Marc-Andre Gragnani’s not bad; he’s just misunderstood

Marc-Andre Gragnani is on a three-game point streak, but you wouldn’t know it from the chilly reception he’s receiving of late from the Canucks faithful. To be fair, Gragnani is coming off his worst game as a Canuck on Tuesday against the Ducks. He was on the ice for 3 of the Ducks’ 4 goals and 2 of those goals came as a direct consequence of his defensive gaffes.

It could even be argued that if it weren’t for Gragnani, the Vancouver goalie controversy wouldn’t have been reignited, and the fact that he did it right after Alexander Sulzer posted a three-point night for Buffalo made Gragnani’s performance even more stark.

We weren’t shy about calling him out on his errors either; the errors that he made against the Ducks are the kinds of mistakes that get you benched or sent to the press box, particularly on a team coached by Alain Vigneault, who loves his low-risk, low-event defencemen.

And yet, even after his defensive gaffes, Gragnani played 18:52 against the Ducks, including 1:43 in overtime. While this was still fifth in icetime among Canuck defenceman, he saw a lot more of the sheet than many expected. Some are quick to attribute this to favouritism, as Gragnani was previously coached by Vigneault in Juniors. Many draw a parallel to Keith Ballard and wonder why Gragnani doesn’t get the same treatment for his defensive mistakes.

The reason, as I see it, is a simple one: they’re two different players.

I don’t say that to be dismissive. What I mean is that they only seem like similar players who make similar mistakes. While Ballard is the stronger skater and plays a more physical game, Gragnani is much more creative offensively and is very adept at identifying chances to join the rush or the cycle. While both Gragnani and Ballard make mistakes in the defensive zone, Gragnani creates a lot more in the offensive zone to make up for it. Remember: Gragnani was a point-per-game in the AHL last season. As a defenceman.

Both are high-event players: there are a lot of shots and scoring chances at both ends of the rink when they are on the ice. But there is a distinct difference in which end of the ice sees the bulk of those shots and scoring chances.

For instance, despite being a minus-2 against the Ducks, when Gragnani was on the ice, the Canucks had 21 attempted shots compared to 12 for the Ducks, giving him a plus-9 Corsi for the game. Vigneault kept putting him on the ice because the Canucks were down and Gragnani creates opportunities to score.

For the season, Keith Ballard has the second worst Relative Corsi among Canucks defenceman; Gragnani has the best, albeit having played for the Sabres for the bulk of the season. On the Sabres, Gragnani was one of only a few players on the team with a positive plus/minus at plus-10. While plus/minus is a fundamentally flawed statistic, it is certainly notable that his was so much better than his teammates.

It’s possible that Gragnani’s possession numbers reveal a flaw in the Corsi and Fenwick statistics. It’s possible that the shots and scoring chances he allows in the defensive zone are qualitatively better than the ones that he creates in the offensive zone. Subjectively, I think Keith Ballard is a better defenceman than Marc-Andre Gragnani.

But the objective statistics seem to indicate otherwise, and Vigneault and the Canucks coaching staff tend to use such statistics (or similar ones at least). This may explain why Gragnani gets a longer leash.

That leash may certainly shorten come playoff time, but let’s keep in mind one other statistic: last year, Gragnani had 7 points in 7 playoff games for the Sabres.

Don’t write him off just yet.

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26 comments

  1. Brent
    April 5, 2012

    OK next time I am i trouble with my wife I will just tell her I am mis-understood.

    Unfortunately, I won’t have any corsi numbers to make my case.

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    • Warpstone
      April 5, 2012

      So true. Wives only understand plus/minus. :D

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      • Peps
        April 5, 2012

        Odd.
        Me, I get trashed because of my GamesPlayed-stats!
        The earlier ones – for another team.

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  2. Nee
    April 5, 2012

    I haven’t written him off. He had a bad game against Anaheim, but in the preceding couple games, I thought he did a pretty good job.

    I won’t write-off Luongo based solely on that 1 game. It logically follows that I wouldn’t write off Gragnani for the same reason.

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    • Nick
      April 5, 2012

      Regarding Luongo, which “one bad game” are you referring to? Last spring in Chicago? Or in Boston? Or perhaps last October (or any October before that)? Or maybe his last starts against the Sabres or the Habs?

      I’m not saying to write off Luongo.

      But it’s misleading to imply that he’s had one bad game of note.

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      • Steven Ray Orr
        April 5, 2012

        The PitB crew has referred to Luongo’s “blow out” games before. They (and many Canucks fans) recognize his unique tendency to have a bad game more frequently than many other fantastic goaltenders.

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  3. Warpstone
    April 5, 2012

    If Gragnani can play more on the right-side, he will see more fringe games than Ballard. It really depends on the opposition though. In the playoffs, defence is at such a premium that Rome’s stock goes up considerably in comparison to both Ballard and Gragnani.

    I think a bottom 6 berth will be more situational this post-season than before:
    Playing against a team with a run & gun system or weak depth (San Jose): Gragnani.
    Playing against a team that suffocates the life out of the game (Blues, Pheonix, LA): Rome

    A shame though that Ballard is hurt with Tanev in the mix. The younger defencemen really seems to temper Ballard’s play and get more out of him than when he’s paired with Rome.

    Next season if Salo is let go, that leaves a right-side berth for Gragnani to fight for while learning under Bowness and co.

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    • J21
      April 5, 2012

      I think a bottom 6 berth will be more situational this post-season than before:
      Playing against a team with a run & gun system or weak depth (San Jose): Gragnani.
      Playing against a team that suffocates the life out of the game (Blues, Pheonix, LA): Rome

      While I don’t doubt that you are correct, it annoys me that the Canucks always end up playing their opponent’s game rather than vice versa.

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  4. John Andress
    April 5, 2012

    Canuck fans and the local pundits seem to have high expectations and low tolerance levels. I think that it would behoove us all to keep in mind that Gragnani is a young player, recently elevated from the AHL and trying to find his way in a new environment and a new system following his trade from Buffalo. How often have we heard it said that it takes defensemen longer to learn the intricacies of their position than it does forwards? I agree with PITB. Let the kid settle in and work with the coaches and his team-mates a bit longer before we rush to judgement on him and please, let us not castigate him after one bad game. I know that this is contrary to the Canuck way but let us try to keep a little perspective on things before cutting the kid’s legs out from underneath him. Surely the fan’s treatment of Roberto Luongo has sated their thirst for blood for the time being.

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  5. Kavy36
    April 5, 2012

    I think the reason that I’m not a big fan of him is that I have unreasonable expectations that a defenceman actually be good at defending. In all of the games I’ve watched, I cringe whenever he’s on the ice. Yes, he has more scoring chances than other d-men, but I feel like he’s creating more scoring chances for the other team at least half the time. I’m hoping he can work it out in the next couple of games, but I’m still glad we have some other defensive options going into the post season if he can’t.

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    • Anonymous
      April 5, 2012

      Basically. I’m reminded of Erik Karlsson’s situation in Ottawa, his coaches were recently like ‘playing you for 25+ minutes a night means that you can NOT be playing for our team half the night and for the other team the other half of the night’ and apparently that’s what really pushed him over the edge into the Norris-mentions!player he is today. If there are injuries or something in the playoffs *knock on wood* and if we have to rely on MAG, someone should get Paul Maclean to give him this talk.

      For the playoffs, much like the Hodgson-Pahlsson dynamic, I’d like to see a solid dependable guy on the ice eating minutes rather than the young offensive-minded player with suspect defensive skills. Especially considering this team’s mental history in the playoffs when goals go in, let’s try to keep that to a minimum.

      GDI I can’t tell if I’m more excited or nervous for the playoffs. After last year everyone will be holding their breath each game, it’s crazy how much negativity and hard expectations there are this April compared to last year.

      PLAYOFF FEELINGS!!!

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  6. Tristan
    April 5, 2012

    “While plus/minus is a fundamentally flawed statistic…”
    Can you elaborate on that at all? I get that it provides an incomplete picture, but as a measurement of long-term 5-on-5 performance (or at least fortune), I still find it useful.

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  7. rvtBC
    April 5, 2012

    I don’t know. Gragnani seems to have the green light from AV to try and create offence. Ballard doesn’t get the same length of leash from AV; Ballard has to be damn sure he can do something and not, e.g., create a turnover or risk an odd-man rush the other way, otherwise Ballard will be stapled to the bench, or worse, the press box. I think if Ballard had the same leeway and green light given to Gragnani, then he’d be more comfortable doing it and we’d see him contribute more offensively and use that part of his toolkit more as well as gain some needed confidence.

    That said, this is still pre-playoffs. It’ll be interesting to see if Gragnani is given the similar freedom in the playoffs when a screw-up has more significant consequences.

    Also, let’s not forget that there’s the contract/free agency issue of getting Gragnani enough games in. But that doesn’t necessarily explain why he gets as much ice time per game (injuries on the blue line and a ‘try out’ approach explain that to some degree).

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    • BSmithy
      April 5, 2012

      Yes, the article is interesting but forgets the main reason why Grags is playing regularly at all right now: his contract status. One more game and they get to negotiate with him as an RFA, not a pending UFA.
      I actually like Gragnani and his upside could be decent; at the very least he’s a good option if and when injuries occur in the playoffs.

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      • khr
        April 5, 2012

        Once he gets his 80 NHL games he won’t see the ice again unless there’s an injury. He’s a huge defensive liability.

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      • Chris the Curmudgeon
        April 5, 2012

        But don’t you also find it somewhat telling that Buffalo thought so little of him as to let him get to that contract state? The Sabres are tied for 10th in the East in scoring, and yet deemed an offensive defenceman that expendable…basically corroborates the fears of Canucks fans in my view.

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  8. Chris the Curmudgeon
    April 5, 2012

    It should be pretty apparent that your subjective take is probably more accurate than the “objective” statistics in this regard. Gragnani may generate more shots for than against, but the only ones that count are the ones that go in, and he was responsible for handing 2 scoring chances that were as golden as late-summer wheat to the Ducks. Once we agree that not all shots are created equal, it becomes clear just how scary Gragnani’s play can be. Canucks fans took about 10 seconds to forget Christian Ehrhoff, because despite his stellar offensive play, he was occasionally suspect in the defensive zone. Admittedly, Gragnani doesn’t come with the same price tag, but he’s downright horrendous in the defensive zone (and seems to leave it far too soon much of the time also), so I think we can be forgiven for generating unpleasant mental visions of Gragnani getting stuck in his own zone against Toews, or Datsyuk, or any other opposing forwards we might bump into in a drawn out, tight-checking playoff series.

    Frankly, I’m a little surprised Vigneault hasn’t experimented with a 7 defencemen configuration a little bit. He typically plays his 12th forward quite sparingly over the course of a game, be it Weise, Bitz or Mama Kass (who’s now hurt anyways), and Gragnani certainly has the skating ability and offensive acumen to take a few shifts on the wing. And if the Canucks fall behind and face a situation where they need to take more risks, Gragnani could substitute on the back end for one of the more defensively minded guys, in order to try to jumpstart the offence a little bit. Not to mention that in a playoff game it could never hurt to have an extra defenceman in the lineup.

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    • J21
      April 5, 2012

      Ehrhoff’s defense wasn’t even half-bad. I believe he got some sheltered minutes, but the only time he truly looked like a liability was in the Finals, playing with a dislocated shoulder.

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  9. Nick
    April 5, 2012

    Not a Gragnani fan … he’s pretty much the opposite of the players who are the perennial Norris candidates. And it worries me that he has a history with AV, and may get chance after chance that he doesn’t deserve. I hope I’m wrong about him.

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    • Harrison Mooney
      April 5, 2012

      Yeah…. let’s never mention “Gragnani” and “Norris” in the same sentence again.

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      • JDM
        April 5, 2012

        Gragnani is not as bad as the Anaheim game would indicate, norris Alex Sulzer as good as his recent stats with Buffalo would indicate.

        Your move Harrison.

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        • Harrison Mooney
          April 5, 2012

          HEY. NO.

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  10. Chicky
    April 5, 2012

    So you’re saying that my days of yelling at the TV for Grags to get back to his position, or more along the lines of “WHO THE HELL IS PLAYING D?” are going to be tempered a bit. I really hope they are.

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  11. akidd
    April 5, 2012

    “Subjectively, I think Keith Ballard is a better defenceman than Marc-Andre Gragnani.”

    i used to be a big ballard booster after watching him play with tanev last year. i liked him much less this year. loved his skating but his brain doesn’t seem to know what to do with the puck. i would choose gragnani over ballard as an offensive, puck-moving dman.

    gragnani is pretty dam creative out there. he’s still learning the game/conference/system but he looks like he’s got an instinct and vision that ballard doesn’t have. and once you compare price points it really seals the deal.

    of course if he continues to make defensive gaffes then grags (and ballard )will be watching rome play.

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  12. Gimmic
    April 5, 2012

    Great article love it.

    Also interesting to note that at the time of the trade, Buffalo team had given up 30 more ‘goals against’ than Canucks, and scored 50 fewer goals. Yet Gragnani still had a team best +10 plus/minus.

    It also has to be tougher for Gragnani to play on his right side (natural lefty) with Edler last few games. Coming to a new team, new conference, large market, lots of pressure and playing on your off side. That has to be challenging for a young defenseman who does not have a ton of NHL experience. I quite enjoy Gragnani, his defensive game will come – but his offensive abilities are off the charts – his passes are always tape to tape, he has great offensive vision an dmakes good reads. His defensive mistakes last game weren’t cause he jumped into the play and was caught, it was cause he had bad coverage in his won defensive zone.

    Love this guy. But my question is what will be make this summer? He’s a RFA making $550,000, how much will be re-up for?

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  13. Zach Morris
    April 5, 2012

    still, the chances he gives up are scary.
    go be offensive all you want, but if you don’t outscore your mistakes…

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