Red Means Stop, Green Means Go: The Matt Bartkowski Problem

The Canucks weren’t particularly active in the free agency market last July, having little space on the salary cap. One of the players they did grab was Matt Bartkowski, who the Canucks brass held some familiarity with from his time with the Boston Bruins.

The fear when Bartkowski was signed was his ability to produce offence. With 131 NHL games under his belt, the 27-year old had never scored a regular season goal. Many questioned the usefulness of signing an offensively challenged player to a team that had just 34 goals from defencemen last season.

Well the offence has turned out alright. Bartkowski’s five goals this season are second most among Canucks defencemen (though that’s not saying much). Instead, it is Bartkowski’s defensive game that has become concerning. So much so that I feel the need to advocate that the Canucks take a break from the Bartkowski experience – and above all else, do not bring him back next year.

When one thinks of the Vancouver Canucks and defensive ineptitude, the instinct is to think of Luca Sbisa. The pizza man certainly gets a bad rap in this market, and not without justification. But step aside Luca, because there’s a new sheriff of terrible defensive play in town. Perhaps Sbisa should be thanking Matt Bartkowski, since the latter is actually making the former look good by comparison.

Bartkowski’s single greatest attribute is his speed. This is readily apparent to anyone watching Canucks games as he attempts to rush the puck so often. Sometimes it works out in his favour. Early in the season, I was impressed with his skating ability, particularly after watching the conclusion of last season, when the lack of foot speed on Vancouver’s defence was exploited to a great degree by the Calgary Flames. Watching Bartkowski use his speed to exit the defensive zone and gain the offensive zone seemed like a breath of fresh air – especially when he did it against those same Flames.

Make no mistake, this is a valuable skill. Escaping the defensive zone with possession is not only important to relieving the pressure of enemy offensive chances, but aides in the transition to offense at the other end of the ice.

The problem that developed was that it became apparent that Bartkowski’s brain could not keep up with his wheels. A game against Minnesota not long ago highlighted this issue.

John Garrett’s assessment of the situation is telling: “He’s got the blinders on – make a play!”

This is an accurate summation of Bartkowski’s issue. He almost always waits too long to make a play. Sometimes it works out and his speed can carry him out of danger, but too often it carries him right into it.

One has to wonder if there needs to be some blame laid on the Canucks management and coaching staff for how this problem is being handled. Following his signing and at various points throughout the season, the organization has trumpeted Bartkowski’s speed and ability to carry the puck. We can’t see what he’s being told behind closed doors, but if the Canucks are encouraging this type of play, they’re likely doing more harm than good. While his speed is impressive, Bartkowski doesn’t seem to have the appropriate level of awareness on the ice to consistently perform these types of plays with an acceptable rate of success, and too often it leads to egregious giveaways.

TSN Analyst Ray Ferraro was asked about Matt Bartkowski’s defensive gaffes on Wednesday and how he might go about fixing it. He advised that Bartkowski should be getting rid of the puck a lot sooner.

“You keep showing them video, and each time he turns it over, you show them where the other out is, the more simple out is. For Bartkowski, and Sbisa really, they hang on to the puck a little bit too long, so what is a simple pass when they come out the back of around the net, they take two strides and now the lane is closed, and there’s nowhere to go with it.

Alain Vigneault talks about his defence all the time, he wants them to be “easy early”. He wants them to make the easy pass and he wants them to make it early, and that’s how the Rangers defence plays. Bartkowski and Sbisa don’t do that. They hang on to it. It might only be a stride. You can take two strides and now the forechecker has got his stick in the lane, so they go to pass it, they see the stick there, now they gotta look somewhere else and there’s no time, they get the puck stripped from them.

I think that’s the only thing you can do to teach them and eventually you have to say “are they learning, or is this an unlearned lesson? Is this something they just can’t get to?”

The question here is what are the Canucks doing to improve the situation? If they are continuing to encourage Bartkowski to try to skate the puck out at every opportunity, then the fault lies with the coaching staff. However, if they’re working with him to try to help him make better decisions and safer players, then the fault lies with Bartkowski. Of course, by extension the blame has to shift back to management for employing him and the coach for continuing to trot him out every night.

Bartkowski’s possession stats are not good, but they could be worse. His share of even strength shot attempts, or Corsi For percentage, is 45.9 per cent according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, which is 211th out of 259 defencemen that have played at least 50 even strength minutes this season. Among Canucks, he still holds the advantage over Luca Sbisa, whose Corsi For percentage is 44.8 per cent.

When we’re talking about shot attempt ratio, as we are here, Bartkowski is buoyed by the fact that the team directs a respectable amount of shots towards the opponent’s net while he is on the ice. At even strength, the Canucks take 50.12 shot attempts per 60 minutes (CF60) with Bartkowski on the ice, which is just a bit below average for a defenceman.

Distribution CF60

On the Canucks, it trails only Dan Hamhuis and Alex Biega, ranking ahead of players that are widely considered to be superior defenceman like Ben Hutton (49.02), Chris Tanev (48.47), and Alex Edler (46.86).

His shot attempt ratio is poor because of how permissive he is at the other end of the ice. While Bartkowski is on the ice, the Canucks allow 59.02 shot attempts per 60 minutes (CA60), which is the 35th highest among all 259 defencemen with more the 50 minutes played at 5-on-5 this season.

Distribution CA60

On the Canucks, only Alex Biega is worse (59.14). Of course, who else would be Alex Biega’s most frequent defensive partner, but Matt Bartkowski?

Speaking of defensive partners, it doesn’t seem to matter who you strap to Bartkowski, he’s going to drag them down. No Canucks defenceman comes off looking good with Bartkowski. The following is a short list of the worst Canucks defence pairings (minimum 100 minutes shared TOI) in terms of unblocked shot attempts against per 60 minutes (Fenwick Against per 60 – FA60). See if you can spot the common denominator:

FA60 Pairings

If we follow the same logic using shots on net against per 60 minutes, it gets even worse:

SA60 Pairings

Indeed, the four worst Canucks pairings by shots on net against per 60 all have Matt Bartkowski on them. Are we detecting a pattern yet? How about one more? The next list is the worst sorted by expected goals against per 60 minutes:

xGA60 Pairings

While those four defencemen (Ben Hutton, Luca Sbisa, Alex Biega, and Dan Hamhuis) have shared the ice most frequently with Bartkowski, it doesn’t end there. Even in passing, he can do damage. The following chart from Corsica.hockey details how much worse every Vancouver defenceman does when they are away from Matt Bartkowski.

Bartkowski WOWY CFpc

The visualization is even less appealing if expected goals are used as the Y-axis.

Bartkowski WOWI xGFpc

Look at that separation. It would almost be impressive if it weren’t so depressing.

Think of these likes traffic lights. If green is the dominant colour (in this case, on top), it indicates that the player in question is a positive force on their defensive pairings. Greens across the board would suggest that you should play that player more often as he is improving the possession numbers of his partners.

If red is the dominant colour, it indicates that the player in question is dragging their pairings down. Reds across the board would suggest that this player should be played less often, if at all.

In other words, red means stop and green means go. Bartkowski is screaming to be stopped.

Going forward, it would be in the Canucks’ best interest to play Bartkowski less. The good news is that there are other options available. Yannick Weber has received the vast majority of healthy scratches this season, and while he hasn’t been good, Bartkowski has been substantially worse – despite being in the lineup game after game.

The Canucks have some new options on the horizon. Nikita Tryamkin has just arrived in town and should be ready for his NHL debut by next week. They also have Andrey Pedan in the minors, eating up ice time in Utica – it would certainly be palatable to have a look at him in the NHL at the expense of Bartkowski.

Next season the blueline is likely to get even more crowded. Pedan requires waivers and Tryamkin has an AHL out-clause in his entry level contract, plus the Canucks will see the addition of deadline acquisition Philip Larsen. Add to that that they intend to draft a defenceman near the top of the draft, as well as be involved in the college free agent market in the near term, and there is absolutely no reason to bring back Bartkowski for another season.

Bartkowski is a nice guy, by all accounts a good teammate, and his mom is fantastic. However, this is a business, and removing Bartkowski is a clear cut case of addition by subtraction. It’s what it best for the team, and it’s likely that every other defenceman is going to benefit from by no longer playing with him.

    • Dirty30

      Even going by the eyetest and not relying on pure stats (which no one actually does) the exact same conclusion is reached. Bartkowski skates fast but coughs up the puck often. Stats are just another method of parsing the overload of visual information available. But you repeat the same videos enough and find enough samples one should reach the same conclusions. Stats are a convenient way of conveying this information which would otherwise be stuck in a non-declaritive part of the brain (I.e why benning likely needs/wants to personally see each prospect, he don’t speak so good).

  • Dirty30

    He would be a good fit in Edmonton.

    We used to say players like this”had a million dollar set of legs and a 2 bit brain”, but that was way before players made the kind of money they make now.

  • Whackanuck

    I’d like to see him with Tryamkin before the season is up. A big defensively minded slower player might be able to complement his style nicely. Clearly he doesn’t fit with the current roster, however.

  • Travis Grass Is Greener

    He reminds me of ex canuck,mason Raymond who skates very fast into the offensive & then loses the puck.Is this coachable?He plays as he is JB’s pet.

  • Whackanuck

    Very detailed analysis.

    He is, however, a guy signed for 1 year for 1.75 million, roughly the salary of a number of never were or has been fringe players like Matt Clark, Matt Hunwick, Patrick McNally or Christian Ehrhoff. Not to make a big deal about.