Sunday, 31 March 2013

They Are(n't) Who We Thought They Were

The Canucks lost 4-0 last night to the god awful up-and-coming Edmonton Oilers, and the final score probably flattered Vancouver. This game was really over in the first five minutes when Cory Schneider regressed in a hurry, letting in two goals on the first two shots he saw. Luongo wasn't much better in relief, letting in two more on his first three shots before he settled down and made some miraculous saves that kept the score from looking really absurd. But if you want game reviews, you'll go to Canucks Army or Pass it to Bulis or something. What I want to talk about here is why this Canucks team is so painfully average.

I preface this post by pointing out that the Canucks are currently 4th in the Western Conference, and a top-10 team in the entire NHL, despite some of their perceived struggles and relentless complaining of the Vancouver market. They just rattled off six consecutive wins, and are looking like they'll make the playoffs once again. They still can be good. Ho-hum.

But they're not without their warts, as pointed out by the TEAM 1040's Jeff Paterson:
I don't really believe in excluding games from the sample, because that kind of data manipulation can be used to tell whatever story you want, but since the Nashville game is quite clearly an outlier, it's fair in this case and his point is valid - the team can't score. After last night, they sat in the dead centre of the league in even-strength goals-for per game at 15th overall, rubbing elbows with the Capitals and Wild. They're on pace for 148 even strength goals this season, which is down 12 goals from last year and 17 from 2010-2011. So, where did all the offense go? Well, let's just look at the lineup the Canucks iced yesterday:

D. Sedin - H. Sedin - A. Burrows
M. Raymond - J. Schroeder - J. Hansen
C. Higgins - A. Ebbett - S. Pinizzotto
T. Sestito - M. Lapierre - A. Gordon

D. Hamhuis - J. Garrison
A. Edler - K. Bieksa
A. Alberts - C. Tanev

The Sedins are the Sedins and we all know what they bring, even though their scoring peaks are behind them. I like Raymond and Hansen as top-6 forwards and even more as bottom-6 forwards, but Jordan Schroeder is a career 0.57 points/game player at the AHL level. Given Gabe Desjardins NHLE scoring numbers and Schroeder's production this year with the Wolves, you could reasonably expect 0.3 points/game at the NHL level, or 9 points in 30 games. Amazingly (well, not really) Schroeder has exactly 9 points in 30 games with Vancouver.

So where does that put the Canucks current #2 centre relative to the rest of the NHL? If the top-30 centres in NHL scoring are considered "1st liners," the next 30 as "2nd liners" and so on, Jordan Schroeder is a) producing at his expected level, and b) producing at an average 4th line level. As both Andrew Ebbett and Max Lapierre aren't exactly more attractive options, that leaves Vancouver with three fourth line centres. This isn't exactly conducive to firewagon, high-scoring hockey.

Unfortunately, the outlook on the wings isn't rosy either, especially in the bottom-6. Three of the four wingers on lines 3 and 4 aren't NHL players. Tom Sestito, Andrew Gordon and Steve Pinizzotto have combined for 19 seasons of professional hockey experience, but just 108 games in the NHL. While I think they've been adequate for the most part (Sestito and Gordon's Corsi's aren't awful, considering an OZone start% around 40%), great teams like the Canucks strive to be don't get to be great with half the roster just treading water.

Even though the expectations in this market are still for the Canucks to perform like an elite Stanley Cup contender, the simple fact of the matter is that the holes left in the roster by the injuries to Ryan Kesler, David Booth, Zack Kassian (who was demoted this morning) and Manny Malhotra prevent this team from being anything other than average. Other than the Malhotra situation (if they knew he couldn't play, why was he not replaced?), this is no fault of Mike Gillis or even of Alain Vigneault. You can plan for your two best play-driving forwards to be out for the beginning of the season, but you can't predict that both of them will go down with fluky injuries almost immediately upon returning to the lineup. The bottom line is that the Canucks are what they are, and what they are is an injury riddled team with three fourth lines.


Something I don't think gets mentioned quite enough outside of the more analytic circles of the Canucks blogosphere is how massive the Manny Malhotra hole is in the Canucks lineup. Since team management took Adam Smith's economic theory of division of labour to heart, every role player became of elevated importance. Suddenly, Manny Malhotra went from a guy who was good at faceoffs to a key enabler of the offense, as he allowed the Sedins to become elite 80-foot players rather than just very good 200-foot players. The Canucks effectively divided the ice up into three zones and built their team to win each individual one through situational player deployments rather than the traditional chess match of line-matching.

Not only did this get the Sedins more offensive zone time (possibly leading to a boost in true mean PDO for Vancouver like I theorized here), but Malhotra's faceoff prowess probably prevented quite a number of shots against. Some analysis done by Gabe Desjardins at Arctic Ice Hockey found that shot rates spike immediately after an offensive zone faceoff win, as shown in the below graph:

Constructed by Gabe Desjardins. Originally posted here.
Over a longer period of time shot rates converge regardless of winning or losing a faceoff, however the difference in the immediate aftermath of a faceoff is quite significant. Basically, if you have an average faceoff taker starting in your zone (like Henrik Sedin or Max Lapierre), you can expect to see the opposing team realize the dark blue line 50% of the time, and the dark green line the other 50% of the time. With Malhotra on the ice, the split becomes 40% to 60% in your favour. 

I'm not sure how large a reduction in total shots against this would lead to, but Desjardins theorized that every 245 extra faceoff wins at even strength was equivalent to two points in the standings. In the two years prior to this one, Malhotra won 70 and 118 even strength faceoffs more than what a 50% faceoff taker would be expected to win. While Malhotra's faceoff ability alone wasn't worth a win in the standings, it doesn't look insignificant either.

The opposite side of this coin is that the 2nd and 3rd line centremen currently playing on the Canucks roster, Andrew Ebbett and Jordan Schroeder, are both closer to 40% guys, albeit in a small sample. Had these two been tasked with Malhotra's faceoff duties, they would have won 135 and 208 fewer faceoffs than Malhotra did in the two seasons prior to this one, and a further 142 and 180 fewer than regular 2nd line stalwart Ryan Kesler. It's not enough to make a significant impact on the team's overall record (we are talking about faceoff ability alone here, not the other things that Kesler and Malhotra do/did do better that the call-ups), but it's one of the many little advantages the Canucks management and coaches like to have when "designing success."


The last point I'll make is how injuries have impacted the Sedins at even strength. Although they haven't been explicitly affected, they don't operate within a bubble. The state of the roster as a whole will impact how they are used and which positions they play in, and right now, the injuries to the bottom end of the roster are necessitating more defensive zone starts for the Sedins and more challenging competition.

Last year, Daniel and Henrik both started nearly 80% of their shifts in the offensive zone. So far this season, that ratio has dropped by close to 15 percentage points to 66.6% and 64.4% respectively. To their credit, their possession numbers haven't dipped at all, but along with Alex Burrows, they're seeing the toughest competition out of all Canucks forwards. The change in their deployment relative to the rest of the team is illustrated in these player usage charts. Since the charts are not on the same scale, I've added a green bubble to where I estimate the twins would be this year on last year's chart:

Player Usage Charts from Greg Sinclair's Player Usage app at
Those plush assignments AV was handing the twins? Yeah, they're not happening as much this season. This increase in QoC and decrease in OZone start% is more than likely due to Vigneault adjusting to a weaker lineup than it is any tangible change to the way the organization wants to use the Sedins. Andrew Ebbett's inability to be an average NHL faceoff guy means that the Canucks need a left-handed centre to take defensive zone draws on the left side of the ice, so by default that job falls to Henrik Sedin. Consequently, OZone start% falls.

The QoC increase is slightly more difficult to explain, but I'd guess that it's because AV really wants to shelter the AHL guys. Pinizzotto, Sestito and Gordon in particular have been playing against some of the opposition's weakest players, whereas Jordan Schroeder is seeing a lot of offensive zone starts against soft competition too. The bottom-9 of last year that ate tough assignments for the Canucks is pretty much in shambles, leaving the heavy lifting to essentially one forward line (and the goaltenders). As a result, the Sedins are seeing more power-on-power matchups this season than they have at any point in the last few years, yet they're still coming out ahead in possession. While their powerplay struggles are well-documented this year (and in my view, the only legitimate cause for concern around this team), they remain absolute upper-echelon 5-on-5 players, and should be fine in the near future.


There's the old sports adage that "injuries are never an excuse," but no one really points out that the second part of that saying should really be "for not trying your hardest." The simple fact of the matter is that while first and second liners are first and second liners for a reason, career AHL journeymen are career AHL journeymen for a reason as well. They're just not good enough to make a team effective. Vancouver is seeing this right now, as the offensive output is the lowest that it's been in years and the team has lost its chokehold on the slowly improving Northwest division. Injuries may not be an excuse, but they're a damn good reason for not winning.

The silver lining in all of this is that Jordan Schroeder, Andrew Ebbett, Steve Pinizzotto, Andrew Gordon, Tom Sestito and the newly recalled Bill Sweatt aren't in the plans going forward. Reinforcements are coming in the form of a former Selke trophy winning two-way star centre, the #1 prospect the Canucks have in their system, and if recovery goes well, an elite play-driving 2nd line winger. Management is aware of the holes that need to be filled on this roster, and will undoubtedly attempt to fill these holes this week as the trade deadline looms. This lineup isn't fundamentally flawed, the players haven't completely forgotten how to play, and Alain Vigneault is still a good coach. Now is not the time for panic, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be concerned.

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