks are a team in the midst of a rebuild. No matter how long it took them to admit it, that’s the direction they’ve been going in for a long time. Part of that is a transition to youth and the jettisoning of older players, be it traded for futures (like Jason Garrison or Kevin Bieksa) or outright waived (like Chris Higgins and Brandon Prust).
One man who has clung on thus far is Alex Burrows, the versatile and once agitating winger with one of the greatest origin stories in the game. Despite playing his 750th NHL game last night, the 34-year old’s spot in the lineup is far from safe. But you won’t see any moping here. Even in what could be his final stretch as a Canuck, Alex Burrows is still a hell of a teammate.
After a renaissance season last year, Burrows’ production has tailed off considerably in 2015-16. With only eight goals so far, he’s just barely on pace to hit double digits in goals. There are a number of potential reasons for this reduction, and none of them have to do with effort level.
One such reason is his linemates. Not only has he played further down the lineup than he has in years past, but he’s had very little consistency in terms of who he has been lining up with.
Last season, Burrows saw his lowest average ice time in seven years, at just 15:29 per game. This season, his usage has dropped even further, averaging 15:09. However, the in season drop has been even more dramatic. In this graph from Micah McCurdy1, you can see Burrows’ ice time (in dark purple) plunge midway through the year as younger players – notably Linden Vey, Sven Baertschi, and Jake Virtanen – see large increases in their ice time.
More than anything it has been Burrows’ power play time that has been taken away and given to the youngsters. He started the year on the second unit before seeing time on the first unit in the middle of the the year. Lately he has been replaced entirely, as five out of the seven forwards on the latest iterations of the power play are 23 and under. Removal of this time has eaten away at his average time on ice, but his even strength time is also diminishing in the wake of the youth movement.2
In addition to an ice time reduction, Burrows has been playing with considerably weaker players this way as he has transitioned fully into a bottom six role. In 2014-15, his four most common forward linemates were Chris Higgins, Nick Bonino and the Sedin twins. Before that his most common linemates were the Sedins for five consecutive years. He had 20-goal season in four of those years.
This season, his most frequent linemates have been, in order, Linden Vey, Emerson Etem, Jared McCann, and Bo Horvat.3 There may be some bright futures there, but certainly no established point producers. In each situation, it has been Burrows’ job to babysit younger linemates.
Even then, he has been shuffling through linemates on a very regular basis. Of all forwards on the team with at least 500 minutes played, Burrows is the only one who hasn’t shared the ice with any other forward for at least 200 minutes. Jared McCann is the only other forward who has less than 300 minutes with any one linemate.
The graph above shows that Burrows’ linemates have been all over the place this season. The line he formed with Brandon Sutter and Jake Virtanen early on had the best ratio of unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick-For percentage) of any Canucks combination that has played at least 50 minutes together (58.1 per cent). While the combination he formed with Linden Vey and Emerson Etem weren’t as impressive in terms of possession, they did manage a very strong goals-for percentage of 88.3 per cent, second best among all combinations.4
Without consistent linemates, players can have a lot of trouble adapting to the tendencies of the teammates they play with. Former Canuck turned old school analyst Garry Valk spoke about this a couple of weeks ago:
It’s frustrating for all their players. I would hate
to have a different linemate every game. I just couldn’t play like
that. I just couldn’t do it, because you have to trust where a player is
going before he goes there, there has to be a read involved, it’s like a
quarterback always trying to work with new receivers: it doesn’t work.
You have to try to understand what the guys tendencies are. Is a guy
gonna run a pick for me, is he more of a shooter, can he handle passes
on his backhand, or have I just gotta pass it to him on the forehand? Is
he a hit-first guy, or a stick-first – all of these tendencies of a
linemate get groomed in and through repetition throughout the year, and
right now there’s no trust, there’s no consistency.
Burrows, Burrows is lost. Don’t sit here and tell me that Alex Burrows
is that bad of a hockey player right now. They (Burrows and Vrbata) have
to be so frustrated, they have to be going through it right now.
not their job to break in every rookie on their line. You can make one
guy better if you’re playing with the same line for 50 games, 40 games,
but the rookies are coming in and out every game! There not even gaining
chemistry with a rookie cause they’re coming out. There’s rookies in
this lineup right now that might not play five years, four years, cause
they’re not good enough. But they’re bringing them all in cause they’re giving them a sniff and we’re in a transition period. But that’s not
Alex Burrows’ fault, if he hasn’t got chemistry with them.
The world of hockey analytics sometimes frowns on the idea of “chemistry” as an important factor, but the points Valk makes about knowing teammate tendencies is hard to brush aside.
This isn’t to say that if Burrows was getting consistent time with better players that he’d be on pace for another 30-goal season. That being said, if he had spent the season to this point with the Sedins, I’m pretty sure he’d have more than eight goals. It’s telling as well that even when Jannik Hansen goes down with an injury, it isn’t Burrows who replaces him, but Emerson Etem.
The reality is that Burrows isn’t going to get those opportunities anymore. At 34, he’s an old man by NHL standards. That age, by the way, is probably the main reason for Burrows’ lack of production. Players at his age have generally long since began to see a decline in their abilities, and subsequently, their results.
One area where Burrows hasn’t had his responsibilities peeled back is his penalty killing. His 1:40 of shorthanded ice time per game ranks fourth among Canuck forwards3. The main reason that this area remains untouched might be because he is just so good at it. He has the lowest shots against per 60 minutes among all Canucks with at least 50 minutes of 4-on-5 time, as well as the 12th lowest (out of 177) unblocked shot attempts against per 60 minutes of all NHL players with at least 100 minutes of 4-on-5 time.3
Amid all this turmoil, Burrows hasn’t complained. He’s fully cognizant of his situation, and is aware that the time may soon come that he will be asked to sit out for a game. Perhaps the Canucks will elect to buy out his 4.5 million dollar cap hit this summer. That knowledge won’t change his effort level, nor his attitude.
On of the greatest stories in the game of hockey may soon draw to a close – at least in Vancouver. The undrafted kid from Pincourt, Quebec, a ball hockey goalie who made his way from an ECHL tryout to a 35-goal NHL season knows that he’s running out of time. But he’s still working hard, gladly accepting any assignment that he’s given, even as a fourth liner and a babysitter. For all the ire that he draws around the league, here he is gladly helping out the kids who will soon take his job.
Burrows’ skills and production may be fading away, but one thing is not leaving him: he’s still a world class teammate.
Burrows’ attitude: “These (young) guys are going to remember me as a good teammate instead of the old guy that was grumpy.”
— Iain MacIntyre (@imacVanSun) March 5, 2016
1Visualization charts from hockeyviz.com; 2Situational TOI data from war-on-ice.com; 3Shared ice time data and shorthanded data from stats.hockeyanalysis.com; 4Line Combination data from corsica.hockey.