Just when you thought that Jim Benning had run out of time again, the Vancouver Canucks GM pulled a rabbit out of his hat by trading a 2021 3rd round pick in exchange for Dallas Stars centre Jason Dickinson.
The initial response from the fanbase has been overwhelmingly positive, and rightfully so. Dickinson is a prototypical shutdown forward who’s exactly what Vancouver needs to centre their third line. However, the 26-year-old is also an RFA who’s eligible for arbitration, so we’ll need to wait and see what contract he signs before giving a final grade on this deal. Regardless, fans should be excited about the addition of Dickinson, and it all starts with his defensive game.
Dickinson was one of the best forwards in the league at suppressing scoring chances against last season, which helped him post some impressive defensive numbers. In fact, his 1.62 expected goals against per 60 was the third-lowest number amongst all forwards who played at least 500 minutes at five on five, placing him in the 99th percentile last year. His 1.87 actual goals against per 60 wasn’t too shabby either, as he was still ranked in the 87th percentile in this category.
Dickinson’s defensive prowess also allowed him to post some good possession numbers, as he had a 56% corsi and 57.61% expected goals percentage at five on five. His actual goals percentage was more disappointing at 47.62%, but that was caused by his poor offensive game, which will be touched on later.
Much of his shutdown ability comes from the quality of chances that he allows. As you can see in the graphs below (which show his isolated defensive impact), opposing teams have had a hard time generating scoring opportunities in front of the Stars’ net throughout Dickinson’s career. The blue spots indicate that fewer shots were taken from that area when compared with the league average, and as a result, Dallas has also conceded fewer expected goals per 60 than most teams, too.
Dickinson’s ability to limit net-front opportunities from the opposition will be a welcome addition to a Vancouver team that has constantly been peppered by high-danger chances in front of the goal.
Another area in which Dickinson will make a large impact is on the penalty kill. Last season, the Stars allowed 7.14 expected goals against per 60 when the 26-year-old was deployed shorthanded, which is roughly an average rate. Meanwhile, the Canucks’ penalty kill conceded 8.03 expected goals against per 60, ranking 25th in the league.
Surprisingly, Dallas was actually 19th in penalty kill percentage while Vancouver was 17th. This discrepancy between expected and actual numbers was a result of each team’s performances in net. Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko combined to save four goals above average while shorthanded but Anton Khudobin and Jake Oettinger combined for -1.2.
In other words, the Stars’ disappointing penalty kill was caused by their goaltending and not any poor play from Dickinson, while on the other hand, Holtby and Demko largely masked some lacklustre shorthanded play in front of them by exceeding expectations. If Vancouver’s netminders can continue to perform well next year, then Dickinson’s defensive prowess could help the Canucks ice an above-average penalty kill.
With that said, one area of concern is Dickinson’s poor faceoff percentage, which was at 46% last year. This shouldn’t be a big problem when Vancouver is shorthanded since Jay Beagle or J.T. Miller can take draws, but it could cause Travis Green some small headaches at even strength. The best solution could be playing Miller on his wing for short spurts when the Canucks are about to take a crucial defensive zone faceoff, and I’m cautiously optimistic that Dickinson will be able to improve his percentage when playing on one of the best faceoff teams in the league.
Outside of his faceoff woes, I’ve portrayed Dickinson almost like the second coming of Patrice Bergeron, but fans should expect some regression from him defensively moving forward. For one, he mainly matched up against average competition last year and played with good linemates too.
As you can see, his quality of competition (QoC) ranked in the 45th percentile while his quality of teammates (QoT) was in the nice 69th percentile. We just don’t have enough data to predict how he might fare when shouldering Bo Horvat’s matchups, as the latter’s QoC was 100%.
More importantly, Dickinson will likely play the majority of his minutes alongside Tyler Motte and Vasily Podkolzin, which will be a large talent drop-off from Jamie Benn and Denis Gurianov, his two most frequent linemates last year. Recent history has shown that a player’s performance is tied much closer to the quality of their teammates rather than the competition that they face, so it’s very possible that Dickinson’s game might suffer slightly when deployed beside weaker players.
Furthermore, it’s well-known that Dallas plays a defensive system that stifles opposing scoring chances, while the Canucks are permissive, to say the least. As a result, it’s likely that Dickinson’s defensive numbers will take a hit when he plays in Vancouver’s uptempo, north-south style of game.
Even so, his defensive game is more representative of his individual skillset than a product of the Stars’ system, as is demonstrated by his isolated stats.
So while it’s unrealistic to expect Dickinson to continue producing numbers reminiscent of a potential Selke nominee, he should still be a very good defensive centre who could handle a lot (but maybe not all) of the matchup minutes that were previously placed on Horvat’s shoulders.
O offence, where art thou?
As you might expect, Dickinson’s offensive numbers aren’t as pretty. Outside of an outlier 2018-19 season, he has generated expected goals at a below-average rate, and looking at his actual results almost warrants an NSFW tag.
Last year, he only scored 0.86 points per 60 at five on five, which ranked 10th among Dallas forwards who played over 200 minutes. That number would’ve been 12th on the Canucks, and there’s no arguing that Dickinson’s offensive production is that of a fourth-liner. Dickinson’s poor finishing ability is also why his actual goals percentage (47.62%) is so far below his expected mark (57.61%), and his shutdown ability is the only thing preventing him from being significantly outscored at five on five.
As stated before, he played with legitimate top-six calibre forwards in Benn and Gurianov as well, so he didn’t suffer from Horvat’s “bad linemates syndrome” either. Moreover, Dickinson’s poor production wasn’t a product of bad luck, as he registered seven goals but was actually expected to score 6.19. It isn’t an overstatement to say that he’s a black hole on offence, and he actually negatively impacts a team’s chances of winning on that side of the puck.
However, there are always two sides of the same coin, and while playing in Vancouver’s system could hurt his defensive numbers, it could also boost his offensive production. Both Brandon Sutter and Beagle scored over 1.0 points per 60 at five on five last year, so it’s fair to expect Dickinson to do the same. Even if it does happen, it’s unlikely that he’ll produce much better than a low-end third-line player on offence. Fortunately, he doesn’t need to score to make an impact, as his impact comes entirely from his defensive game, and he’s still a valuable player overall.
Jason Dickinson was one of the best forwards at suppressing scoring chances last season and will be a great fit on a Canucks team that has been searching forever for a defensively reliable third-line centre. Fans shouldn’t expect much from him on offence and he might not replicate his dominant shutdown abilities as consistently since Vancouver plays a more uptempo system, but Dickinson will still be a reliable defensive presence who can take a major load off of Horvat’s shoulders.
More importantly, this trade gives the Canucks more lineup flexibility since it will allow them to reunite the Lotto Line. There was a time when Miller seemed destined to start the season as the team’s 3C, but he’s much better suited to the wing, and Vancouver will be able to ice one of the best lines in the entire league once again.
Overall, this trade is a huge win for the Canucks, as they might’ve found their long-term 3rd line centre while only giving up a mid-round pick. There’s still work to be done on Dickinson’s contract, but the team has undoubtedly improved and this will likely be remembered as one of the best moves made during the Benning era.