Is fatigue to blame for Canucks’ January struggles?

When John Tortorella was hired, he made it clear that he was going to ride his top players hard. The Sedins would play big minutes in all situations, including the penalty kill, he promised and assured everyone that the twins could handle the extra workload. He emphasized conditioning at the beginning of training camp and played his first line upwards of 23 minutes a night early on in the season.

There were dissenting voices among fans and the media early on, insisting that this was an Eastern Conference point of view that just wouldn’t work with the heavier travel of a Western Conference team, particularly Vancouver, which generally faces some of the toughest travel in the league. The Sedins would get run down, the oft-injured Ryan Kesler would break down, and the defence would get fatigued and sloppy.

Now, it appears that they were right. The Canucks look tired, at least one Sedin is injured, and usually-reliable defencemen have made highly noticeable errors. The high-energy forecheck that was so common at the beginning of the season has lost its jump and even the penalty kill looks weary and lethargic. Most damning of all is how the Canucks have performed in third periods, as they appear to simply run out of gas in the final frame.

But that’s just what appears to be the case. I wanted to see if there was some way to look at fatigue statistically, to see if the numbers back up what we’re seeing, particularly in the third period. From what I found, it appears that fatigue could be a legitimate explanation for the Canucks’ struggles, but I found some other interesting results that call that explanation into question.

The simplest way I could think of to test this theory is to look at how the Canucks have performed in each period on a game-by-game basis. I took the shots and goals for and against in the first, second, and third periods of each game and looked to see if there was any pattern. I was particularly interested in looking at shots, partly because goals are far more dependent on bounces and luck, but mainly because, by the eye test, the Canucks have struggled to even get shots on net late in games.

If fatigue as as big a factor as is claimed, we should expect to see a major decline in the third period over the course of the season. At the beginning of the season, third periods should be about as strong as the first and second periods, as fatigue should not have set in yet. Meanwhile, over the course of the season, the first period should remain fairly strong throughout, while second periods may decline slightly.

If this is not the case — if, say, all three periods decline equally or if we get some other result — then we could perhaps look to reasons other than fatigue, such as systems, luck, or injuries, to explain the Canucks’ struggles in January. My assumptions in this regard could be flawed, of course. Perhaps fatigue would impact the Canucks in a different way.

There are some weaknesses to this methodology. I found no simple way to take game state into account, so this includes power plays and penalty kills which can skew shot and goal totals. It also ignores score effects: the team trailing in a game tends to out-shoot their opposition. Also, since it includes only shots and goals, it is not as large a sample size as what Corsi or Fenwick would provide, but I had no way of splitting Corsi and Fenwick by period over the course of the season.

Here’s the breakdown by month:

The first thing that jumps out at me is the shot totals from December and January. For all the fuss over the third period collapses in January, the Canucks were just as bad at giving up shots in the third in December. The difference is that the Canucks out-scored their opposition by 8 in the third period in December, but have been out-scored by 15 in the third in January.

There wasn’t much fuss kicked up about third period struggles and fatigue when the bounces were going the Canucks way despite being out-shot. Going 10-1-2 in a month covers over a multitude of sins.

They were nearly as bad in the third period in October, getting outshot by 21. In fact, the only month where they weren’t outshot in the third period was in November and there was still a massive drop-off from the second to the third period.

This is an interesting result: is fatigue to blame for the Canucks’ third period struggles as early as the start of the season or should we look elsewhere for an explanation? It does make sense that players who are seeing upwards of 23 minutes per game would see their play fall off in the third period, but right from the start of the season when their legs should be fresh?

The other number that really jumps out from this chart is how well the Canucks played in the second period in November, out-shooting their opponents by 70 shots. Amazingly, they out-scored their opponents by just 9 goals, just one more than in the third period in December, when they were out-shot by 31.

Even the Canucks second period dominance has fallen into an abyss, as they have been out-shot by 30 in the second period in January and out-scored by 6.

Separating the season by months is fairly arbitrary, however, so i put together a chart that shows the Canucks’ shots for and against by period as 10-game rolling averages. This shows how the Canucks have performed in each period in any given 10-game stretch of the season:

The Canucks shots for and against in the first period have seen a fairly steady decline over the course of the season. While fatigue could be a factor, it seems like it wouldn’t have as strong an effect in the first period.. The second period has seen a couple spikes in effectiveness throughout the season before crashing in January, but is now trending slightly up.

The third period is where we’re most interested and it’s interesting to see that, for the most part, it’s been far worse than the first and second periods throughout the entire season. The exception is in a brief stretch around the end of November, which included strong performances against the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, along with a couple wallopings of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ottawa Senators.

Interestingly, all three periods have averaged around the same in shots for and against over the last 10 games. That’s mostly a bad thing, as the Canucks strong first and second periods from the start of the season have become thoroughly mediocre, while the third periods are just getting a little less bad.

It’s truly tough to say whether fatigue is the main factor in the Canucks’ declining play, since the third period has been an issue all season and the Canucks’ first periods have also seen a decline. I’d be tempting to point more in the direction of injuries, with players like Alex Edler, Alex Burrows, Ryan Stanton, Henrik Sedin, and Mike Santorelli all missing significant time in December and January, but with Santorelli gone for the season after shoulder surgery and further injuries to Chris Tanev and Kevin Bieksa cropping up, that’s not exactly an encouraging prospect.

In any case, injuries are often blamed on fatigue as well, so that does little to clarify the issue at hand.

It will be interesting to look at this as the season continues. If fatigue is to blame, we’ll likely see a continued downward trend, whereas if this is simply a slump, the Canucks’ shot and goal totals in the first and second period, at the very least, should improve. Unfortunately, there’s little reason to be optimistic about the third period for Canucks fans. Whether it’s fatigue or some other reason, the third period has been atrocious all season.

Tags: , ,

12 comments

  1. Chinstrap Joe
    January 31, 2014

    Generally speaking, is this team too old to play Tortorella’s system?

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
    • Lenny
      January 31, 2014

      I would argue yes. The Tampa and NYR teams he coached were led by youngsters. Richards, Lecavalier, St. Louis, Boyle were all in the 20′s when they won the Cup.

      VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
      Rating: +3 (from 3 votes)
  2. akidd
    January 31, 2014

    wow, a hard-working post there. good stuff.

    i think that the nhl has evolved to place where shots on goals are fairly meaningless. it’s takes so much skill to score goals in today’s game and considerably less to get a shot on net. which is why so many advanced stats are a little iffy. it’s all about the quality these days, about creating grade A scoring chances and CAPITALIZING on them. that takes skill and smarts from both players and coaches. goaltending and defending is too good. the shot/play has to be perfect to score. luck evens out. sure more shots and you get more of a chance for a lucky goal. but goalies are so good positionally now that even lucky goals have been reduced, i’m sure. if you want to score you’ve got to earn it… and be blessed with a pretty decent brain.

    but your first chart that showed goals was pretty telling. in january it’s 1, -6, -15. that’s the kinda curve you can base-jump from with a running start.

    i think it’s pretty obvious what happened. overplayed and fatigued. tired bodies get hurt. you could even question the wisdom of the gruelling training camp. there’s only so much energy an athlete has to give over a season and a career.

    i just can’t figure out how gillis, with all that previous investment in sleep doctors and fatigue specialists and the like, would just let torts go to town with the toi like he did. it’s like they just found science inconvenient for a moment (a popular approach with some in this country apparently:) mind-boggling really.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +13 (from 15 votes)
  3. Snepsts
    January 31, 2014

    This is a great write-up, thanks.

    I think this is as suggested very illustrative of Torts coaching style and as indicated, the relative age of the players. Maximum cardio efficiency is in the 24-28 year old age range. It declines only slightly into the 30s, but injuries of course are cumulative as is wear and tear.

    So, as the 3rd period hits, there are more errors by fatigued first and second liners/blueliners, and perhaps – perhaps this is incorrect – more reliance on the 3rd/checking line and a couple extra 4th line shifts as things get scribbly? That would be interesting to track too.

    I know I am going to get hated on for this, and I mean this with total 20-20 hindsight awareness but…wouldn’t it be great to have Cody Hodgson right now?

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: 0 (from 4 votes)
    • shoes
      February 1, 2014

      No, it would probably not be good to have Cody Hodgson right now. He was an “eye specialist” ! Meaning “I” this, I that, I everything. It would have been good to have a #10 pick of that age that was of different personality. good grief he held out on his first contract in Buffalo and I will bet that if the cap goes up to 80 mill and Cody contract looks puny and he is their top centreman, he will ask for a renegotiation ( or his mom and dad will)

      VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
      Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
    • Chris the Curmudgeon
      February 1, 2014

      Amazing that you have fallen hook, line and sinker for Gillis’ crap about Hodgson. The kid was the Captain of every team he ever played on growing up, all of his coaches raved about him, his leadership abilities were a major topic on draft day, and he clearly fit in with his teammates on the Canucks. This despite the fact that the team did not treat him well at all, such as accusing him of exaggerating what turned out to be a very serious injury. Then, his agent starts whining a little bit, and Gillis, being a useless limp-wristed, used-car salesman, pathetic ignoramus throws him and his reputation under the bus. Gillis has made enough stupid moves towards a plainly downward trajectory of this team to get fired several times over. That was just one of them.

      VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
      Rating: 0 (from 4 votes)
  4. tom selleck's moustache
    February 1, 2014

    Agreed, this is an interesting write up. I think, when looking at the numbers from a fatigue stand point, that it can be looked at from two different ways. The application that we’ve most heard and read in the media centred around the fatigue over the course of a season. But it appears that your stats also brings up more, than others, the consequences of the second way of thinking of fatigue (as Snepts alluded to) which is the fatigue that sets in over the course of a game.

    I’m pretty sure that exercise science has already established that, regardless of how fit the athlete is, there is going to be a depreciation in the intensity of work that they can perform if the volume that they are required to do is also increased. And I think the numbers you’ve put together suggest that may be the case for the Canucks: their top liners are just getting tired out by the high workload so that, by the end up the game, they just can’t perform at as high a level as they would had they played more limited minutes (and you see more errors as well as a result).

    That does remind me of an article that discussed the reverse of that during the 2010-11 season. It had noted how evenly spread out the defensemen’s minutes were (I think the highest TOI was around 22-25 minutes), the obvious speculated benefit being that, because of the opportunity to more fully rest between shifts, by the time the player stepped on the ice, he was able to go all out and perform with more energy. This was affirmed by Erhoff in the included interview. When the Canucks were healthy, I believed they had a line-up that was good enough to do the same, or close to it, if they wanted to; it’s been unfortunate that it hasn’t been the case and I think we’re partly seeing the consequences because of it.

    I’ve liked a lot of things that Torts has done so far; but this is one area of strategy that I disagreed with: relying so heavily on his top players while pasting his bottom six (but especially his fourth line) on the bench.

    *You’re posting comments too quickly. Slow down*

    Really? it’s been a few hours already.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +9 (from 9 votes)
    • Brian
      February 1, 2014

      I think the other thing that the inbalance of minutes does is reduce the effectiveness of the bottom six. They don’t play enough to really develop a chemistry.

      VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
      Rating: +6 (from 6 votes)
      • shoes
        February 1, 2014

        The thing I do not understand…..is the Bottom 6 by and large are playing awfully well for guys getting only a few minutes in some games. I do not get that at all, except for coach is crossing fingers in these close games. I hope that Torts has had a chance to think about his strategy while on his holiday and rethink it for the next Month or two. I still think we make the playoffs, although I would not be surprised to see some big changes at the deadline and please don’t remind me that 1/2 the team has NTC’s. That really is not a problem when you are struggling. these guys want to win,, above most other things. the Sedins go nowhere. And our prospects including Fox go nowhere and our young D of Tanev, Stanton, Corrado goes nowhere, Kassian goes nowhere. Luongo and Lack go nowhere…..unless Lou gets us a big return in the off season. All the rest, depends on what Gillis can do on the trade market.

        VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
        Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
        • akidd
          February 2, 2014

          hey shoes, you didn’t mention kesler. i mean, if there’s one guy who still has a lot of trade value it’s him. he could fetch some pretty pieces indeed. pretty much a rebuild if you do that though. it could be a possibility. but that would pretty much open the floodgates. hamhuis and garrison could fetch quite a bit too. it could get crazy with maybe just the sedins and bieksa of that generation left standing. and a slew of young guys. wouldn’t that be crazy?

          a sentimental shocker for sure but with the right return it might not be that crazy… if a cup really is the goal.

          VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
          Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
  5. steveB
    February 2, 2014

    In today’s NHL, you need 4 lines that you can roll, with select spots of morefrequent shifts by your skill players.
    It’s a brutally long season, with extensive travel and to succeed in the Play-offs, the team needs to be able to play 60 minute (and longer) hockey, well into mid-June.
    You cannot hope to do that by running your Top Six and 4 Defence into the ground before New Years Day.

    VA:F [1.9.16_1159]
    Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
  6. J21
    February 3, 2014

    It does make sense that players who are seeing upwards of 23 minutes per game would see their play fall off in the third period, but right from the start of the season when their legs should be fresh?

    Intuitively, yeah, I think even in the first game of the season, if a guy is playing too much, his play would deteriorate with time. But I suppose you’d expect to see it a bit less.

    Whether it’s causal or correlative with the fatigue issue, I don’t know how anyone can overlook the fact that the lineup is absolutely decimated by injuries. I would not expect this lineup to win many games against anyone, no matter where in their “window” they are. It’s very 2005-06 and 2007-08 — people tried to come up with a “rotten-to-the-core” narrative for those seasons as so many are now too, but injuries really, really suck.

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