Spitballin’ on Bieksa to Worlds, Dane Fox’s award, and John Tortorella’s systems

Spitballin’ (or Super Pass ITBulis: All In, if you love adventurous acronymizing) is a feature that allows us to touch on a multitude of things really fast, because in the world of hockey, there are always lots of things to find and colour. Here are a few quick topics.

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Kevin Bieksa to play for Team Canada at the World Championships

It has to be incredibly bittersweet for an NHL player to accept an invite to play in the World Championships. While it’s an incredible honour to be asked to play for your country, it means your NHL team has either failed to make the playoffs or lost quickly in the first round. Playing for World Championship gold as a consolation prize is better than nothing, but it’s not what you want to be doing in May.

With that said, it’s pretty exciting that Kevin Bieksa has accepted Team Canada’s invitation to play in the 2014 World Championships in Belarus.

In 2012, Alex Burrows was the only representative of the Canucks on Team Canada and, while he dealt with injury troubles, he performed well when healthy, scoring 3 goals in 5 games. My favourite highlight from the tournament, however, was when he hugged the Kazakhstan goalie.

Dan Hamhuis played three games for Team Canada last year after the Canucks were eliminated, but the bigger story was Alex Edler and the Sedins winning gold (and donning gold helmets) on home soil, with Daniel and Henrik performing particularly well.

Canada hasn’t won gold at the tournament since 2007 and hasn’t won a medal since 2009.

Dane Fox named OHL overage player of the year

In a thoroughly unsurprising development, newly minted Canucks prospect Dane Fox was recognized as the OHL’s overage player of the year with the Leo Lalonde Memorial Trophy. Fox received a whopping 93 out of a possible 95 points in the vote for the award.

Fox finished second in the OHL in points with 107 in 67 games and dominated the goalscoring race, finishing just short of a goal-per-game with 64 goals, 15 more than the next closest player. He’s just the fifth player since 2003 to score 60+ goals in an OHL season.

The list of previous winners of the award isn’t exactly inspiring, with Ryan Callahan the best NHL player by a large margin. The list also includes the two best comparables for Fox in goals and points in Randy Rowe and Chad LaRose.

Still, it’s hard to avoid being excited about a player who just keeps racking up accolades, particularly with the Canucks’ prospect cupboard bare of pure goalscorers.

My issue with John Tortorella’s systems

“I come from the school that fundamental, sound hockey is winning hockey…I subscribe to the fact that winning hockey is fundamentally sound hockey. There’s only one way to play and that’s “the right way” - you don’t sacrifice offence by being in good, sound defensive position.”

That was Trevor Linden during the press conference introducing him as the new President of Hockey Operations for the Vancouver Canucks. There were some that noted on Twitter that it could have come directly from John Tortorella’s mouth as he explained why collapsing to the front of the net, blocking shots, and focussing on defence shouldn’t hurt a team’s ability to score goals.

Linden’s quote, however, isn’t a tacit endorsement of Tortorella and his systems — after all, after the press conference he noted that he doesn’t know Tortorella or his systems enough to comment on them — but the fact remains that something in Tortorella’s systems has sacrificed offence.

It’s not just that the goals have dried up — that can frequently be attributed to bad bounces or luck — but the scoring chances have as well.

In my view, it’s not the defensive side of Tortorella’s systems that have hurt the Canucks’ offence. Plenty of teams that collapse to the net and block shots also score a lot of goals. At most, bringing the forwards down that low may hurt the team’s ability to exit the zone smoothly and creat odd-man rushes.

Instead, my issue is the emphasis on dumping the puck in and recovering the puck on the forecheck. Proponents of advanced statistics have shown the dump-and-chase strategy to be incredibly inefficient and a waste of possession as opposed to controlled zone entries, to the point that the research is making a real impact on NHL coaching strategy.

Early in the season, the Canucks were still posting solid puck possession statistics while dumping the puck in more often than average, but the team saw a fairly steady decline in their puck possession numbers from the end of November on, recovering slightly near the end of December, before continuing the downward trend.

It’s not just losing possession of the puck on dump-ins that concerns me, however, as it strikes me that pucks recovered off dump-ins are more likely to lead to puck possession around the outside of the offensive zone: the puck gets recovered along the boards, with the defending team having time to get into sound defensive position. This is, perhaps, something to look into in some more detail during the off-season.

In any case, my issue with Tortorella’s systems is not that he’s a defensive coach and has very little to do with the defensive side of the game at all.

Trevor Linden is not the right man to replace Mike Gillis, which is why he isn’t

As Thomas Drance pointed out over at The Score, Linden will have a lot of responsibilities for someone without relevant experience.

In his front office role Linden will be responsible for “all hockey operations, including the coaching and scouting staffs, player procurement and development, and minor league affiliations and operations.”

That’s a diverse portfolio, especially for a guy who has never worked in an NHL front office (or a minor-league front office, for that matter).

This may be an obvious point, but there’s a reason why Linden isn’t taking on the joint role of President and General Manager that Mike Gillis held prior to being fired. While Gillis didn’t have front office experience when he took the job, he did have plenty of experience in contract negotiation, player evaluation, and was well-connected in the NHL as a former player agent.

The key for Linden will be surrounding himself with the right people to do the jobs with which he has no experience, something he readily acknowledged during the press conference. “I intend to surround myself with good, thoughtful, independent people,” he said, “and that’s how I’ll make the right decisions. That’s how the organization will make the right decisions.”

That’s ultimately how Linden will be judged. Who he hires as General Manager will be the most important decision Linden makes, but he’ll also need to decide whether the scouting staff requires an overhaul or whether last year’s draft, which appears to have given the Canucks’ prospect pool a major boost, is a sign that things are moving in the right direction.

It’s a diverse portfolio, but it’s also one that he’s not directly responsible for. His responsibility is finding the right people to manage each of those elements.

And then there’s this…

Yep.

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8 comments

  1. Aaron
    April 11, 2014

    I think the the dump and chase is a part of the problem for some players, but for other players it seems to be a good idea. My thought is that the Sedins and Burrows need to play a controlled entry game while the Kassian, Richardson and Booth seem to be doing quite well with the dump and chase method. I say set your lines to play a certain way and practice for both. It should cause some chaos for the other teams and it will allow the players to play the way that best suits thier style of game.

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    • Chris the Curmudgeon
      April 11, 2014

      I totally agree with this, I think the main problem is when coaches are so rigid as to demand their entire team fit a system, rather than adapting their systems to fit the personnel. To say that dump and chase is a bad strategy is a major over-simplification, however it’s abundantly clear that it’s a bad strategy for the Sedin line.

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      • Daniel Wagner
        April 11, 2014

        It may be an oversimplification, but it seems to be a true one. However, for now, I’ll just agree with you in regards to the Sedin line. It has pained me greatly to see them dumping the puck in so frequently this season.

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        • Chris the Curmudgeon
          April 12, 2014

          Ooh, “for now”, leaving us with a cliffhanger. Does this portend a future article using advanced metric analysis of the Canucks’ dump and chase strategies?

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          • Daniel Wagner
            April 12, 2014

            Regrettably, no. That would require having tracked zone entry stats for the entire season and I simply haven’t been doing it. But I’ll allow that future data and analysis may show that dump-and-chase isn’t always less efficacious than a controlled zone entry.

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  2. Scott Holcombe
    April 11, 2014

    Correct me if I’m wrong or misread, but will Dan Hamhuis not be playing for the Canadian World Championship team? No disrespect to Bieksa or any of the other invitees, but doesn’t it seem a little odd that a guy chosen to play for the gold medal-winning Olympic team isn’t chosen for the World Championship team?

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    • Daniel Wagner
      April 11, 2014

      Lots of players are invited but decline.

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  3. ikillchicken
    April 11, 2014

    I agree that dump ins are, in the most direct sense, the main reason for our drop in offense. However, I’m still doubtful about collapsing to the net not also being an indirect part of the problem. I mean, carrying the puck in with possession is easier said than done. And by and large, the way you do it effectively is by having a strong, fast transition game. If you’re able to transition up the ice quickly you can catch teams before they get fully set. If everyone is in around the net though you can’t really do that. By the time you get up the ice after getting possession, all five opposition guys have already had a chance to get back and you just hit a brick wall pretty much as soon as you try and skate over the blueline. So I don’t know. I don’t think just saying “we’re gonna carry the puck in more” is really enough. In fact it may just be worse if all you end up doing is constantly trying and failing to carry it in and turning it over. If we really want to fix the offense what we really need to do is create the OPPORTUNITY for carry ins. And we do that by improving our transition game.

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