The Canucks clearly miss Ryan Kesler right now in every facet of the game. Kesler wins faceoffs, kills penalties, scores on the powerplay, and wins battles against tough opposition, areas where the Canucks are struggling to start the season. But there’s a very specific area where his absence is causing some major problems: the first shift of the game.
A rough start has been the common theme through the first 6 games of the 2013 season for the Canucks, as they frequently seem to get outplayed during the first few minutes and depend on their goaltending to staunch the bleeding until they can turn things around. That first shift of the game is where it all starts.
Some call it “setting the tone,” while I call it “not getting hemmed in your own zone.” Ryan Kesler is excellent at both.
During the 2011-12 season, Kesler and Henrik Sedin took the bulk of the opening faceoff duties, with Kesler taking the most with 36 to Henrik’s 32. Obviously, you generally want one of your top two lines out on the ice to start the game, but it’s also easy to understand why Kesler and his linemates saw a few more opening faceoffs than the Sedins.
Kesler’s line was perfectly suited for whatever might happen off the opening puckdrop. If Kesler won the faceoff and the Canucks were able to push possession into the offensive zone, they had the skill to create scoring chances and force an offensive zone faceoff, at which point the Sedins could be brought onto the ice. If Kesler lost the faceoff and the Canucks ended up in the defensive zone, the line had the defensive acumen to prevent quality scoring chances and clear the puck.
Starting the Sedins also makes sense, of course, as you hope that they will create some quality puck possession and begin to wear down the opposition. If they get caught in the defensive zone, however, it’s a riskier proposition. They’re simply not as skilled defensively as Kesler and his linemates.
Still, it’s good to have the two options open for setting the tone in the first shift of the game.
Without Kesler in the lineup, however, the Canucks have struggled in the opening minutes. This is particularly true in their last two games against the Sharks and Kings, as well as their season opener against the Ducks. Against the Ducks and Kings, it took the Canucks over 3 minutes to record their first shot on goal. Against the Sharks, it took over 5 minutes, with the shots 6-0 and the score 2-0 by that point.
While momentum is frequently over-emphasized in hockey, a poor opening shift has a cascade effect on the shifts immediately following it. Getting stuck in the defensive zone leads to defensive zone faceoffs and, given the struggles the Canucks have had in the faceoff circle to start the season, that has generally led to more time stuck in the defensive zone and more defensive zone faceoffs.
We’ve been pointing out how the Sedins have benefited from starting in the offensive zone thanks to the enabling efforts of both Manny Malhotra and Ryan Kesler for some time now and they’re still getting those offensive zone starts. They’re not getting them at the start of the game, however, and they’ve been badly victimized when they’ve had to start in the defensive zone early.
In place of Kesler, Vigneault has tried to use Alex Burrows in between Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins to start the game, as that line has started the last three games. Against San Jose, Burrows took the pre-faceoff penalty, leaving Higgins to take the opening faceoff in a 4-on-4 situation. He lost it to Logan Couture and the Sharks gained the offensive zone and got the first shot of the game.
Considering it was a 4-on-4 situation, where the Sedins normally excel, Henrik and Daniel came out for the defensive zone faceoff. The resulting shift was a disaster, as the Sedins failed to clear the zone against Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, who scored the opening goal 26 seconds after the defensive zone faceoff.
Against the Kings, the Burrows line was forced to ice the puck twice after the opening faceoff, leading to two defensive zone draws, both of which the Canucks lost. The Sedins came out shortly after and were unable to sustain any offensive pressure.
Without Kesler to anchor a strong two-way line, Vigneault is left with few options. The Sedins, when they’re on their game, are great at pushing the puck into the offensive zone and creating opportunities while limiting the opportunities of their opponents. When things aren’t clicking for them, however, it’s up to Burrows and his linemates to fill the void left by Kesler. So far, it’s just not working.
The Canucks need fewer shifts from Kesler at Save-on-Foods and Tim Horton’s and more shifts on the ice. Hopefully he’s close to returning; otherwise, Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo better get used to facing a lot of shots early in the game.Tags: Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, zone starts