Earlier this week, Alain Vigneault talked about Chris Higgins’ plus-5 scoring chance differential over the Canucks’ losses to the Sabres and Stars. The two-game sample Vigneault referred to isn’t much to go on, but it was enough to make plain that the Canucks use a different methodology in their in-house tracking of scoring chances than what we use to track scoring chance data over at Canucks Army. What Vigneault’s number did correlate exactly with, however, was Higgins’ personal Fenwick +/- number.
This isn’t the first time that the Canucks seemed to be paying close attention to a players’ Fenwick number. At about this time last season, when everyone was confused as to why Vigneault seemed to prefer the unremarkable Aaron Rome over the more visibly skilled Keith Ballard, Cam Charron pointed out that Rome’s Fenwick events against rate was significantly lower than Ballard’s. We theorized that, for a third pairing defenseman, Vigneault preferred Rome’s “safe minutes” to Ballard’s more adventurous (albeit exciting) style of play.
Let’s backtrack for a moment and explain what Fenwick is. Fenwick is an expanded version of your traditional plus/minus number. It takes into account not just even-strength goals for and against, but also all shots for and against, and all missed shots for and against. Every goal, every shot and every miss is counted as a “fenwick event,” and every “fenwick event” that occurs either way is taken into account when producing a “fenwick number” for a team or an individual. Generally speaking, hockey math nerds consider blocked shots to be the fault of the shooter, so Fenwick is, theoretically, a more accurate number to measure defensive play than Corsi is.
Because I’m increasingly convinced that the Canucks place importance on a players’ individual “fenwick number,” I figured it would be worthwhile to break down the Canucks’ blue-line in this manner. Let’s see if we can get a handle on which defencemen have been the “best” defensively from a shot suppression standpoint.
A quick note on methodology. The numbers in the table below are zone-start adjusted. A team that starts in the offensive end of the rink is expected to generate .6 Fenwick events as a result of the where the shift began. It’s a rough number, but it works to separate the impact of a player’s usage from their actual possession skills. Further, the numbers below are “rated” per sixty minutes of even-strength ice time, and only defenders who have appeared for more than 490 even-strength minutes this season are included (which excludes: Tanev, Gragnani or Sulzer).
|Defenseman||Fenwick For/60 (ADJ)||Fenwick Against/60 (ADJ)||Fenwick Differential//60 (ADJ)|
There’s a few things to notice in the table above. The first thing is that Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa are as important to the Canucks success as anyone else on the roster (including the twins, Kesler and Luongo).
The biggest difference between the one and done teams from 08/09 and 09/10, and last season’s Finals team was the presence of a proper, elite shutdown pairing with the ability to turn play the other way against the opposition’s top players. Bieksa and Hamhuis have picked up this season right where they left off, and from a possession stand-point are the heart and soul of the Canucks blue-line. While Bieksa can annoy some Canucks fans on occasion with his propensity for high-risk plays that result in turnovers, make no mistake: he’s among the team’s best defensive defensemen.
The other thing to notice: Aaron Rome’s quiet, (often) unsightly dependability. In terms of suppressing shots against, there’s no one better on the roster. Of course, he plays against “softer” competition than Bieksa and Hamhuis do, but against the opposition’s bottom-6 forwards, Rome is a rock.
As an aside, observers sometimes call out Rome’s passing, but it’s worth noting that in a largely similar role, Rome does less to deflate the number of Canucks’ chances in the offensive end than Andrew Alberts does.
Now there are some qualifiers to my praise of Aaron Rome. His plodding skating speed isn’t an ideal fit for the Canucks system, and his offensive skill set is limited. He’s a physical presence, but he’s not the most athletic guy, and when his timing is off on a big hit, the hits are dangerous. By the numbers and to my eyes, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Chris Tanev were brilliant together last night versus the Jets, and I’d like to see them get a few games in together.
That said, Rome remains the lowest-event third pairing option on the club, and his reliable, understated presence in the lineup is extremely valuable.
We should also point out that Alex Edler has had significant struggles in his own end this season. He regularly faces harder competition than the likes of Rome and Alberts, but when you adjust for zone-starts (Edler often caddies for the Sedins in the offensive end), the Swedish blueliner is allowing the most chances against of any Canucks’ defenseman per sixty minutes. Even if we go with his “raw” (unadjusted) fenwick number, he’s the fifth-best Canucks defender at suppressing events against.
Don’t be surprised if the gap between Edler’s even-strength ice-time and the even-strength ice-time given to Bieksa and Hamhuis grows once the Canucks get to the postseason.
Finally, because I can’t help myself, I decided to look at possession demon Chris Tanev. His sample of play this season is minuscule (he’s played less than 180 even-strength minutes this season), but if we combine this season and last, we get a 558 minute sample that is worth looking into. His adjusted regular season fenwick number is +10.69, which, would put him safely at the top of the table above. Through forty-one NHL games, Chris Tanev has consistently demonstrated the ability to drive play from the blueline: and that is rather unique, and very exciting.