Single Round Heroes

Compared to other leagues, the NHL is pretty generous in handing out playoff berths – 16 of 30 teams (53.3%) make the post-season every year, meaning that every year more teams are active then are eliminated.

Yet, despite this relatively generous playoff structure, the simple fact is that in any given year most players are going to play very few playoff games. Only eight teams advance past the first round, and that means that every season three-quarters of the players in the NHL will play in seven or fewer playoff games.

What does this mean? It means that we generally form a conclusion on a player’s post-season abilities (think words like ‘clutch,’ ‘elevating his game,’ ‘stepping up,’ etc.) based on a rather small sample. Does that matter?

One of the players it would have mattered for this year is Canucks’ star Ryan Kesler.

After the Canucks’ first-round series against Chicago, the press reviews of Kesler’s play were not overwhelmingly negative, but the general consensus was that he simply wasn’t doing enough – he’d scored 41 goals in the regular season, and none in seven games against the Blackhawks. Here’s a sample of commentary on Kesler’s play from the latter half of that first round series:

[Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows] are being leaned on as penalty killers, and Kesler’s line has important defensive responsibilities against Jonathan Toews’s line. Still, Vancouver’s third- and fourth-best forwards have yet to score in this series, and they’re developing reputations as postseason passengers.

– Matthew Sekeres, Globe and Mail, April 21, 2011

Vigneault was asked today if his star players — players like goalie Roberto Luongo and underperforming forwards like Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows — can [raise their games]… Luongo has to prove he can make the big saves when it counts, Henrik has to play like a Hart Trophy winner and Kesler and Burrows have to start producing like they do in the regular season.

– Brad Ziemer, Vancouver Sun, April 24, 2011

Question No. 2: Which no-show in the goal column has most hindered the Canucks drive to finish off the Blackhawks: Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Henrik Sedin?

Ryan Kesler.

– Unanimous answer of the TSN panel (Bob McKenzie, Aaron Ward, and Craig MacTavish) on April 22, 2011.

Now, let’s pretend for a moment that history happened a little differently: in overtime, with Alex Burrows in the box for holding, the Blackhawks power play sets up a back-door play. In this version of events, Patrick Sharp gets the puck a moment earlier, or fires it a couple of inches up or over, or Roberto Luongo is a moment slower in reacting. Any of those things could have happened, and any of them would have resulted in a Game Seven win for Chicago, and an historic series loss for Vancouver.

What would we be saying about Ryan Kesler, had history gone that way? Remember that his playoff career record has been mixed to date; here’s what it would have looked like after that Game Seven in our slightly altered history:

Season Team Games Goals Assists Points +/-
2006-07 Vancouver 1 0 0 0 0
2008-09 Vancouver 10 2 2 4 -2
2009-10 Vancouver 12 1 9 10 3
2010-11 Vancouver 7 0 4 4 4
Totals 30 3 15 18 5

That isn’t good at all. We have a 30-game track record to judge Kesler with, and now he’s been a part of three consecutive losses to Chicago. Over those last three years, Kesler scored 92 regular season goals – and he’s been held to just three in the playoffs over that span. He’s recorded 207 points over that span (0.841 points/game) and just managed 18 in the post-season – that’s a 30% drop in scoring once the playoffs start!

In this alternate history, we’d have a very good regular season team coming off a third-consecutive series loss to Chicago in the most humiliating possible fashion (blowing a 3-0 series lead) and a media and fan-base eager to apportion blame. One imagines that they’d start with the easiest targets: Alain Vigneault would be dismissed, the Sedins would be ridiculed, and Luongo’s lack of clutch would be heralded around the hockey world. Even so, Kesler would face his share of criticism – three goals in three years simply isn’t good enough for a guy who scored 41 in the regular season.

Fortunately for Canucks fans, that didn’t happen. Kesler played the most spectacular series in recent memory against the Predators – in six games he scored five goals and added six assists, all while playing a ridiculous amount of minutes. He’s been elevated to the status of Playoff MVP for the Canucks, and given the relative weakness of Dwayne Roloson’s Tampa Bay Lightning must be regarded as the current favourite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

It’s quite a chasm, isn’t it? In this case, the difference between being a front-runner for the playoff MVP trophy, and putting in yet another disappointing performance for a disappointing team all came down to Patrick Sharp putting a shot an inch or two over.

The next time I read about how Player X can’t elevate his game in the post-season, isn’t a winner, or simply can’t get it done when the games really count, I think I’ll remind myself of Ryan Kesler and the folly that is judging a player on his all-too short playoff career.