There have been plenty of stories in this early season focused on the idea of the Sedin twins passing off leadership of the Vancouver Canucks to younger players. There’s certainly truth in those narratives, but it’s also correct to state that head coach Travis Green is taking a nuanced, balanced approach that’s going to make broad generalization difficult.
The power play is one such situation that defies an overly simplified approach, as Jeremy Davis explained so ably earlier this week. The same is true of 5-on-5 play.
The obvious thing is that for the first time since in forever, the Sedin twins are not anchoring a go-to line which leads the way every night for the Canucks at even-strength. Henrik Sedin has led Vancouver in average 5-on-5 ice-time every year since 2006, with his brother Daniel either second or third on that list. Through three games this year the pair ranks either sixth and seventh or seventh and eighth, depending on whether one includes Brock Boeser’s lone contest in that mix.
Instead, the minutes have gone to lines centered by Bo Horvat and Brandon Sutter. But it hasn’t been a flat transition; the numbers have shifted depending on the game:
Horvat should run up a formidable lead in overall ice-time among centres over the course of the year because he plays both with the man advantage and shorthanded, whereas through three games Sutter has been excluded from the power play and Sedin from the penalty kill.
Those differences in special teams usage are also reflected at even-strength.
In Game 1, the Canucks led for 50 of the game’s 60 minutes and had a bunch of power play time. Sedin ended up playing less than eight minutes at evens, and Sutter eclipsed Horvat as Vancouver’s top 5-on-5 centre.
In Game 2, most of the game was played with the score tied. Ottawa’s initial lead lasted all of three minutes; Vancouver took its own lead late in the second which the Senators erased early in the third. Ice-time was reasonably balanced, with a marginal lead for Horvat on Sutter and Sutter on Sedin.
Game 3 is where things get really interesting. Winnipeg held a lead for just under half the game. At even-strength, Horvat and Sedin were used nearly equal amounts with the Canucks trailing for much of the night. How, though, do we explain the shutdown specialist Sutter passing both of them at evens? To some degree that was a function of the Jets famous lack of discipline: Horvat and Sedin played lots on the power play while Vancouver killed few penalties, meaning Sutter was fresher than either for a lot of 5-on-5 shifts.
Green added some more context in his post-game availability, when he was asked if he’d been sending a message to Loui Eriksson and his teammates when he benched the veteran in the last half of the third.
“It was definitely not a message, to anyone,” Green said. “I went down to three lines. I thought Hanks’ line was going well, I kept Bo’s line together and I had Granny, Gagner and Eriksson as a line; I threw Sutter out for the draw and they scored and I liked the energy they had that shift so I stayed with it. It was that simple.”
Sutter had three shifts after that goal for a total of just over two minutes; if not for one good shift where he started due to his faceoff abilities he would have been third in ice-time among these three centres by a substantial amount.
Ice time isn’t the only factor to consider here, of course. The Sedin twins have been on the ice for 18 even-strength offensive zone faceoffs and just 17 combined in the neutral and defensive zone. Horvat’s line has a nearly even balance between offensive, neutral and defensive zone starts. Meanwhile, Sutter’s unit is collecting defensive zone draws over offensive zone draws at a nearly 2:1 clip. The Sedins’ overarching role may have diminished, but it appears they’re still going to be counted on to deliver offensive results.
It’s also suggestive that the importance of the twins is going to increase as the year progresses. The Canucks are 1-1-1 through three games and have spent a significant amount of time playing with a lead. They’re still generally regarded as a club that’s likely to finish in the bottom-third of teams league-wide, so there’s a strong chance that the rest of the way they’ll be doing more trailing than leading, which should push up the ice-time of the Sedins.
Green, a rookie NHL coach, has inherited a team which lacks a superstar line to really push things forward. He appears to have taken the (reasonable) view that the best solution to that in the present is to try things by committee, with specialized lines tasked with doing more in specific situations. In some cases that means empowering the next wave, but in many it means squeezing every possible drop out of his available veterans.
When the Canucks are playing with the lead that might mean Sutter. When they’re trailing, though, the Sedins are going to be nearly as important in the present as they have been over the last decade.