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Photo Credit: theprovince.com

Why Are The Canucks Too Easy To Play Against?

It’s not a stretch to suggest the Vancouver Canucks are an easy team to play against most nights. This should be obvious to anyone with even the most basic knowledge about hockey. They spend too much time in their own zone; they struggle to maintain possession; they can’t seem to push nearly as much as you’d expect from a team that trails as often as they do.

If you can’t abide the eye test, the Canucks struggles are readily apparent with even the most casual glance at the underlying numbers. They’re 25th in scoring chance differential, 27th in score and venue-adjusted shot share and when we adjust this figure to exclude blocked shots, that number drops to 28th. By the Corsica.Hockey model for expected goals, the Canucks rank third-worst in the NHL.

Suggesting the Canucks have been an awful team is far from controversial. It’s when we begin to discuss the wheres and whys that arguments arise.

If you’re Ben Kuzma of The Province, the problem begins with the team’s lack of physicality, as he pointed out in his article on Wednesday:

“At one point amid the unchallenged muggings, elbows and sticks to the ribs, one thought came to mind Tuesday at Rogers Arena.

Derek Dorsett and Erik Gudbranson have never looked so good.

And that says something because they’re still rehabbing neck and wrist surgeries, respectively, and their true effectiveness as grit-and-grind guys won’t be known until next fall. Which brings us back to Tuesday.

When the Anaheim Ducks imposed their will on the transitioning and tentative Vancouver Canucks, it placed one of many problems for a troubled NHL team back on the front-burner. Simply put, the Canucks are too easy to play against.

They often display gap-controlling structure and great goaltending to stay in games, but they have the third-fewest hits. Their top basher is the injured Joseph Cramarossa, who ranked 80th Wednesday with 139 combined hits in 59 games with Anaheim and Vancouver. Nikita Tryamkin is 87th with 129 hits in 60 games and Luca Sbisa is 104th with 120 hits in 76 games.”

Derek Dorsett and Erik Gudbranson have never looked so good? I can’t help but feel like that has something to do with the fact that no one has seen either play in the calendar year 2017. Sure, they can dole out the occasional hit and punch the odd face, but does that really matter? It’s debatable.

Ironically, Vancouver’s scorekeepers credited the Canucks with six more hits than the Ducks in Tuesday night’s game. I can’t say for sure why that is, but I imagine it has something to do with the fact that Anaheim had the puck an awful lot more than Vancouver.

Even if we ignore home-ice biases, and the many other inherent issues the NHL has with tracking hit stats, the distribution between hits and wins over the past decade is completely random. So, are the Canucks missing Dorsett and Gudbranson? I’m skeptical.

The Canucks are 28th in hits per game in 2016-17 according to FOXsports.com, and they’re sandwiched between five playoff teams. Ahead of them are the Calgary Flames, Columbus Blue Jackets, and  San Jose Sharks; lagging just behind Vancouver are the Minnesota Wild, who sit second in their division and fifth in overall league standings. In last place, we have the Chicago Blackhawks, arguably the best team in the salary cap era. That’s nothing new for Chicago — they’ve alternated finishing 29th or 30th in hits in each of these past four years.

That’s not to say hitting, or physicality, or whatever you want to call it isn’t an essential element of the game. In contrast, the Los Angeles Kings are routinely atop the league in hits per game, and have probably been the most consistently strong team of the past five years, aside from the Blackhawks.

I have no desire to revisit the so-called “media wars” that transpired earlier this month. I’ve no quarrel with Kuzma, and I think his overarching point carries a certain amount of water. I just believe he’s missing the forest for the trees, and that serves as an excellent jumping-off point to talk about being hard to play against, and our previously held notions about what that means.

The funny thing about sports media, be it mainstream, on the blogosphere, or otherwise, is that we all rely on statistics to help us tell our stories. The good folks at Sun Media or TSN 1040 may argue the merits of using statistics to tell compelling stories, but the truth is that we all use them to add colour or context to our thoughts. The difference lies in what statistics we decide to use. In digital media, it’s Corsi, Fenwick or expected goals. In the mainstream, it’s more likely to be goals, assists, plus-minus or in this case, hits.

That’s where I take issue. I’ll readily admit that all statistics have the potential to be misleading without context, but none are more misleading than hits. Not only are they poorly tracked, but they’re also a poor indicator of what they’re meant to measure: physicality, and more importantly, how difficult to play against someone or some team is.

I don’t deny that teams shouldn’t try being difficult to handle on a nightly basis. It’s just that looking at hits, (or worse yet, fights,) is a painfully effortless way to measure whether or not a team can make life living hell for their opponents.

Our ideas about physicality and being “hard to play against” need to change. They need to enter the 21st century. The common adage amongst the so-called “analytics community” is that hits are meaningless because to hit, your opposition has to have the puck. I’m sympathetic to that viewpoint, but the success of teams like the Kings in the past indicates there may be holes in that line of thinking.

Physical play is important insofar as it drives results. If you don’t have the puck, hitting can help you regain possession. That’s important, but physical play with the puck is equally or perhaps even more important. The abilities to win board battles, get to the front of the net, and play in traffic are all physical attributes that are just as important, but the tracking of those statistics isn’t nearly as commonplace. Micro-statistic tracking companies like SportlogIQ are going a long way to making the tracking of those attributes more mainstream, but we still have a long way to go.

When we look at the Canucks, we can see that they’ve struggled regarding being hard to play against, but that has little to do with being 28th in hits.

In the Sedins heydey, their opposition loathed playing against them. If you don’t believe me, ask any savvy fan of any team from the old Northwest Division that had to watch the Sedins protect the puck along the boards and come out of the corners with possession of the puck almost every time they generated offensive zone time.

Their ability to do so has declined. I’m inclined to believe that has more to do with their win/loss record than hitting. So too does the absence of Chris Tanev for much of the season.

Make no mistake, Tanev is a physical player, just not in the way we’re accustomed to seeing. He’s routinely among the league leaders in hits taken. While that may not seem to be indicative of the “warrior” culture the NHL fetishizes on a daily basis, it indicates a willingness to adhere to the adage of “taking the hit to make the play”. That’s something I’d personally place more value on than the ability to lay those same hits on a player that has possession of the puck.

At the end of the day, things like hits, or capacity to win puck battles, or any other physical attribute are just inputs. What we should really focus on are results, and the Canucks just aren’t producing them, whether you’re looking at wins and losses or the underlying shot metrics.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak. Tactical adjustments are significant. Some of that involves physical play, and yes, hits. Some teams have had tremendous success laying the body, while others live by the adage that speed kills. It’s about working with what you have and making adjustments to get the most out of your players.

Where the Canucks stand right now, I think they need to focus on just playing good hockey before they worry about their hit totals.

I don’t see Derek Dorsett or Erik Gudbranson helping that cause.

  • Jamie E

    Hockey is a contact sport. In contact sports being able to physically dominate your opponent has both tangible and psychological advantages. It may be difficult to mathematically quantify how physical play and an aggressive forecheck forces opposing defensemen to rush and make mistakes, but every hockey fan has SEEN it. We’ve all seen how a big hit can change in-game momentum in a heartbeat and tilt the ice in the other direction. Hockey is still played by human beings, not robots who are subject to the full gamut of human emotion – including fear and intimidation.

    • Bud Poile

      Jamie’ on it.
      When a 19 y.o. kid has a 230 lb.,30 year old man bearing down on him from behind with nobody on your team willing to hold the opponnent accountable you have a disaster waiting to unfold.
      Young guys are exposed night after night,players have zero pushback and injuries take out your team.
      Hockey is full on violent intimidation on a constant basis.
      So when Virtanen is chosen over a pretty boy playmaker and your team flounders after Dorsett and Gudbranson are injured the only ones that don’t get it never have and never will.

        • Bud Poile

          Daniel ragdolled by Marchand.
          Raymond locked and scissored that broke his back.
          Bieksa chopped behind his knee.
          Edler with two broken fingers functional on his shooting hand.
          Ehrhoff shot up with painkillers prio to every final seris game.
          Linden violently chopped down repeatedly right in front of the refs by Messier in game 6.
          You stick with the pretty boys,Dirk.My money’s on a contender.

          • Dirk22

            Your money’s on a contender? That’s great, Bud. Who might that be?

            I remember all the thumbs down I got on here when I said back in the fall that the ‘pretty boy’ Nylander would get 50 pts this year – maybe everyone knew it would be at least 60.

          • LTFan

            Bud – Virtanen is in the AHL and has 16 pts in 56 games. William Nylander is in the NHL with 58 pts in 75 games. IMO he was the better pick. That being said – it is all history and the Canucks cannot afford to make anymore of those mistakes going forward.

        • Copperfinch

          Fantastic group insight from everyone here I think (except for Jirk22). Pushback from at least a handful of gritty vets helps the youngsters play with more confidence and they push back themselves. It isn’t just about physicality with this team, it’s about intensity and the desire to get the puck. Those two things can go hand in hand but this team is missing both.

          I clearly remember the state of the team in 1990 just before Gino arrived and began taking on entire teams in the ring by himself. The change in the team’s attitude and performance was astounding. This team needs something like that again.

  • Killer Marmot

    It appears that the Canucks are trying to turn Biega into a forward. There are may be a couple of reasons for this:

    – There are a lot of talented young defensemen in the system. Biega is getting crowded out.
    – Roster management is easier when you have someone who can switch between D and F.
    – Having a forward who is good at covering the defensive position lets defensemen be more aggressive.
    – They want more physicality from the forwards.

  • Ranger2k2

    I think that Kuzma and Jackson are both right and wrong. I agree that hits are misleading and fluctuate between each score keeper (I would have already been credited with three hits if this blog was in Minnesota) and Jackson is right when he questions if Dorsett and Gudbranson would actually have helped in the win department. Where I disagree with Jackson and agree with Kuzma is that a lack of “push back” is very telling on how poor this team is. In 2011 the Canucks had Burrows, Kesler, Hansen, Bieksa, Lapierre as not only players that were in there prime but that played with “push back”. If someone were to start taking runs at either young players or the Sedins Vancouver would get you on the power play, if they still kept taking runs then someone would step in and do something about it. The Canucks as it stands right now are a very poor hockey team but that shouldn’t stop someone (anyone) for sticking up Daniel when he gets smashed by Shea Weber or sticking up for Troy Stecher when Mark Giordano starts popping him in the head. When Vancouver was essentially out of the game after the 1st period you would think that Vancouver would have made it miserable on Anaheim but instead they just rolled over and allowed themselves to be walked on.

    • Beefus

      I couldn’t agree more. The true value of players like Dorsett can’t be measured with fancy stats. All teams need guys like this to keep the other team from taking liberties with their skill players. Remember what Boston did to the Canucks in 2011.

  • TD

    What I would like to know is the correlation between Corsi and hitting. The Canucks statistically such at both. It would make sense that the more you have the puck the less you hit to get it back. Hitting was out into hockey to allow defenders to separate the player from the puck, not to decapitate or hurt a puck carrier.

    They are sandwiched in the lowest hit categories by playoff teams. Are those playoff teams near the top in Corsi? All things equal it would make sense that Corsi and hitting stats have an inverse relationship. The problem with the Canucks is that they don’t possess the puck or hit.

  • Spiel

    The hits stat is meaningless as you have pointed out.
    Physical play is more about how well a given player wins puck battles and more specifically how they react when another player engages with them physically. Being hard to play against means that you not only can control the puck, but when pucks are loose in the corners or other areas of the ice you win those battles or at least put up some sort of physical resistance if you lose the battle.
    Something that the Sedins excelled at in their heyday was winning battles for pucks. Not only did they control the puck once, they had it, they won many puck battles in the corners and along the boards.
    Players that don’t give a care when their team doesn’t have the puck, or are unwilling or unable to physically engage their opponents to fight for the puck are “easy to play against”.

  • Kaler

    I think the word you are looking for is intensity.

    It is difficult to play against a team that plays with intensity. Intensity is common to Chicago, Anaheim, and LA. The Canucks rarely play with intensity. I was at the game against the Maple Leafs. The Canucks played with intensity. Not surprisingly, the Canucks ended up winning.

    Two years ago, the Canucks did not play with “playoff intensity” against the Flames. Not surprisingly, the Canucks lost.

  • DJ_44

    This article conflates the number of hits with physical play. Leaving the Tanev reference, which relates physical play to taking hits (sort of like blocking punches with one’s face), physical play is the the acknowledged ability and willingness to initiate physical contact; set the tone so to speak.

    If the opponent does not respect your ability to play physical, deliver hits, finish checks, cross-check in the back around the crease (the last two often not even registered as “hits” by the league), then they are much more relaxed and open to the idea of taking more time on the puck, cheap shots here and there, late knees after and off-side whistle blew, blind-side hit after scoring a goal, cutting across the middle with little fear.

    Calgary , Columbus, and Minnesota, are big, physically dominate teams. San Jose will not get run out of the rink by anyone (as last years Kings), and teams like Pittsburgh and Ottawa, while not consider physical, most definitely are.

    Gudbranson and Dorsett may not be the complete answer, but they would definitely help the cause.

    • Kanucked

      I agree that a team would be harder to play against if it initiated physical contact. Therefore, it would be more physically demanding for the opposing team to maintain control of the puck.

      A team that either initiates physical contact or can withstand physical contact (and still control the puck) would be difficult to play against.

      Then, puck possession statistics should be good indicators of ease of competition.

      However, I think many people confuse aggressiveness with difficult to play against. Aggressiveness would be the ability to initiate contact. Whereas, difficult to play against would also include the ability to withstand the contact as well.

      The Sedin’s and Canucks have been the latter during the successful run in 2011. This not the case today.

  • Whatthe...

    Dorsett might not add much value to a contending team but on a team with a bunch of young guys still trying to find their way in the league, he adds tremendous value. He plays hard and stands up to anybody.

  • Balanced teams need complimentary tough guys like Dorsett and Gudbranson. They aren’t the most skilled players but they’re aggressive and don’t back down. The problem is that almost everyone else on the team lacks aggression and drive. Other than Horvat, no one else has a never-say-die mentality. And this is where Virtanen is sorely missed: a power forward who can hit, fight and score goals.

          • Virtanen has the size and skill but was rushed into the NHL when he should have been left in the WHL and then moved to the AHL. Your Dane Fox example shows how oblivious you are to anything except the stat line, you forgot that Fox’s numbers were inflated by playing with Connor McDavid. Where’s Fox now, still in the ECHL?

        • LTFan

          Bud – on this one your comparison is ridiculous. There are lots of players playing in the AHL who had very impressive numbers in Jr. They are in the AHL because they are not quite good enough for the NHL. Unfortunately for the Canucks, Jake Virtanen is one of them. I’m not sure he is good enough for the AHL.

      • Pimplucky

        Virtanen was in the wd doghouse from the get go! He did what almost every kid in the world would do when u give them $. He went out and bought some new toys and had fun with friends. Then came in 30lbs overweight and still not ready to only play defensively for wd. Check out” wd’s boy” (megna)if u talked to Travis Green he’s got his head in the right place now, weight down, and LEARNING to play the RIGHT way instead of focusing on “scoring” which is just 1 byproduct from playing the right way. If looked at his p/60min with Canucks he was actually at or near the top. D Sedin wouldn’t do any better playing 6-7min/game on the 4th with skille and Dorset. He’s still just a kid and getting away from wd and time with Travis was the best thing for him.

    • truthseeker

      geezus shut up about that guy. He has 13 goals……whoopty doo! He’s a cheap shot artist. If the guy ever gets thirty goals in his career he’ll be lucky. You know how many 20 to 30 goal scorers there are in the NHL? More than you can count. 20 to 30 goal wingers are a dime a dozen. Wingers are worthless. Lowest value of any position by far other than maybe back up goalie.

      And you’d have us waste a potential top pairing best d man in the draft on a bloody 20 goal cheap shot winger….lol…

      All Juolevi has to do is become a top 4 Dman and we could trade him for 3 Matthew Tkachuks….that’s how worthless wingers are in today’s NHL.

      If people like you were running the canucks we’d be the oilers of the past 10 years.

  • The_Blueline

    The Canucks are too easy to play against because they don’t have enough skill.
    Against the ducks they didn’t push back because it was a garbage game for tanking.

  • Andrey Pedan.

    The lack of pushback has been home in Van for many years, so this is nothing new. Dorsett and Gudbranson are a step in the right direction. Tryamkin has a physical side, but we still need more. I watched Flames – Kings the other night and that was a war. Brian Burke loves truculence and that’s what the Flames are.

    Our pursuit for speed is the latest flavor in the NHL, but physical play will never go away. This lack of physicality cost us the cup. Towards the end of the season and playoffs refs make less calls, toughness and intimidation rule the day, along with speed and skill. You gotta have all three to win.

    • Holmes

      Agree with latest flavour comment. By the time the Canucks become a fast team, other team attributes will be en vogue because those attributes will have contributed to a cup win. No idea what those will be – maybe the Oilers win the cup and the league swings back to big tough teams again. And yes, the Oilers are both. Regardless, it feels like to but it feels like the Canucks are way behind.

  • UKCanuck

    if they are 28th in hits and near the bottom of the possession standings then that is a pretty clear indicator they are easy to play against. If they don’t have the puck they should be near the top of the hit parade.

  • OMAR49

    Why we are so easy to play against has nothing to do with hitting. We could be the #1 in hits and the results would be the same. The reasons we are so easier to play against are as follows:
    1)The Canucks have lost more man hours to injury and sickness than any other team in the NHL. Unfortunately, those injuries have to been to key personnel.
    2) On some nights the forwards have consisted of 6 NHL caliber players and 6 mid level AHL caliber players (see injuries)
    3) Our Defense, on most nights consists of 3 D-Men with 2 years or less NHL experience, 2 D-Men that have been playing hurt, and one D-Man who shouldn’t be playing at all.
    The Canucks have finally taken the correct steps to make the team competitive once again. There are some young players who seem to have a lot of talent so there is hope. Once our young D-Men get more experience they will become an effective force. Unfortunately, it will take time for the team to become competitive and increasing the number of hits they give out will not change a thing.

  • OMAR49

    Why we are so easy to play against has nothing to do with hitting. We could be #1 in hits and the results would be the same. The reasons we are so easy to play against are as follows:
    1)The Canucks have lost more man hours to injury and sickness than any other team in the NHL. Unfortunately, those injuries have to been to key personnel.
    2) On many nights the forwards have consisted of 6 NHL caliber players and 6 mid level AHL caliber players (see injuries)
    3) Our Defense, on most nights, consists of 3 D-Men with 2 years or less NHL experience, 2 D-Men that have been playing hurt, and one D-Man who shouldn’t be playing at all.
    The Canucks have finally taken the correct steps to make the team competitive once again. There are some young players who seem to have a lot of talent so there is hope. Once our young D-Men get more experience they will become an effective force. Unfortunately, it will take time for the team to become competitive and increasing the number of hits they give out will not change a thing.

  • Locust

    The ‘hits’ stat is a complete joke, it is managed by pencil necked homer “stats” nerds. I watched a game in Philly and the stats were hilarious, they were given a 5-1 advantage in ‘hits’ in a complete no-hitter kind of game.

    The stats jockeys here at CA are no different.

    Stats are interesting and occasionally informative but those that think they should take up more than 5% of a coaches or GM’s brain space is delusional ….. go panthers go …. right …. ?

    • Freud

      Look at you! You finally caved to the pressure and accepted my challenge. Miserable failure though.

      Hit stats are extremely subjective and skewed in different arenas? Yes, and we landed on the moon in 1969 too.

      The writer is using a stat rarely used anymore to write a parody of the old, tired narrative of “tough to play against” appears to have also gone right over your head.

      • Locust

        Sorry, I guess the ‘pencil necked nerds’ was just a little to close to the bone for you….
        Ever wonder why those rabid baseball stats guys are all little geeks that couldn’t even catch a baseball … ‘cuz they could never play. All stats nerds are frustrated wannabee’s , just like most of the writers here, you and a few others.
        Step aside Poindexter, let the guys that know hockey, from real life experience, do the talking.

  • Oilerz4life

    Ding dong, who is it? Time for the sisters to hop out of their bunk beds. Yah, tickle me elmo time is over, McD is coming to town. Bahaha, enjoy that! Golf season in Wankoover yah. Are the sisters jet setting back to Shveeden, playing in KHL next year? LMAO!