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As with the Ryan Miller article yesterday, this article was originally intended to go into an NHL annual.

In forty years of NHL play, the play of the Vancouver Canucks has varied between "atrocious" and "very good", with far more time spent at the former end of the scale than the latter. The early 21st century Canucks managed to climb the pole to very good but were done in by various flaws, most notably the goaltending that they received from Dan Cloutier. The 2009-10 edition of the Canucks was closer to the “very good” end of the scale, but like previous incarnations it was a flawed team – particularly in terms of forward depth.

The top end of the team – not just this past season, but for the last few – is very good at controlling the play at even-strength. The Sedin twins are a phenomenally successful pairing, and they are more than the sum of their point totals because they do a very good job of controlling puck position. Many Canucks fans criticize their cycling game, but the reality is that whenever the puck is getting cycled in the offensive zone, it isn’t anywhere near the Canucks’ net. Playing with the puck in the other team’s end is a great way to play defence. In addition to the Sedins, Vancouver had Ryan Kesler and a strong supporting cast on the top two lines; taken together, it’s a respectable engine for a contending team.

The story is completely different when it comes to the bottom end of this team. The second half of the forward corps do two key things badly at even-strength: they don’t generate offence and they do a bad job of limiting opposition offence. Some of that isn’t their fault; Alain Vigneault made some interesting decisions with the ice-time he gave to his forwards, so there were some contextual reasons that explain some of their results, but even allowing for that, the difference is startling.

Looking At The Players

To give us an idea of how good the individuals at the top half of the Canucks’ line-up were last season at even strength, we’ll consider some rate statistics: points, plus/minus, shots plus/minus and Corsi plus/minus, all per sixty minutes of ice-time. Points and plus/minus are included for obvious reasons, while shots and Corsi (or shot attempts) do a good job of showing us where the puck was when these players were on the ice.

Table 1: Selected Results of Top Seven Canuck Forwards at ES, 2009-10

Player

PTS/60

GD/60

SD/60

Corsi/60

D. Sedin

4.04

2.54

4.10

15.7

H. Sedin

3.96

1.93

2.00

13.5

A. Burrows

2.68

1.34

2.30

10.5

R. Kesler

2.29

0.16

4.90

11.8

M. Samuelsson

2.15

0.72

5.00

14.8

M. Raymond

1.87

0.00

7.20

13.9

P. Demitra

1.16

0.67

-1.5

-4.2

Those are excellent results. At the top end of the roster, the Sedin twins had superstar years at even-strength after previous years of very high-end performance; they put up great point totals, outscored the opposition by a wide margin, outshot the opposition, and consistently dominated the possession game. There is good reason to believe that this level of performance is unsustainable – the Sedin twins’ on-ice shooting percentage increased by 34% from 2008-09 and is well above NHL average – but even taking that into account both players had a very good year.

The rest of the players on this list all had good scoring totals as support players, with Kesler and Burrows both above average and the other three providing excellent support relative to where they are on the depth chart. Aside from Kesler, who had some circumstances against him (strong opposition, a bunch of defensive zone starts) and Demitra, who we will consider in just a moment, all were pluses, all outshot the opposition, and all had a positive possession number.

Demitra is the lone exception to this positive trend; shoulder surgery limited his playing time and his effectiveness when he was in the line-up. All of his results this season are well below both his career averages and the performance expected of a top-six forward.

The difference between the top half of the roster and the bottom half of the roster is huge. Normally there is some difference, but in Vancouver it goes above and beyond the average.

Ta
ble 2: Selected Results of Bottom Six Canuck Forwards at ES, 2009-10

Player

PTS/60

GD/60

SD/60

Corsi/60

J. Hansen

1.75

-0.62

1.30

3.7

S. Bernier

1.65

0.18

-3.9

-3.0

K. Wellwood

1.30

0.68

-0.3

1.2

T. Glass

1.03

0.19

-7.0

-13.3

R. Rypien

1.00

0.38

-5.5

-15.4

R. Johnson

0.67

0.54

-11.4

-25.8

D. Hordichuk

0.36

-1.25

-9.5

-19.9

The scoring totals for all of these players (excepting Jannik Hansen) at even-strength are pretty ugly. Steve Bernier’s numbers are passable thanks to some time spent higher up the depth chart, while Kyle Wellwood’s numbers point to a guy who is still a fringe NHL player, but the other four guys contribute almost nothing to the offence. On any given night, that means one-third of the forwards on the ice have negligible scoring value.

The plus/minus for the players on this list is actually inflated. Aside from Darcy Hordichuk (0.913 SV%) all of these players had on-ice even-strength save percentages of between 0.937 and 0.953, which are excellent – Bernier, Wellwood, Glass, Rypien and Johnson all finished in the top-50 of NHL forwards in on-ice save percentage. It seems doubtful that these players were causing that, and it is more likely a function of Roberto Luongo, weaker opposition and simple variance.

All of the players save Hansen were outshot, and aside from Wellwood all of the players were on the wrong end of the possession game. Steve Bernier’s numbers look better than the rest, but some of that is simply the result of the fact that he spent a good portion of the season playing in the top-six with quality line-mates.

The argument could be made that for every team the bottom-six forwards perform at a lesser level than the top-six forwards, and that’s true, but in Vancouver’s case the effect is more noticeable. In 2009-10, the average NHL’er playing less than 10 minutes per game (Glass, Rypien, Johnson and Hordichuk all qualify) scored 1.10 PTS/60, had a goal differential of -0.67, a shot differential of -2.7 and a Corsi rating of -7.4. Aside from goal differential, the Canucks bottom four trail in all categories.

While the numbers suggest a significant spread, they don’t tell us the whole story. Behindthenet.ca tracks data that helps in quantifying the strength of competition and opposition faced by players, as well as factors that are less obvious but that will affect their numbers, like the number of faceoffs that they get in the offensive zone.

Table 3:

Player

PTS/60

Off. FO %

QualComp

QualTeam

D. Sedin

4.04

61.8%

9th

2nd

H. Sedin

3.96

57.7%

6th

3rd

A. Burrows

2.68

56.5%

4th

1st

R. Kesler

2.29

45.1%

1st

4th

M. Samuelsson

2.15

50.3%

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5th

6th

M. Raymond

1.87

49.1%

2nd

8th

J. Hansen

1.75

49.8%

8th

9th

S. Bernier

1.65

49.5%

11th

7th

K. Wellwood

1.30

45.9%

7th

10th

P. Demitra

1.16

47.4%

3rd

5th

T. Glass

1.03

42.1%

10th

11th

R. Rypien

1.00

41.4%

14th

14th

R. Johnson

0.67

32.2%

12th

13th

D. Hordichuk

0.36

39.4%

13th

12th

Alain Vigneault had a tendency to send out his bottom-end players in a lot of defensive zone situations, reserving the opportunities in the offensive zone for the Sedins and Alex Burrows.

The quality of competition and teammate ratings don’t show any real surprises. Ryan Kesler and Co. were charged with handling the opposition’s really big guns with second-tier support, while the Sedin line was slid out against the second-tier opponents with top-end support. Wellwood and Hansen sort of fell in the middle (with Bernier/Glass on occasion) while the fourth line played against the dregs while being supported by the dregs.

The faceoff data is interesting, however. The fourth line (and Glass) almost never saw the ice except in the defensive zone, while Kesler and Wellwood saw a lot of defensive draws (presumably because that was who Coach Vigneault wanted in the faceoff circle at important goal-prevention moments) The Sedin twins saw favourable zone deployment along with Alex Burrows, while the rest of the roster more or less had a 50/50 split.

Fixing The Forwards

Looking at this data, we might come to a few conclusions as to how last year’s very good Canucks team might show some improvement and take another step towards becoming a Stanley Cup contender.

1 . Steve Bernier was a real problem. He was paid a substantial wage, sent out in favourable circumstances, but didn’t contribute much either offensively or defensively. His negligible contributions to the cause are all the more glaring by virtue of his consumption of money that could have been spent on other players. Bernier is now 25 years old, and for three seasons his offence has been stagnant – 1.66 PTS/60 at 5 on 5 and 1.65 PTS/60 last year. He’s also routinely out-shot and there is no reason to believe that is going to cease.

2 . The whole bottom half of the roster could stand a significant upgrade. While the fourth line was being put into unpleasant situations, and Ryan Johnson has a solid reputation around the NHL as a penalty-killer, they were simply overwhelmed by players hanging out at the fringes of the opposing team’s roster.

3 . Hansen and Wellwood are the two players on the fringes, with Hansen certainly worth keeping (and perhaps giving more ice-time to) and Wellwood probably better suited to the fourth line than to a third line role at this point in time.

The decisions made by Mike Gillis over the summer look to have been aimed at addressing some of these problems. The decision to send Steve Bernier to Florida was a solid one: he wasn’t adding much of anything and was overpaid at $2.0MM per season. Moving his salary was a good thing. Victor Oreskovich was part of the return in that deal and, while he has yet to really establish himself as an NHL regular, he played a fourth line role for Florida in 2008-09 and despite getting a lot of defensive zone starts had somewhat better results than any of the Canucks current fourth liners. He also brings size and a physical game, which is important because size and a physical game are good things, but more important because the Canucks management and coaching staff seems to suffer from that particular monomania when it comes to their end-of-roster players. If they’re going to maintain an obsessive focus on players of this type, better that they gather ones who cost $0.575MM annually than ones who come with Bernier’s price tag.

As of this writing, neither Wellwood nor Johnson has been re-signed, which is probably a good thing given their likely replacements, their performance last season, and the salaries that they would likely command, and Pavol Demitra has been allowed to depart for the KHL after an ineffective season. Manny Malhotra came at a relatively high price ($7.5 million over three years, along with a no-trade clause), but he will do a lot to shore up the bottom-six. He brings a wealth of qualities the Canucks like to have at the bottom of the line-up (faceoff ability, decent size, a willingness to play physically at times) but, more importantly, he’s a splendid third-line hockey player. Over the last three years Malhotra has been either first or second on his team in terms of defensive zone starts, and despite that (
And facing quality opponents) he has performed rather well, with positive Corsi and shot differential. He’s also an upgrade on the scoring front; he’s averaged 1.70 PTS/60 over the last three seasons.

It’s always a little bit dicey to expect a rookie to do any sort of heavy lifting, but Cody Hodgson has a strong resume and should put in a better performance than Vancouver’s bottom-six options last season. Hodgson’s a quality offensive prospect, but he was also described as the “most complete player” in the OHL by his coach in Brampton and he’s generally compared to strong two-way players such as Chris Drury or Trevor Linden. I’m less convinced that Jordan Schroeder (if he makes the team) can contribute in a bottom-six role, but it’s possible that he might be placed on a sheltered scoring line in a scenario that would see one of the Canucks’ established players take on a more difficult role. The Canucks also added Joel Perrault and Jeff Tambellini to the mix, and either could conceivably make the team out of training camp. Both players are experienced professionals who have had difficulty translating good AHL careers to the NHL level. I’d expect both to start 2010-11 in the AHL and possibly make an appearance in the show as injuries crop up or players struggle. At this point, neither seems like a sure bet to outperform the Canucks’ current options, and neither really fits the profile of a Canucks’ fourth-liner.

In short, Gillis has done some good things and improved the situation (the addition of Malhotra is huge, Hodgson can help and Oreskovich should be a modest improvement over some current players) but at this point it still looks like he’s going to enter next season with a line-up that will feature two of Glass, Rypien and Hordichuk on any given night, and sometimes all three.

During the 2009-10 playoffs, Alain Vigneault took a different tack with his fourth line; Hordichuk didn’t play at all, while Glass, Rypien, and Johnson were all used sparingly – all of them averaging less than five minutes per game at 5 on 5 when they did play and none of them appearing in more than seven games.

For the sake of the team, it is to be hoped that Vigneault adopts a similar policy to their regular season ice-time in 2010-11.

Comments (1)

  1. Wonderful article. Malhotra has been great in his role (66% in facoffs). I like the fact that they have Hodgson in the AHL to build for a year rather than play less than 10 minutes a night centering the fourth line.

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