The Canucks made me very happy yesterday when they announced that they’d signed Sven Baertschi to a two-year extension. Most people who consistently read my material, and anyone who has listened to any of my podcasts knows that I’m not shy about my affinity for Sven Baertschi. I firmly believe that his offensive creativity and vision, along with an underrated two-way ability, gives him an inside edge to become the Canucks’ most skilled player as the Sedins enter their twilight years.
It was brought to my attention recently that not everyone in Canucks territory is quite as infatuated with Sven as I am.
Sad state of affairs when Canuck fans are super excited about Baertschi. How he is now, does he even crack roster any time from 2008-2013?
— Cody Dame (@cdame94) June 15, 2016
I’m not sure how pervasive this opinion is, but ,needless to say, I was upset. Putting aside the nonsensical narrative that he was “invisible” in the first half of the season, I thought everyone was fully on board the Baertschi train by now. After stewing over it for awhile, I decided to do some digging and come up with a firm answer.
Has my rosy perception of Sven Baertschi been that influenced by how awful the team has been in general? Is Sven Baertschi really that good, or is he just “bad team good”? That is, are the Canucks as a team so poor that they make Baertschi look more impressive than he actually is? Let’s find out together.
The hypothesis in this little experiment is simple: I believe that Sven Baertschi would indeed crack one of the Canucks lineups between 2008 and 2013. To analyze this, I’ll simply be looking at some Canucks data for each of those seasons and seeing where Baertschi measures up among the forwards, specifically in terms of production. There were some incredible teams in that period, but there were also some disappointments. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him fall short of the powerhouse in 2011 and the strong teams that flanked it, but the question simply states “any” of those seasons. That should be more than doable.
Of course, it should be noted that there is more to “cracking a lineup” than is tested here. The coach’s perception of a player, as well as his preference for who he wants on his team, would play a heavy role. I can’t really speculate on what Alain Vigneault (the coach of record in all of the seasons in question) would have thought of Baertschi, so instead I’ll be asking a slightly different question: giving Baertschi’s output in 2015-16, would he have been among the top 12, nine, or six forwards on those rosters?
Also, while the question mentioned the year 2008-2013, it’s not necessarily clear if that begins with the 2007-08 season, or the 2008-09 season. Given that the Canucks had a down year in 2007-08 and finished with the 10th overall pick (CODY!), I think it’s safe to say that it’s a given that he would have cracked that team. So we’ll start the actual experiment with the 2008-09 campaign and barge right on through to 2012-13.
It was Alain Vigneault’s third season with the Canucks and the team was coming off of an 88-point campaign that saw them miss the playoffs. The 2008 off-season also saw the departures of franchise legends Trevor Linden and Markus Naslund, allowing some room for new blood to move into – and up – the lineup.
This season was the first for Pavol Demitra, Kyle Wellwood, Steve Bernier, Darcy Hordichuk and Ryan Johnson as Canucks, and the first full season for in-house prospect Jannik Hansen. It’s also the season the Canucks landed an aging Mats Sundin, though that didn’t happen until the second half of the campaign.
In terms of production, the Canucks were led by the Sedin twins, who had been bona fide first line talents since the NHL returned from its full-season lockout a couple of years earlier. Alex Burrows was placed with the Sedins for the first time ever on February 12th, 2009 and they began to make sweet, beautiful music together. Other top nine players included centres Wellwood and Ryan Kesler and wingers Demitra, Bernier, and Taylor Pyatt, with youngsters Hansen and Mason Raymond moving in and out of the top nine. Ryan Johnson centered a fourth line that typically contained Darcy Hordichuk and a revolving door of other wingers.
Back to the task at hand: using Sven Baertschi’s 2015-16 stats, his 1.44 even strength points per 60 minutes (P60) would place ninth on the team – though since Sundin wasn’t there until January, Baertschi wouldn’t have had to compete with him for a spot out of training camp.
These were the approximate lines before and after Sundin’s arrival, along with some fancy line stats:
First of all, those fourth lines are getting rolled over, while the lines centered by Wellwood are either poor in terms of possession, or production. Surely Sven Baertschi is an upgrade over Taylor Pyatt here, making him a likely top six player at the outset of the season. Even after Sundin arrived and Burrows jumps to the top line, current Baertschi is still an upgrade over 2008 Mason Raymond on the third line.
So there we go, I’ve checked one year and already found that Baertschi could undoubtedly crack one of the Vigneault-era Canucks lineups. Should I stop here? Nah, this is way too much fun.*
*My idea of fun and normal people’s idea of fun are often incongruous.
Things are looking up for the Canucks. Younger players like Kesler and Raymond have taken and become clear top six contributors, while the team added Mikael Samuelsson and cut bait with Taylor Pyatt, while Mats Sundin retired. Pavol Demitra missed most of the season due to injury, while Jannik Hansen and Daniel Sedin missed sizable chunks as well, leaving some openings on the wings (hint hint).
No worries though, because the Canucks forward depth allowed players like Darcy Hordichuk and Tanner Glass play upwards of 50 games. Rick Rypien also played 69 games, but I have nothing but great things to say about him (RYP). Michael Grabner appeared in his first (and only) 20 games with the Canucks, scoring 11 points (including a hat-trick).
The Canucks were a much stronger team this season, which pushes Baertschi down to tenth on this list. However, recall that Grabner played only 20 games and Hansen just 47, while Daniel also missed 19 games. Suddenly it seems like there was room in the top nine.
The production from the Sedins was absolutely monstrous in this season, so I feel that I need to spend a minute on that. Their over-4.0 points per 60 minutes in nearly unfathomable. Only Sidney Crosby has recorded a higher P60 in the Cap Era (4.26 in 2012-13), with Evgeni Malkin being the only other player to record a P60 above 3.5 in that time. The league leader in 2015-16 was Jaromir Jagr, with a P60 of 2.82.
Anyways, here are some approximate 2009-10 line combinations.
When Hansen was healthy, he would typically bump Glass down to the fourth line and Hordichuk to the press box. Even then, the 2009-10 Canucks played a good chunk of their season with Tanner Glass on the third line. For the love of all that is good and holy, Tanner Glass is in your top nine. Can we fit Sven Baertschi in there somewhere? Hmm, I wonder.
And so we arrive at the greatest Vancouver Canucks team that ever was. The disappointing second round loss in 2010 brought some turnover to the roster, and most changes were positive ones. Wellwood, Bernier, Demitra, and Hordichuk are gone (though so is Grabner, for some reason…), while Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres and Jeff Tambellini take their places. At the trade deadline, the Canucks acquired Chris Higgins and Max Lapierre with the intention of bolstering their fourth line.
The Canucks spent the 2010-11 season making minced meat of the entire NHL. The Sedins’ production ticked down a little (a simple regression after a God-like year), while Burrows, Kesler, Raymond and Raymond and Samuelsson continued to be valuable producers. Full seasons out of Daniel Sedin and Kesler resulted in 41 goals apiece. The Canucks scored more goals than any other team in the NHL.
Despite their dominance, Sven Baertschi would still slot in as the ninth best P60 on the 2011 team. Higgins and Lapierre were not particularly productive during the regular season following their acquisitions, Jeff Tambellini was a replacement level player and Tanner Glass was Tanner Glass.
The 2011 Canucks were a force, there’s no doubt about it, but they did not get to the Stanley Cup Final that year because of their depth. They were a top heavy forward group, with elite goaltending and deep blueline strength. The deadline trades to bring in Higgins and Lapierre weren’t “just in case” moves – they were necessary. The Canucks had gotten over a dozen games out of names like Alex Bolduc, Peter Schaefer, Victor Oreskovich and Guillaume Desbiens, not to mention 60+ games from Jeff Tambellini and Tanner Glass. Not the forward depth that a Cup contender would feel comfortable with.
Here are the approximate lines before and after the 2011 trade deadline:
There is a definitive improvement there, and the Canucks depth took a huge step forward depth-wise. Of course, the best laid plans often go awry, and by June 15th, the lines looked like this instead:
Would a 2015-16 Sven Baertschi have made any difference on that day? It’s impossible to say. Every player was nursing some sort of injury, if they weren’t out completely, and Baertschi could well have been among that ailing group.
That said, would the 2011 Canucks have needed to trade for an extra winger in Chris Higgins if they had a modern Baertschi in their top nine, and, in turn, Raffi Torres playing on their fourth line? I’m not sure, but the acquisition wouldn’t have the same importance.
Even on the best Canucks roster ever, you could make the argument that the Canucks would have been better off with Baertschi than without him.
After the devastation that was the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, we move on to 2011-12, where the Canucks are still very good but the wheels are beginning to wobble and we’re about six months away from Duncan Keith ruining everything.
The Canucks managed to retain their deadline acquisitions Higgins and Lapierre, though Raffi Torres, Jeff Tambellini, and Tanner Glass (finally!) moved on. Mikael Samuelsson was dealt to Florida in a deal that saw David Booth coming back. Cody Hodgson became a full time player, at least until they dealt him at the deadline to Buffalo for Zack Kassian. Post-injury Manny Malhotra was considerably less effective, leading the Canucks to pick up Sami Pahlsson at the deadline. Dutch Gretzky (the artist formerly known as Dale Weise) was picked up on waivers.
The Sedins and Alex Burrows were still very good, while Higgins, Hansen and Hodgson all had strong seasons. Kesler played better than his P60 indicates, which was sunk partially because of the massive minutes he put in, as well as some nagging injury problems. Still, it was a significant step back from the previous season.
Modern Sven Baertschi would once again have been the ninth most productive player on the team by rate, although there were six wingers higher than him. Still, Chris Higgins and Daniel Sedin missed at least 10 games apiece, while David Booth and Mason Raymond missed at least 20, leading to the Canucks getting 68 games out of Dale Weise (he’s the one way down at the end there) and a combined 55 games out of Aaron Volpatti, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Andrew Ebbett.
Approximate lines before and after the deadline:
Absolutely Sven Baertschi could crack this team. Even if it was as a 13th forward (and I don’t think it would have been), the eventual injuries would have bumped him into the top nine or top six. After winning the President’s Trophy for the second straight season, the Canucks, dealing with injuries to a number of their offensive forwards, fell to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion L.A. Kings in the Conference Quarterfinals.
Finally we come to the swan song of Alain Vigneault’s tenure and the last year in Baertschi’s hypothetical time traveling try-out adventure. Following the disappointment of a first round exit in the 2012 playoffs, the Canucks did hardly anything to their forward group, with the main differences being the entrance of Jordan Schroeder and increased ice time for Zack Kassian and Andrew Ebbett. Tom Sestito was picked up on waivers. Surely that would turn their fortunes around.
The Sedins were still good, though Daniel’s goal rate had taken a hit (much like the hit that dirty bastard Duncan Kieth landed on the side of Daniel’s head). Ryan Kesler was more productive this year by rate, but played only 17 games due to injuries. Mason Raymond and Chris Higgins played like competent middle six players, while the replacement level players played like replacement level players, and Dale Weise was worse than that – though not as poorly as Tom Sestito.
Baertschi sticks at ninth in points per 60 minutes here, but he’s basically on par with Mason Raymond, Chris Higgins, and Derek Roy. David Booth (who was limited to 12 games due to injury) and Manny Malhotra (who was shut down for the season after nine games) didn’t even make the 150-minute cut to be included in this graph (and if they had, they’d both be on the far right end) – Andrew Ebbett and Tom Sestito did though, and Dale Weise played another 40 games.
Approximate lines before and after the trade deadline:
Note that by this time, the injuries were so severe and the depth was so poor that lineups were constantly juggled and combinations rarely had satisfactory sample sizes.
This one is an absolute no-brainer. Baertschi can easily step into a depth role here out of camp and would get plenty of ice time once big minute players start dropping with injuries.
Context and Caveats
So there we go, we’ve gone over all five seasons, and there seems to be room for Sven Baertschi on each one of those rosters. Even if he didn’t make the 2010-11 team out of camp, he would certainly have been valuable later on in the season.
There may be a tendency to overvalue the depth on the Canuck teams of recent years simply because they were so successful. But make no mistake, there were a lot of subpar players playing a lot of games, usually due to injury, but also because Vigneault’s Canucks never had a truly deep forward group, outside of the time frame between the trade deadline and the second round of the playoffs in 2011.
This was a pretty simplistic exercise using just rate production as a basis for inclusion (although that’s a pretty good basis for inclusion in an NHL top nine). A slightly different option might be to look at expected goals percentage, which takes into account both offensive and defensive metrics and makes an attempt to control randomness to some extent. In a sample of all Canucks players (min. 300 minutes in a given season) between 2008-09 and 2012-13 (plus 2015-16 Baertschi), Baertschi still places in the top three quarters, ahead of plenty of former core players like Taylor Pyatt, Zack Kassian, Raffi Torres, Manny Malhotra, Maxim Lapierre, Dale Weise, and certain incarnations of Mason Raymond.
There is another bit of context to consider: the Canucks were awful in 2015-16, especially down the stretch. In the interest of legitimacy, I used Baertschi’s final 2015-16 statistics to compare against former rosters, but that might not necessarily be the most realistic scenario. While he finished the season with a P60 of 1.44, Baertschi spent a large chunk of the season with a P60 above 1.6, including stretches of 2.0+ last lasted greater than 25 games.
Predictably, his numbers began to tank when the team did. Following the trade deadline, in particular during the stretch when the Canucks lost nine straight games, Baertschi’s numbers dove. Is it fair to suggest that he, as a scoring winger, is partially responsible for the team’s collapse and lack of scoring? Possibly. But on the other hand, it’s quite likely that Baertschi could have accomplished a lot more were he surrounded by more competent players. Perhaps he could have stretched that 2.0 P60 across an entire season – it certainly wouldn’t be hard to fathom. If that were the case, he would consistently find himself as one of the most productive players (Sedins aside) on each one of those rosters above.
Some quick (read: painstakingly un-quick) number crunching can provide a clearer picture of just how bad Baertschi’s teammates were this year. I put together a sample of 164 players (the one mentioned just above) including all players from 2008-09 to 2012-13 with a minimum of 300 minutes played in any given season (plus 2015-16 Baertschi). Of that sample, Sven Baertschi is 160th out of 164 in terms of quality of teammates as measured by Corsi-For percentage (CF.QoT) and 163rd out of 164 in terms of quality of teammates as measured by expected goals-for percentage (xGF.QoT). In other words, he had worse linemates this season that just about anybody else in the five-year sample, and still produced at a rate that would make him a top nine player on any of those teams.
This was just an excessively in depth way of answering the hypothetical question postulating at the beginning of this article. Yes, Sven Baertschi could have cracked a Canucks roster between 2008 and 2013 – probably all of them in fact. Furthermore, he could have been an important part of a few of them.
Here’s to at least two more years of Baertschi, who isn’t just bad team good, but actually good. All hail Sven!