Happy thanksgiving Canucks fans! I’m thankful for a lot of things, including my family and friends, and of course that I don’t live in a country where Donald Trump is the supreme leader. I’m also thankful for Travis Green, and for the fact that he makes Canucks hockey fun to watch again.
Lots of people were very happy with what they saw in the first game of the season. One of the most noticeable things was the spread of ice time. The Sedins were near the bottom of the list and Bo Horvat was right at the top. It seemed that Travis Green was making it pretty clear that the page was turning.
The same thing happened on the power play. Bo Horvat’s unit started the majority of the man advantages on Saturday, including ones following a TV timeout and an intermission. That’s normally a pretty clear signal of which unit is the top one.
Green was roundly praised for this decision. For the last year and a half, the fine people of Vancouver have been clamouring for the two units to be swapped, for the youthful new wave to take over for the decrepit old guard of yesteryear. Few have been louder in this than the Province’s Jason Botchford, who has talked often of how the Canucks’ power play has been the worst in the league over the past five seasons, and wrote glowingly of the decision to “pass the torch”, as it were.
Edmonton’s Adam Larsson was sitting out an interference penalty which was called and immediately followed by a TV timeout. What happened next was a potential earth-mover.
Bo Horvat glided off the bench, the centre for the group long considered the Canucks’ second power-play unit.
This is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. One, the lead dogs for the power play have been the Sedins for the better part of a decade.
Two, Horvat scored.
Squint and you can almost see the torch being passed.
All across the internets, there was much rejoicing. Out with the old, in with the new! Bo Horvat’s power play unit is the new first unit!
But is it really?
As it turns out, you’ve all been duped!
Perhaps not all of you, as I’m sure plenty noticed this on your own, but despite the fact that Horvat started more power plays, the Sedin unit still had more power play ice time. Furthermore (and this is even more interesting to me), the Sedin unit was also the more dangerous one.
Now, there is the whole matter of the Horvat unit scoring and the Sedin unit coming up empty, and that’s a solid point. Although, the fact is that the one goal involved Horvat skating up most of the length of the ice by himself and plowing through the defence and forcing the puck into the back of the net.
How Bo got this party started! pic.twitter.com/wQ4qss58lM
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) October 8, 2017
Aside from that though, the Horvat unit didn’t have a whole lot of chances.
Meanwhile, the stymied Sedin unit produced twice as many shot attempts per hour, and an expected goal rate three times as high as that of Horvat’s unit.
So what does this mean? Well for one thing, I think it reflects pretty brilliantly on Travis Green. He managed to make everyone happy by making it seems as though the Horvat unit was taking over, while still using the more effective unit more often. I have no idea as to whether this was intentional, but I like to this it was, and it’s a savvy move.
If it was intentional, then I’d have to tip my tap to Green, because here’s the thing: that bit about the Sedin unit being more dangerous according to the numbers, that was present last year too (just in case you were rightly about to cry foul over this small sample).
Botchford is right in his oft-mentioned talking point that Vancouver’s power play has been among the league’s worst over a five year stretch, converting a 16.0% between 2012-13 and 2016-17. That’s good for 29th, with only Florida (15.7%) being worse. Now, if you talk to analytics folks like myself, we’ll tell you that power play percentages are bunk, and you should be using goal rate stats instead! Well, the Canucks are second last in that regard too, so it hardly matters. But as much as some want to blame the Sedins for a five-year long stagnant power play, there are some extenuating circumstances.
First, there’s the fact that there are two power play units, or at least, there’s supposed to be. The Canuck tradition of the massively imbalanced power play units dates back to 2009-10, when then-coach Alain Vigneault loaded up the top unit by putting Ryan Kesler with the Sedins. It crippled the second unit, sure, but the overall benefits were extraordinary, culminating with the Canucks owning the best power play conversion rate in the NHL in 2010-11.
In many years since then, the second unit has been laughable compared to the first. This was never more true than in 2014-15, when you may recall that Chris Higgins scoring a power play goal on March 28th was a HUGE deal, because it was the first time all season the second unit had scored a goal.
In March. The end of March.
And yet, the Canucks’ power play still had 46 goals that year. You can thank the Sedin unit for that.
In fact, if we look at the Sedin unit alone over this infamous five-year stretch, we’ll see that they’re still holding up their end of the bargain, while it has been the second unit (or general lack thereof) that has been dragging their conversion rate through the mud. (Henrik Sedin’s 5-on-4 numbers will be used as a proxy.)
Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, Henrik had a 5v4 GF60 (5-on-4 goals for per 60 minutes) of 5.70. That’s not great: it would still sit 27th in the NHL if we counted it as Vancouver’s rate.
His xGF60 however (expected goals-for per 60 minutes) of 6.49 would rank ninth among all team expected goals-for rates.
The major factor here is that Henrik’s on-ice FSh% (Fenwick Shooting percentage, which includes shots that miss the net as well as those that are saved and scored) of 7.46% is a full percentage point below his expected on-ice FSh% (8.50%). That one percent might not seem like much, but Henrik was on the ice for 1,380 unblocked shot attempts for in that five year stretch. That’s potentially an additional 14 goals to the 103 he was already on for.
Plus, it’s not really Henrik’s fault that the shooting percentage is lower than it should be – he’s a set up man who hardly shoots. For a lot of this time, he’s been saddled with players that either don’t shoot well enough, or don’t shoot often enough. Certainly he benefited from that two-year period with Radim Vrbata. It should come as no surprise that the Sedin unit shooting percentage with Vrbata was five percentage points higher than it was with Brandon Sutter, who was parked on their unit for all of last season.
There mere fact that Sutter isn’t on the power play at all anymore should invite some improvement to its overall efficacy. I’d like to see what the Sedins can can with proven power play producers like Thomas Vanek and Sam Gagner first, and I’d really like to see them with Brock Boeser. You know, if he gets into a game. And if Travis Green puts him on that power play. And if Alex Edler actually passes him the puck.
Either by virtue of a non-existent second unit, or having to drag the dead weight of Brandon Sutter around, they in no way deserve sole blame for the Canucks’ power play being in the state that it has been in. And as such, they probably don’t deserve their removal from the “top unit” being celebrated.
Which makes is a good thing that they still kind of are the top unit.
There’s one more thing though, and I think this adds to the brilliance of Green’s power play strategy (or that of his coaching staff, whoever came up with this). The other aspect that makes the Sedin unit coming out second brilliant is the fact that they’ll end up facing either tired penalty killers, or ones that aren’t as good. In either case, it could allow them the opportunity to feast on weaker opposition, and expose them to less risk of shorthanded chances the other way.
Look, I won’t argue that the figurative torch needs to be passed. I’m quite glad that Horvat led Canucks forwards in time on ice on Saturday, and I look forward to him taking on more responsibility as the season progresses. But even though they’ve lost a step at even strength, the Sedins can still handle their business when it comes to half-court hockey. Horvat will take over soon enough, but let’s not be too quick to kick the twins out – they’ve still got some left in the tank.