Looking back at the season that was, you’d be be hard-pressed to find a more disappointing player than Markus Granlund. After a breakout 19-goal, 32-point 2016-17 campaign, Granlund finished the season with just 12 points and looked worse by virtually every statistical measure available.
Any analysis of Granlund’s season must begin with a look at why he fared so well in 2016-17. This was something I looked at in an earlier article, following his cold start to the season. I looked at every one of his goals, and concluded his performance was likely a one-off:
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.
To make a long story short, Granlund’s impressive 2016-17 campaign likely wasn’t going to be repeated given the luck and increased opportunity that went into it. Even if Granlund were capable of shooting at a 15% clip again, he wasn’t going to get the favourable deployment he received in 2016-17. There were simply better players blocking his way this time around.
Given the role that was left over for Granlund after the additions of Gagner, Vanek, and Boeser, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised things turned out the way they did. The differences are enough to give you whiplash. Granlund went from playing prime offensive minutes on the team’s top line (and in an ill-advised secondary scoring role with Brandon Sutter), to playing primarily in a shutdown role.
Granlund playing big minutes with Brandon Sutter was nothing new, but the context had changed significantly. Anyone who watched more than ten minutes of Canucks hockey last season would be able to gleam that the Brandon Sutter line was not out there to score goals. The Granlund-Sutter combo received a ton of defensive zone starts and often played against the team’s toughest competition. While these factors can often be overrated, it’s not out of bounds to suggest it the situation Granlund found himself in was sub-optimal.
Overall, the underlying metrics don’t paint a pretty picture for Granlund, but for what it’s worth, his two most common linemates posted downright ugly numbers when he wasn’t stapled to their wing. There’s a legitimate case to be made that Granlund not only kept Sutter’s numbers from completely cratering this season, but also saw a significant dip in his own numbers because of his deployment.
Looking again at my piece from early last season, I think it’s important to keep in mind that Granlund’s loss was in many ways the team’s gain:
[I]t’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.
The Canucks lineup is bound to look completely different next season, and Granlund stands to be one of the players that could most benefit the most from the changes. The Canucks’ coaching staff wasn’t afraid to experiment with a more modern look in their bottom-six, as they frequently deployed players in a sheltered scoring role. I’d like to see Granlund get a look on a modern fourth line, perhaps as a two-way presence with Adam Gaudette and Sam Gagner. Granlund also had some success with Loui Eriksson, who the Canucks will also be looking to step up in the absence of Henrik and Daniel Sedin. That absence also means an additional two spots will be open on the teams power-play units. Granlund scored a couple of power play goals at the tail end of the 2016-17 season and looked good in the process, so perhaps he could fill a spot on the team’s second unit.
Regardless of how the Canucks’ coaching staff handles Garnlund, I think we could all use to temper our expectations. Granlund likely should have been a 15-goal, 30-point player in 2016-17, and that’s likely what he’s going to be moving forward. That being said, I see no reason why he can’t get back to playing the way that made him successful in his breakout season with some changes in his deployment. The days of him getting the type of looks in the team’s top-six that he received under Willie Desjardins are likely a thing of the past, but that’s probably a good thing.