Drance Numbers: Don’t trust playoff AV; stopping the Kopitar line is job one

Watching Wednesday night’s series opener between the Kings and the Canucks, I was wildly impressed with the play of Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown. They were a pack of hyenas right from puck drop, testing Luongo with quality chances four times in the opening minute. They caused turnovers with their forechecking, pinned the Canucks in the defensive end regularly, and worked together flawlessly.

It was Kopitar’s line who set the tone for the Kings in game one, muzzled the Rogers Arena crowd, and so handily won their matchup that, in twelve and a half minutes of five-on-five ice-time, they changed the entire arithmetic of this series.

But all the chatter the next day was about the impact of Dustin Penner and the matchup between Ryan Kesler and Mike Richards. Even Alain Vigneault glossed over the Kopitar line Thursday, spending more time on Penner and Richards than what appeared to be the real problem. From the Globe & Mail:

“We need to have an answer to Kopitar’s line,” Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said after an optional practice on Thursday. “We need to have an answer for Penner, who was a powerful force down in our own end. We need to have an answer for Richards, who played one of the best games I’ve seen him play since he’s been in L.A.”

Magicians call this misdirection.

Mike Richards had an impactful game for the Kings, scoring a goal on a 5-on-3 power-play, and adding two assists: one on Dustin Brown’s empty netter, the other the result of some opportunism. With about three minutes to play in third, Richards took advantage of an Alex Edler giveaway and fed the puck to Jeff Carter’s skate for a sweet touch pass to Dustin Penner.

Yes, it was a lovely game winner, but the reason Richards was “the story” on Thursday morning had more to do with a couple of more symbolic moments, namely his blowing by a tumbling Ryan Kesler, and his big hit late in the game on Alex Burrows.

Penner’s performance made for a nice tale of redemption. Not only did he score the game-winner, but he made a nice, diving defensive play early in the third period to prevent Chris Tanev from getting to a delicious rebound at the side of the net when Jonathan Quick was prone. From Helene Elliot’s feature on him today, it’s clear that he’s a captivating character. It’s hard not to sympathize with a guy saying things like, “I used to be a good player,” and it was nice to see him get singled out by the opposing coach after the year he’s had.

Penner is a really good example actually, of how colourful, interesting stories can cause us to become distracted from the big picture. On Wednesday night, Penner finished the game significantly underwater, and carried a -3 personal Fenwick. Fenwick, remember, is the number that we suspect most closely corresponds to the Canucks’ own expanded version of scoring chances that they track in-house. If Vigneault is looking at the numbers we think he’s looking at, then we can be pretty confident that he knows containing Penner isn’t the top priority he made it out to be.

By that same token, worrying about the matchup between Ryan Kesler and Mike Richards is like being worried about a leaky faucet during the zombie apocalypse. Credit to Richards for his triumphant 3-point night, but he finished Wednesday’s game with a +1 even-strength scoring chance differential, and the Kings only outshot the Canucks by one shot in his twelve minutes of five-on-five ice time.

None of that is bad of course, especially considering Richards’ solid special teams contributions. But in contrast, the Canucks outshot the Kings by four with Kesler on the ice at even-strength, and Vancouver outshot the Kings in the six and a half minutes Richards and Kesler spent going head-to-head with five a side. And it’s not as if Kesler was even on the ice when Richards, Carter and Penner combined for the game-winner – that goal came against Pahlsson’s line.

Dan Hamhuis needs to do more of this.

Does that really sound like a matchup that’s going to cause Vigneault to lose sleep ahead of game two, or do you think it’s probable that Vigneault is more worried that the Kings outshot the Canucks by six (12-6) with Anze Kopitar on the ice?

Richards and Penner were the focus on Thursday, but if the Kings are to prevail, those aren’t the guys who will ultimately win the series. No, that would be LA’s top-line of Kopitar, Brown and Williams, who mercilessly pummeled the Pahlsson line on Wednesday night. The Canucks were outshot 9-2 with Pahlsson on the ice, and a significant amount of that damage was done by Kopitar (against whom he spent fifty percent of his five-on-five ice time). I’m pretty picky about sample sizes, so while “one bad game,” doesn’t necessarily tell us much, those are some concerning margins.

Going into this series, it looked like Vigneault would be able to use that third line to neutralize Kopitar, which, in theory would allow Kesler and Henrik Sedin to see easier minutes. Vigneault has his critics, and even I think he can be a frustrating tactician at times (his lurch back into stylistic conservatism this season has probably been counterproductive, for example). But one of the things the Canucks have built their success on over the past few seasons is Vigneault’s ability to take advantage of the Canucks’ superior depth.

If the Kopitar line’s decimation of Pahlsson’s group continues on Friday, however, Vigneault may be forced to use Kesler as a checking centre, and that will ripple throughout lineup. If Kesler is playing tougher minutes dueling with Kopitar, then his offensive potential takes a massive hit. Meanwhile the five and a half minutes Henrik spent skating through Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis evaporates, and he’ll begin to see a steady diet of shifts matched up against Mike Richards instead. All of a sudden Vancouver’s superior depth doesn’t seem so superior…

Remember that this is playoff Vigneault, who deceives, inveigles, and obfuscates. You can’t trust him. When he talks openly about matchups that he’s worried about in the postseason, we’re probably best served by paying closer attention to what he omits or glosses over, rather than what he’s explicit about. Richards and Penner had storybook returns to the postseason on Wednesday night, but the real issues lie elsewhere.

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14 comments

  1. Brandon
    April 13, 2012

    Lots of big words, good stuff.

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  2. Chris the Curmudgeon
    April 13, 2012

    Nice work Thomas. But while I don’t have the numbers in front of me, my observation has been that Ryan Kesler actually plays better offensively when he’s being challenged to play defensively. Instead of wasting his energy yapping or diving, he gets engaged in the game at both ends of the ice. Not to mention that it allows Vigneault to dictate his matchup away from the intolerable Mike Richards.

    And really, who wouldn’t like to see Kopitar, Williams and Brown have to deal with the likes of Kesler and Booth charging into their zone because after all, the best defence is a good offence.

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    • ArtemChubarov
      April 13, 2012

      Thanks for reading Chris but that’s definitely not the case.

      Kesler’s offensive production spikes when he is enabled by a quality defensive centre that allows him to exploit bottom-6 forward groups.

      Kesler having to take on less defensive responsibility when Malhotra arrived was a major reason he had a 40 goal season in 2010-11. When Malhotra was injured and Kesler had to play Toews in the Blackhawk series last year – he didn’t put up any points at all. Once Vigneault figured out that Lapierre could fill-in adequately for Malhotra, and Kes went back to abusing bottom-6 forward groups – his production exploded against Nasvhille.

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      • Chris the Curmudgeon
        April 13, 2012

        It should be noted that Toews didn’t contribute much offensively in that series either. For a guy of Toews’ calibre, that’s no small defensive feat for Kesler. And really, as much as they may have freed Kesler from the major defensive matchup after the Chicago series, he wasn’t particularly effective against San Jose and he wasn’t good against Boston either.

        And while that may have been the case last season, I’m curious about this year. We have not really seen any signs of 2010-11 Ryan Kesler this season, and I wonder if it’s because teams have gotten a better handle on his tendencies, now that they’re better able to game plan against him. Ryan Kesler is a great skater, has an excellent shot and brings a lot of grit, however, he is a below average playmaker at best and seldom uses his wingers to full effect. In other words, he’s the type of player an opposing coach can throw a blanket over given the right personnel, and effectively smother the entire line. Conversely, I’ve observed that checking forwards aren’t nearly as effective against the Sedin twins, however, the twins seem particularly susceptible to quality shutdown defencemen, probably because their game requires a lot of cycling and down low play to set up scoring chances, while Kesler spends more time in the middle of the ice. So I think Vigneault should try to keep Henrik away from Willie Mitchell but shouldn’t worry about the top line facing the Kings’ third line checkers, whereas Kesler should fare effectively against Kopitar et al by taking the play to them in their own zone, and hopefully hassling Doughty in the process. Pahlsson et al could then draw Richards and Carter, whom I think they could handle better than they did the Kopitar line.

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        • Chris the Curmudgeon
          April 13, 2012

          (checking forwards excepting Dave Bolland of course, but I’m not sure he really counts, he’s more of a cheap-shotting pest than a true checking forward and the twins seem to particularly hate him)

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  3. bergberg
    April 13, 2012

    I personally like Vancouver’s depth a lot this year, much better than last year.

    Say Kesler does have to be matched up against Kopitar and take on a more defensive role. We all know Kesler’s production hasn’t been at it’s best this year anyway. Let him have the defensive responsibilities that he has shown success with this year. AV has enough depth and enough skilled players that he can mix and match any of Hansen, Higgins, Pahlsson, Lapierre, Booth, even Ebbett and Raymond to get that offensive punch from another line. Hopefully Kesler’s offensive beast mode comes around, but if not lets at least maximize his defensive strengths because there are other options for offence.

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  4. Warpstone
    April 13, 2012

    “Dan Hamhuis needs to do more of this.”

    The look on Hamhuis’ face when he stands up and realizes he didn’t draw a penalty is priceless. Too bad the Kings forwards are heavy or else we might get to see a hip check thrown in there!

    BTW, does Kesler’s offensive potential really matter at this point? He’s not contributing offensively and not helping his wingers do so either. Might as well focus on taking Kopitar out of the equation and forcing the Kings to beat them 5 on 5. Ideally, this kickstarts him enough to warrant more offensive duty.

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  5. Warpstone
    April 13, 2012

    Thomas, any thoughts on Salo’s fenwick? Am I reading too much in to a minus 6 given the penalty situations?

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    • ArtemChubarov
      April 13, 2012

      Somewhat yes. By the chance data Salo played a solid low-event game on the bottom pairing.

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      • Brent
        April 13, 2012

        Thomas,

        Since Ballard is going in for Rome what do you numbers tell you about this. I find Rome to be a low risk defenceman but not that great at moving the puck out, whereas Ballard is more high risk but can get the puck out.

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        • Drance
          April 13, 2012

          Rome had a really strong game, and I’m surprised somewhat that he’s coming out. He remains a “lower event’ player than Ballard, which, generally suits Vancouver’s bottom pairing better. That said – I guess it makes sense if AV is looking to push the tempo and play a “speed game” against LA… We’ll see – Ballard is definitely better than he’s ever shown in his VAN career to this point…

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          • Brent
            April 14, 2012

            Looks like he should have pulled Edler and left Rome in. So why does he keep trusting Edler? Do the numbers support this, or is it just blind faith?

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  6. Brent
    April 13, 2012

    You put deceives, inveigles, and obfuscates in their and didn’t make a link to the classic X-files episode of almost the same name?

    http://www.generationterrorists.com/cgi-bin/x-files.cgi?ep=4×04

    Very disappointing Mr. Drance. So does this make AV Cancer Man? Instead of a cigaret he sucks on chinese lozenges that are contaminated with Cadmium?

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  7. hold_the_stats
    April 13, 2012

    No need to hold these stats. As usual, you have presented a masterpiece of valuable information. Thanks for these weekly gems.

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