Drance Numbers: Did the Canucks really change after the Boston game?

There were plenty of interesting statements in Mike Gillis’s epic season wrapup press conference Tuesday morning, but one of the most jarring came in response to the very first question posed to him by the press. To kick things off, David Ebner of The Globe & Mail asked Gillis when the “issues” that ultimately led to the Canucks’ early exit first began to surface. Here’s how Gillis responded:

I really felt that the game in Boston – for some reason – was such an emotional and challenging game, it was almost like playing a Stanley Cup Final game in the middle of the season, and from that point on I don’t think our team ever really collectively got their emotions together. We had some injuries that disaffected us, and we just didn’t seem to play consistently as well from that point. There were points where our goaltending was so good it got us through, but, as a group I didn’t think we executed as well or played as well from that point through the remainder of the season.

Heading into the playoffs, again, we won a lot of games I thought our team was somewhat indifferent in. Met a team in the playoffs that was very well coached, they played hard and they won some games that could’ve gone either way and suddenly you’re down three nothing in a series.

As a disciple of the extremist “Church of Hockey Math” (trademark, Blake Price), I’m always skeptical of a statement that lends this much power to an “intangible” force like “collective team emotion.” It’s a pretty dubious claim when you stop to think about it: a veteran team, one of the league’s best over the past two seasons, saw their season derailed by a regular-season win in early January?

Let’s channel Seth Meyers on this one: Really? Really?

The thing is, using the numbers I trust to judge “real” team quality, Gillis’s statement seems to be corroborated by the facts. Using “Fenwick”, an advanced metric that counts up all goals, shots, and misses for and against, to produce an expanded plus/minus number that we suspect closely corresponds with the team’s own in-house scoring chance tracking, it’s pretty clear that the club wasn’t nearly as good in games 43 through 82 (after Boston) as they were in games 1 through 42 (before Boston). Here are the basics:

Shot% Fenwick% Shot% Tied Fenwick% Tied shooting% sv%
Before Boston 51.4 52.9% 52.4% 54.2% 8.6% 0.927
After Boston 49.4% 50.5% 50.7% 52.2% 7.7% 0.936

For whatever reason, possibly that the team hit their competitive emotional peak in mid-January, the Canucks regressed at this point. Their goaltending stayed stellar — in fact it improved, as Gillis rightly pointed out — but otherwise, Vancouver entered Boston a dominant five-on-five team and exited only a good one.

So should we accept Gillis’s explanation that the club blew a flat tire because of some emotional letdown or diminished compete level or some such hocus pocus after the Boston game? Did Cody Hodgson exhaust all the collective team clutchiness after beating Tim Thomas with that slapper off the goal post?

Or are there other more analytically sensible explanations that might help us contextualize the Canucks’ slide from great to meh over the latter half of the season? To math!

The Hodgson showcase

Later in the same presser, Gillis admitted that the team created a showcase for Cody Hodgson this past season, deploying him exclusively in the offensive zone against inferior competition in an effort to inflate his trade value and rid themselves of an apparent human resources headache. Cam Charron pinpointed the moment that the Canucks implemented this plan earlier this week, and summarized the impact of the Hodgson showcase on team possession numbers:

So Games 39 to 63 represent 25 games where Hodgson was sheltered. Were the Canucks objectively better in that time frame? Let’s see what TimeOnIce says:

Fenwick Tied PDO
Pre-Sheltering 55% 101.7%
Those 25 Games 47.4% 101.9%
Post-deadline 58% 99.7%
Total 53.1% 101.3%

Not at all. In fact, the 25 games wherein Hodgson was sheltered represented some of the worst possession hockey the Canucks played on the year. They were 16-4-5 in that run, but were awful with the puck, and their average goal differential was worse (+42.6 per 82 during those 25 games to +54.7 during the rest), so they got a whole lot lucky.

The Hodgson showcase was a qualified success in that the team indisputably upped Hodgson’s perceived value. But Gillis didn’t net a huge a return on the asset — Kassian and Gragnani are more like a couple of strategic lottery tickets — and his club’s performance suffered in the interim.

That said, the team’s possession numbers rebounded in a big way following the Hodgson for Samme Pahlsson swap at the third line centre position. Considering that, I’m unconvinced that the Hodgson showcase was a big “reason” explaining the team’s struggles following their early January win in Boston. It’s important context, and sheltering two lines in that extreme of a fashion certainly deflated the team’s puck possession game, but since things turned around once Hodgson was gone, this issue was effectively resolved.

Salo down

Ah, but here’s an issue that wasn’t. One of the major events in Vancouver’s season-derailing victory over the Boston Bruins was Brad Marchand’s predatory low-bridge on Sami Salo. The hit concussed the veteran Finnish defenceman and he wasn’t quite the same afterwards. So You’re an Expert already demonstrated that Salo’s performance fell off in a big way in terms of the chance data.

So. Did Brad Marchand break Sami Salo?

I’ve broken the season up into 8 segments and broken down Salo’s performance in terms of his adjusted fenwick per game in each of those segments. I’ve also put together a bar graph to help us visualize how Salo performed as the season went along. (A quick disclaimer: the samples below aren’t uniform. Salo only played 7 of the games between 11-20, 4 of the games between 43-52 and 9 of the games in most other quadrants):

Looking at the data, the theory that Marchand is to blame for Salo’s dropoff isn’t quite supported. While he was never less effective this season than immediately after returning from his concussion, the numbers indicate that Salo was trending downward long before the fateful game in Boston. I’d argue that his advanced age and overall injury history were responsible for his increasingly submerged possession numbers. The Marchand hit just exacerbated things.

I would point out that getting Salo out of the top-4 seemed to become a priority as the season went along. Going into the postseason, the Canucks ran an ultimately unsuccessful experiment playing Edler with Bieksa as the team’s top-pairing, and Chris Tanev with Dan Hamhuis on the team’s ostensible “shutdown pairing.” It’s pretty obvious that Alain Vigneault was desperately trying every trick he could think of to keep Salo out of the top-4 and to manufacture a situation in which Alex Edler could be effective in tough minutes without the calming influence Salo provided through the first two months of the season.

It never happened. Ultimately, the Edler-Bieksa top-pairing experiment was a failure and it quickly became apparent that, as promising as he looked, Chris Tanev wasn’t ready for top-four minutes.

Furthermore, frankly, Alex Edler isn’t ready and may never be ready to drive play against top competition the way you’d expect a true top-pairing blueliner to. He needs a steady partner to be effective, and the decline of Sami Salo, which was never more apparent than following the game in Boston, effectively left the Canucks with one reliable defensive pairing rather than two. By the playoffs, their attempts to get back to two left them with zero.

In short, when Gillis says, From that point on, I don’t think our team ever really collectively got their emotions together, he’s not wrong, if by “their emotions”, he means “Salo.”

Tags: , , , , ,

23 comments

  1. cbjerrisgaard
    April 28, 2012

    In summary, we need a top 4 shut down d-man to stable Edler despite the fact most people think the issues were offensive based.

    I don’t disagree, I just find it interesting.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +7 (from 7 votes)
    • Locky
      April 29, 2012

      Maybe. My personal and highly unscientific opinion is that partnering with Ehrhoff allowed Edler to take a bit of a back seat offensively and take less risks. I’d be interested to see how Edler’s numbers looked with and without Ehrhoff last year, and also a comparison this year to last.

      Speaking of which, how hard is it to look at player stats with and without linemates? Any particular websites that are really good for it?

      VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
      Rating: +4 (from 4 votes)
      • Brentals
        April 29, 2012

        I think DobberHockey’s Frozen pool tools are what you can use for this.

        VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
        Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  2. Frank
    April 28, 2012

    I love these stats posts, but do you really think that emotions don’t play a role in directing these stats? Your last sentence doesn’t seem to recognize that, sometimes, the head doesn’t fully direct the heart.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +4 (from 6 votes)
  3. dougster
    April 28, 2012

    So…. which goalie when traded gives us the best shot at landing a quality top-four D-man? I’ll bet that is a question that is keeping GMMG awake at night.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +4 (from 4 votes)
  4. Gimmic
    April 29, 2012

    Great post. Love the Salo data.

    I saw this Salo situation last summer. I knew using Salo it a top 4 role (which meant top 4 minutes) would be the undoing of the Canucks. How did Gillis not see this? How did most of Canucks Nation see this as an issue, but Gillis (the manager) didn’t? More proof he’s not suited for a GM role.

    I thought Tanev did a great job this year, and am wondering if you have statistical data to show he didn’t play well in a top 4 role. Last few weeks of the season he played with Hamhuis, alternating playing against top opponents with EdlerBieksa pairing. It appeared that he was perhaps the best defenseman during this time. I don’t think he was on the ice for a single even strength goal against since Feb. He looks erratic at times, but you don’t get many scoring chances when he’s on the ice and play is ultimately driven the other way. In fact, I thought he was the Canucks best defenseman in the playoffs as well.

    Either way, I top 4 righthanded d-man is required this summer. And by ‘required’ I mean do or exit in 1st round again.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: -4 (from 12 votes)
  5. Dazza23
    April 29, 2012

    The other point is Edler’s status. As a potential UFA entering the final year of his contract you need to assess whether you will retain him and therefore design your top 4 requirements around him, or do you have to include him in you consideration of the future team.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
    • The Bookie
      April 29, 2012

      This is a good point that I haven’t seen mentioned much. I think if the Canucks are going to make a surprise big trade in addition to the expected goaltender deal, Edler could be the one we see moved. Most people assume that if we trade away a defenceman or two, it’ll be Ballard/Rome/Alberts, but depending what comes back in the goalie trade, they might decide to go look for someone who would suit playing with either Tanev or Gragnani rather than building around Edler. Probably a hard pill to swallow for a lot of longtime Edler fans (I’m a fan myself and wouldn’t want to see him go, but as always it’s about what’s best for the team).

      VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
      Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
      • Frank N.
        April 30, 2012

        I see what you say, but I think that is probably not the way the Canucks will go. After all, they want to win soon, and working on (and hoping for) the required further development of Tanev (and perhaps Gragnani in the even longer) is not something you can bank on to give you the required pay-off right now.
        I too am a fan of both Edler and Tanev and I think the Canucks will probably try to keep both while adding the right-handed top 4 D-man.
        Imagine Hamhuis-Bieksa, Edler-Mister X, Ballard-Tanev, with Gragnani, Rome and some of the junior talent in the system, making up the defensive side of the Canucks. On paper a very good one, I would dare to argue!
        I think the reason Ballard and Alberts are often mentioned in the trade rumours comes down to the cap hit it would seem. Yet Ballard and Tanev really work well together so let’s hope the cap allows us to keep him.

        VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
        Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  6. akidd
    April 29, 2012

    wow. great post, drance. so well written,reasoned and supported. bravo.

    any numbers to share supporting your tanev and edler claims?

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +5 (from 5 votes)
  7. akidd
    April 29, 2012

    the d-corps wasn’t as good this year. erhoff wasn’t replaced and it probably wasn’t fair to demand a top-four role out of sami.

    maybe it was trickle-down but bieksa too was far more eror-prone than last year. and what’s up with edler? i worry about his back as he seems generally much more stiff. the finesse is down.

    the d-corps needs some reinforcement. shea would bolster things nicely.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +7 (from 7 votes)
    • Brent
      April 29, 2012

      Yes, what is up with Edler? I am sure that is something they are considering while they plan off ice moves.

      VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
      Rating: +3 (from 3 votes)
  8. AJ
    April 29, 2012

    Excellent article! The breakdown is great. The Canucks were much better last year. MG has a lot of work to do.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
  9. Brent
    April 29, 2012

    Nice post. Sentimentality sez we keep Salo (Love to have him as my pal-o), but the practicality sez he is gone. Interestingly, after the game 5 he said he was definitely coming back, if not here then somewhere. According to Harrison, at the last press conference he dropped his eyes and was more non-commital. So either his wife said, thats enough, or Gillis already told him he was not coming back.

    Really the lack of acquisition of a solid D-man at the trade deadline looms even larger now, as Gimmic said..

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +3 (from 3 votes)
  10. Zach Morris
    April 29, 2012

    It’s hard to imagine Salo playing anywhere else, but if we don’t sign him, it’s not hard to see another team offering him a one-year contract.
    Salo is a Palomino regardless

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +7 (from 7 votes)
    • Brent
      April 29, 2012

      clever!

      VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
      Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
      • Zach Morris
        April 29, 2012

        (it’s not mine)

        VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
        Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
        • Brent
          April 29, 2012

          You should have stayed mute and then I would have forever thought you were a cunning linguist!

          VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
          Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
          • Zach Morris
            April 29, 2012

            Praise from Caesar

            VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
            Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  11. Amor de Cosmos
    April 29, 2012

    Good piece and can’t disagree with much. My sense is that too much was asked of Edler this year, especially in providing goals. He’s a late maturing player and I don’t think that was taken into account. Obviously he can score but there seemed to be an unreasonable expectation he’d be able to make up for Erhoff’s loss. I see him as more Ohlund-like, super-solid so long as he spends most of his ice time in his own end, but forcing the play isn’t his thing and I’m not sure playing the point on the #1 PP unit is either.

    BTW the KIngs series reminded me of what a mistake we made to let Willie Mitchell go. I understand why the decision was made at the time, the odds weren’t good that he ‘d be the player he had been pre-concussion. But he is, and we’ve never replaced what he brought to our defence.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
  12. tom selleck's moustache
    April 29, 2012

    Thanks for the article, Drance. I remember hearing a stat of the Canucks record the year before last with and without Salo and it was pretty remarkable. But I like how you tied that in with Edler’s struggles. It never even occurred to me to connect the two but it totally makes sense when you point that out as they’ve long been viewed as OTP.

    Still, it’s interesting that their post deadline possession stats were so high post trade deadline; that would indicate that they were still able to overcome Salo’s (and Edler’s) decline in play somehow. Two bad they couldn’t sustain that against the Kings.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  13. BakerGeorgeT
    April 30, 2012

    Fenwick.. zzzzzzzzzzzz…

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: -1 (from 1 vote)
  14. Frank N.
    April 30, 2012

    Thomas, I like the article. But I think there was more amiss with the Canucks.

    Last season, many Canucks recorded record setting seasons. This season, without singling out any individuals, many did not live up to their average regular numbers (coming nowhere close to those record numbers from last year). That in itself is no shame. But it made the Canucks less of a threat to play against. Last season, they were in the opponents heads, and many teams did not dare to put us on the Power Play. With the Canucks struggling (5 on 5 and on the PP), this was no longer the case.
    Then, going into the play-offs, the pressure mounts and the opposition is stiffer. And then the struggles are amplified and some of the connections in the team on the ice start breaking down, with teammates being out of sync, not reading off of each other as well, etc. All those thing ultimately led to a series lost.
    Now, maybe the best thing coming out of all this, is that they will address the team’s needs in the off-season and that the players will get some much needed rest and some of our key players have a summer to get ready for the new season (so they don’t have to play catch-up).

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)