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Markus Granlund Isn’t The Problem, It’s Your Expectations

Obviously, the biggest story of the season has been Brock Boeser, and by extension, the play of fellow youngsters and linemates Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi.

Another young forward has also been a story this season, for all the wrong reasons. After a 19-goal, 32-point performance in 2016-17, Markus Granlund has just four points in 21 games this season.

Granlund was one of the lone bright spots in an abysmal 2016-17 season that saw the Canucks finish 29th overall in the league, with a goals-for total to match. That’s part of the reason why Granlund road into this season on a wave of cautious optimism. There was buzz. Jeff Paterson predicted he would lead the team in goals this season. But from the moment he hit the ice this season, it was apparent something had changed.

We’re past the quarter-mark of the season, which means that fans and media alike feel comfortable to begin drawing conclusions about who has played well and who hasn’t, and boy, a lot of people sure seem to think Granlund hasn’t.

First, there was our own JD Burke.

Then Botch weighed in.

Then Ray Ferraro came to deliver the killing blow on Sekeres and Price earlier this week:

“Granlund has been a ghost for 20 games. Had an outstanding year last year. Lots of guys have one really good year, and then that’s it… they don’t approach that again. Well I want to know if I’m the Canucks… what Granlund… can be and is… now I don’t have a clue. Last year I really liked his energy, I liked the plays that he made. This year it looks like he’ll never score again.”

Yes, it’s true that Markus Granlund has been a disappointment this season compared to last; but that has as much to do with expectations as it does with his play. Things have been vastly different for Granlund, for a myriad of reasons. To begin, let’s look at last season.

The Past

I think before we go any further, I should deliver a mea culpa on behalf of CanucksArmy. We should have been on this way sooner — on even a surface level, it was obvious that Markus Granlund’s production was inflated last season.

I don’t have any experience in psychoanalysis, but if I were to speculate as to why we all slept on this, I’d say it has a bit to do with the circumstances under which Granlund joined the team some time ago. The Canucks acquired Granlund in a controversial trade that saw top prospect Hunter Shinkaruk go the other way, and CanucksArmy, along with most fans, were unenthused. At this stage, it’s looking like we’ll have to take the “L” on that one. For better or worse, Granlund is an NHL player. Shinkaruk, on the other hand, hasn’t lived up to the hype of his draft-season, even at the AHL level.

It’s rare for a player with Granlund’s history up until that point to suddenly break out the way he did. For that reason, we were all a little quiet about the fact that he finished the season having converted 15.6% of his shots. The only player who can count on doing that consistently is Steven Stamkos. If Granlund had finished with a league-average shooting percentage, he would have finished the season with around 12 goals in 69 games. Even over a full season, that works out to only 14-15 goals. Something tells me we aren’t the least bit surprised with his start if he had finished the season with his expected goal total.

On the other hand, Markus Granlund also managed those 19 goals all with a bum wrist, while playing with an offensive anchor in Brandon Sutter. JD was quick to point that out:

This interaction got me thinking: How did Granlund score his goals last season? With whom did he play? Since Corsica’s WOWY function is still a work in progress, I had to employ the good old-fashioned eye test to find out. Thankfully, we have YouTube for that.

I wanted to see if my hunch was correct, so I went back and looked at each of Granlund’s goals from last season. For now, we’ll omit the power play goals, because different factors go into producing with the man advantage — don’t worry, we’ll get to that later. Here’s how the goals break down:

Goal #1: There’s a bit of a defensive breakdown here, and the Canucks can take advantage. Jannik Hansen has a nice pass here, and Granlund does a good job reading the play and heading straight to the net. There’s not a lot of art to it, but Granlund gets full credit for getting where he needs to be.

Goal #2: This one is another example of Granlund going straight to the front of the net to bat one in. Coaches will love that, but he gets a little lucky here. Most of the credit has to go to Hansen for using his speed to get the breakaway and create a rebound for Granlund.

Goal #4: This one comes at three-on-three. We’ll include it because it’s still a different animal from the man advantage. Sutter wins the faceoff, and Granlund is able to get the shot off quick. This is going to become a pattern. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Goal #5: Again, Granlund gets right into the goalie’s kitchen and is able to bat the puck out of mid-air and past Lundqvist. I wouldn’t quite call it pure luck, but it’s also not something that’s easily repeatable.

Goal # 6: This one’s right off a won faceoff again, but this time Granlund goes straight to the net and Eriksson feeds him from behind the net. This is just good execution by the entire line.

Goal #7: This one’s a bit of a gift. Jacob Trouba puts the puck right on Eriksson’s stick, and he’s able to feed a wide-open Granlund, who makes no mistake.

Goal #9: Tip-in. This one is tough to gauge. It looks like it may have hit the Flames defenceman on the way. They can’t all be pretty.

Goal #11: This one is similar to #6. Once again Sutter wins the faceoff and Granlund goes straight to the net to get it through the pads.

Goal #12: The broadcasters generously describe this play as a “steal”, but this is an unforced error by Nikita Zadorov. He turns the puck over behind the net and Granlund pulls off a nice move to catch the goalie off guard. Granlund gets full credit for pressuring Zadorov and fooling the goalie, but you don’t get gift-wrapped opportunities like this one on a regular basis.

Goal #13: Yet another goal straight off a won faceoff. This one is goal #4’s five-on-five cousin. He’s able to use his quick release to put the puck past the Predators’ goaltender before anyone else even knows what’s happening.

Goal #15: Another tip-in. This time, there’s no question. Full credit to Granlund for executing.

Goal #16: Granlund does a good job getting open here, but this is a classic Sedin set-up. A great example of the twins working their magic to open up space and find the soft areas of the ice.

Goal #17: This one comes on a three-on-one. Gaunce and Sutter are the other two players, so Granlund holds on to the puck the entire time.

Goal #18: This one comes off the rush. It’s a great cross-ice feed by Henrik, but Granlund also gets off a good shot here.

Goal #19: This one is all Henrik and Daniel. Off the rush, Henrik makes a beautiful cross-ice pass to Daniel, who feeds it through traffic to set up Granlund. By this point, the goaltender is completely discombobulated, and it’s an easy tap-in.

Going back and looking at these goals, I had a few observations. The first was how many garbage goals Granlund had last season. That’s not a bad thing, that’s how most players score in today’s NHL. I just think a lot of people remember the flashes of one-shot scoring Granlund showed last year. In reality, there were a lot more rebounds and a lot of jabbing at loose pucks in the blue paint. That puts the “bum wrist” aspect in context a bit. Granlund’s goals relied a lot less on his shot last season than I think people realize.

The second takeaway I had was just how many goals Granlund scored right off the faceoff. This doesn’t strike me as easily repeatable for a couple of reasons. First, if it’s a set play, that’s something teams eventually get wise to and start to adjust. Second, there are just so many factors that have to go the Canucks way for these plays to succeed. The centre (Brandon Sutter, in all of these cases,) has to win the faceoff and get the puck to Granlund immediately, and then Granlund has to get the shot off quickly enough to fool the goaltender. It’s also worth noting that the clean shots Granlund was able to get off the faceoff came against Kari Lehtonen and Pekka Rinne, who are both known to be behind the eight-ball at times. Given the randomness of faceoffs and the traffic and chaos that usually ensues in the immediate aftermath, it feels like you can only go back to this well so many times. Unfortunately, there’s a dearth of data and study on the subject, so I don’t feel comfortable coming to a firm conclusion yet, so it remains a hunch.

What stands out about these goals is just how differently Sutter and Granlund were used last season. The importance of zone starts is often greatly overstated, but I think it’s important when considering this particular play because you have to be starting in the offensive zone to execute it. Desjardins liked to dole out zone starts pretty evenly, and in this case, I think it greatly benefited the Sutter-Granlund combo. Sutter generally struggles to generate zone time because of his poor playmaking ability. This is perhaps most notable in transition.

Throughout his career, Sutter has resorted to dump-ins to gain the zone. More often than not, this meant the puck would spend only a few seconds in the offensive zone before it was sent the other way by the opponent. Starting Sutter in the offensive zone went a long way towards mitigating this. Travis Green, on the other hand, has used the Sutter-Granlund combo in a completely different role that not only doesn’t emphasize offence but also rarely allows them to execute a play that they got a lot of mileage out of last season. This means that even if scoring a goal right off a faceoff is a repeatable skill, Granlund isn’t being put in the position to do it to the degree he was last season.

Finally, Granlund was far from the only person creating offence when he was on the ice. Sure, he played a lot with Sutter, who was a complete non-factor on a lot of these goals; but almost all of his minutes with Sutter also came with one of Loui Eriksson or Jannik Hansen, who are both capable of creating offence and had a couple of nice set-ups for Granlund over the course of last season.

If you look at who got the primary assists on Granlund’s goals last season, you’ll see that eight of his goals were assisted by Eriksson, Bo Horvat, or the Sedins. That’s why I don’t think we need to adjust too much for the fact that Granlund spent so much time with Brandon Sutter.

Moving Forward

There are a couple of key differences this season with regards to Granlund. When he had his breakout year, Willie Desjardins had one of the worst offences in the league to work with, and to make matters worse; he didn’t exactly know how to use what he did have. This year not only do the Canucks have a new coach who seems to have a way better idea of how to get the most out of his players, but they also have a lot of new faces at forward. The Canucks prioritized offence this summer, signing Thomas Vanek and Sam Gagner. They’ve also added a lights-out Brock Boeser to their lineup. All these factors mean that Granlund’s usage has been very different from last season.

In 2016-17, Markus Granlund was the Canucks sixth-most used forward on the man advantage (131 minutes), just a few minutes ahead of Sven Baertschi. He rewarded Willie Desjardins by being the Canucks second-most productive forward per minute at 5-on 4, scoring four goals and four assists. This season, Granlund is the Canucks ninth-most used forward, and is on pace to see just over a third of the power play minutes he saw last season. Perhaps more importantly, the emergence of Brock Boeser virtually guarantees Granlund won’t be seeing any time with Horvat on the man advantage. That’s unfortunate for him because the Horvat-Granlund duo was a relatively productive one at 5-on-4 last year.

At even-strength, it’s more or less the same story. This season, Granlund is on pace to spend less than 2/3 of the time even-strength time he spent with Eriksson in 2016-17. He’s played 9 minutes at evens with the Sedins, and six with Bo Horvat. That’s not exactly a recipe for another 19-goal season.

So, what should we expect from Markus Granlund this season?

First of all, I think it’s clear that expecting Granlund to have a repeat of last year was unfair from the get-go, given his usage. The idea that Granlund was carrying his line offensively is a myth, at least when you look at the results.

Goals can be pretty random; but for whatever it’s worth, Granlund has been deprived of a lot of the things that made him successful last season.

That’s actually a good thing.

Part of the reason Markus Granlund had such a good year last season is that the Canucks just didn’t have anybody else to fill his role. He got more offensive opportunities, more minutes, and better linemates than he probably deserved, and he was able to capitalize. This season, the Canucks have better players to give those opportunities, and Granlund has been left playing with some of the team’s least offensively gifted players.

Believe it or not, he’s been fine, all things considered. Thus far, Markus Granlund has played most of his even-strength minutes this season with Derek Dorsett and Brandon Sutter. Here’s how those players have fared with each other, according to natural stat trick:

Not great, right? Well, here’s how those players fared without Markus Granlund:

This is far from a representative sample, but something tells me Granlund might not be the only problem here.

There’s no denying that he hasn’t been at his best this season. But he’s also kept up one thing he was able to do last year: drag Sutter kicking and screaming towards a respectable shot-share. That has to be worth something.

To be clear, I’m not trying to make the case that Markus Granlund has been good this season. He very clearly hasn’t. But what did you expect? He shot over 15% last season. He’s seen next to no PP time, played most of the season without a playmaker, and given who’s in front of him on the depth chart it’s been completely justified.

Granlund is on pace for 12 goals this season. He probably should have only had 15 last year.

Maybe that’s just what Granlund is: a 12-15 goal, bottom-six utility player.

And that’s fine.

  • Fred-65

    I tend to think Granlund is being sacrificed this season, the majority of his points last season were put playing alongside the Sedins. This season Green is trying to force the square peg into the round hole by playing Virtanen in that spot. It should be team first Travis

  • jaybird43

    I think Granlund is a fine third line player. There’s no shame in that, and 12 to 18 goals is a reasonable expectation in that role, provided he’s not always out against the McDavid’s of the world. If so, then maybe like Sutter if you end up with a small minus in the plus/minus at the end of the year, then that’s a valuable contribution too.

    As to Fred-65 and Virtanen’s role on the twin’s line – maybe he’s just trying to get him with the right type of folks, so that his attitude stays positive and he remains as a team guy. Plus, maybe Green is also thinking that the Sedins informally coach him, to elevate his hockey IQ, so he can better take advantage of that gorgeous skating of his? My 2 cents …

  • wojohowitz

    I`d like to see you do this type of analysis for Pouliot. Is he really better than he was last year? Did he plateau in Pittsburgh over his four years and not show year over year improvement? Is he in over his head or will he be a top four D-man for years to come? How could the Stanley Cup winning Penguins so misjudge an individual`s upside?

    • DJ_44

      I have yet to read a current CanucksArmy contributer that is capable of thoroughly understanding hockey video analysis, or really how the game is played. Careful what you request.

      With respect to Pouliot, I think he is a more skilled version of Stecher, although Stecher (appears to have?) has more drive.
      Sometimes coaches, like fans or bloggers or commentors, develop an opinion of a player and will become blind to their strengths and only see their (perceived) weaknesses. Stats does not cut through this; the eye-test does not cut through this.

      I am as guilty as the next guy; but let’s be honest, Poulliot should play over Hutton all day long. 🙂

  • Laxbruh15

    Granlund can be a fifty point player, the amount of skill that he has, his ability to go to the net, and his shot are all more than enough to get him there. The reality is though, is that he’s playing on the checking line. The majority of his starts are defensive, they don’t get enough time to set up in the offensive zone when they are there due to line changes, and sutter isn’t the best at distributing, but he is decent. In actuality, his offensive talents aren’t being used the best that they could. With him playing in a solid spot right now on the third with vanek and loui, I would expect his offense to increase by a fair amount. Markus also has extremely similar possession stats to his brother who centers minnesota’s top line. It’s more than possible for him to be a top six winger or center.

    • mgg

      Mikael Granlund has been moved to wing under Torchetti. It’s Koivu that plays centre on that line. Boudreau calls Koivu-Granlund his shutdown line and talks of how the last time he had such a productive shutdown line was back in the ECHL. Zone starts of 39% this season. That’s the lowest on the team. Staal centres the Wild’s top offensive line.
      Granlund played 14 games with Sutter/Dorsett and 7 games with a mix of Vanek/Eriksson/Gagner.

  • Laxbruh15

    Granlund can be a fifty point player, the amount of skill that he has, his ability to go to the net, and his shot are all more than enough to get him there. The reality is though, is that he’s playing on the checking line. The majority of his starts are defensive, they don’t get enough time to set up in the offensive zone when they are there due to line changes, and sutter isn’t the best at distributing, but he is decent. In actuality, his offensive talents aren’t being used the best that they could. With him playing in a solid spot right now on the third with vanek and loui, I would expect his offense to increase by a fair amount. Markus also has extremely similar possession stats to his brother who centers minnesota’s top line. It’s more than possible for him to be a top six winger or center.

  • DJ_44

    Thanks for the highlight real. I find this statement bizarre.

    Going back and looking at these goals, I had a few observations. The first was how many garbage goals Granlund had last season.

    Perhaps you should watch them again. Garbage goals are defections of shin pads, off defenders asses, etc. I would perhaps refer to one of Granlund’s stuff rebound goals as “garbage”, but that is it. The rest were pure goal-scorer nose for the net type goals. They resemble very much the same type of goals Baertschi gets. the majority of them are snipper type shots. He would have easily gotten over 20 goals last year if they did not shut him down going into full tank mode.

    I, for one, am not disappointed in Granlund’s play this year. He should be on the PP over Gagner simply because he has better hands and hockey sense — in short, a better hockey player.

    Botchford, and most others (petbugs), are only trying to save face since they stated the Shinkaruk trade was terrible. There was even a CanucksArmy hit piece that questioned if Granlund was good at hockey before the start of last season.

    He will get 15 goals this year, more if they put him on the second PP unit.

    • Dirty30

      At the time I considered it a poor trade but Granlund is playing in the NHL and showing more success than a few other players. If he turns out to be Hansen or better (who the Sharks gave up Goldy and a potential first that became a fourth to get) then giving up Hunter for Granlund is looking like very fair value. Being on a shutdown type line might not be his strength but he’s doing okay with it.

  • TD

    Granlund is one of the few solid defensive players on the roster. The team lacks penalty killers or shut down players. Look how bad Gagner looks replacing Granlund/Dorsett. Without Burrows and Hansen, Granlund is shoulder mor penalty killing. It naturally has an effect on his offence. Good article and analysis.

    • Fred-65

      We can’t take away his success from last season, the stats are there never to be expunged. As the Sedins noted Marcus is a very smart player. His role with the Canucks has not been replaced by Virtanen. The fact is they lost Granlunds scoring ability and not replaced it with Virtanen. That’s a net loss to the club and frankly does not make sense. He’s a RFA with arbitration rights in the summer. If you were his agent want advise would you give him

  • Killer Marmot

    Maybe that’s just what Granlund is: a 12-15 goal, bottom-six utility player.

    Granlund’s average time-on-ice is fourth among all forwards. Quite an achievement for a bottom-six utility player.

    Although we may think in terms of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th lines, with the expectation that the first two are going to be the most offensively talented and get the most ice time, Green doesn’t see the world like that. A shut-down line getting the most ice time in many games is just fine with him. I guess you can call that line “bottom-six”, but I wouldn’t.

    • jaybird43

      Killer, I agree that Green doesn’t see the world in 1-4 lines, and I think Granlund’ s totals are low because of both his linemates and the role he’s being cast in. On a real strong team, I’d see him on the third line, but it’s definitely possible his being is 2nd line for a couple of years, or during various stretches.

  • Drancer the Prancer

    I see Granlund as a more versatile version of Hansen.

    Which is a middle six forward that can play a decade in the league.

    Jackson is just using this fake debate between himself, Burke and Patterson to downplay Granlund and, by extension, the clear win of a trade that Benning made by unloading another piece of Gillis garbage.

    Similar to Kassian, Lack, Corrado, Rodin, Jensen etc.

    “Granlund is on pace for 12 goals this season. He probably should have only had 15 last year.”

    Even 15 goals in 69 games would be 18 in 82 for a 23 year old. That’s a solid middle six forward.

    Granlund was a little lucky last year and a little unlucky in a small sample so far this year.

    “Maybe that’s just what Granlund is: a 12-15 goal, bottom-six utility player.”

    Was Jackson sick the day they taught math in math class?


  • Jabs

    Granlund had a fantastic season last year and I think he is having one again this season. The big difference is the roles he is playing, he is proving to be a very adaptable player who can play anywhere from the first to fourth line.
    Last year, Granlund was playing on a scoring line for a good part of the year, what did he do? he scored. This year he is playing a shutdown role and looks very good with his speed and a bit of grit in shutting the best forwards in the league down.

    That said, he was so good with the Sedins last year, I would have liked to see that continue, swap him out with Virtanen and let Granlund score and Virtanen grind and I think you’d have a winner.