The current five-day break between game days is torture for Canucks fans, who are eager to see their team continue their winning ways. It’s definitely a bit of a wacky way to start the season. The Boston Bruins will have played 6 games before the Canucks even get to their third. Considering the way they’ve started the season, they may be wishing they had a five-day break instead.
It has been very useful, however, for Bo Horvat, who is back practicing with the team after his pre-season injury and has only missed two games because of the odd schedule. Earlier this week, Willie Desjardins said that he expects Horvat to be back by the weekend, which could mean he gets in the lineup as early as Friday against the Edmonton Oilers or Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Canucks carried just a 22-man roster to start the season, likely because they knew Horvat would be returning soon. That means that they don’t need to bump anyone from the roster to return Horvat to action, but they will have to take someone out of the lineup.
That someone is likely to be plucked from the fourth line and it won’t necessarily be centre Shawn Matthias.
Desjardins: “I like Bo at centre and we have a lot of centres. It’s a challenge. Somebody will have to go to the wing.” #canucks
— Ben Kuzma (@benkuzma) October 15, 2014
If Matthias or Horvat shift to the wing, then Jannik Hansen or Derek Dorsett could come out of the lineup, or even Zack Kassian, who ended up on the fourth line on Saturday. Considering how up-in-arms some people have gotten over Kassian getting bumped from the second line, imagine the uproar if he’s bumped from the lineup altogether.
When you consider that Dorsett has so far been Desjardins’ go-to option for third-line duty when shuffling his lines, the most likely candidate to spend a game or two in the press box is Hansen. This would have been shocking a couple seasons ago, when Hansen was, at the very least, consistently reliable and regularly played his way into a top-six role, but it’s not as surprising now.
The fact is that the Canucks need Horvat — at least, an NHL-ready Horvat — to help transform the fourth line into a legitimately reliable option for defensive zone starts.
Through two games, which is an admittedly small sample size, the Canucks’ top line of Radim Vrbata and the Sedins has actually started more of their shifts in the defensive zone than in the offensive zone at even-strength. That’s a massive shift from the Sedins’ deployment in their Art Ross-winning years under Alain Vigneault that saw them starting a higher percentage of their shifts in the offensive zone than pretty much any other player in the league.
This is largely why they have not been posting particularly good underlying possession numbers despite looking like the Sedins of old. All three members of the first line have sub-50% Corsi percentages. Again, there’s the caveat of two games being a very small sample size, but we’re used to the Sedins eating the Flames and Oilers alive with their possession game.
Here’s the issue: with Ryan Kesler gone (and Manny Malhotra long, long gone), the Canucks don’t have much in the way of reliable two-way centres who can consistently win faceoffs in the defensive zone. As a result, Desjardins has deployed Henrik on more defensive zone draws, including on the penalty kill.
Through two games, Henrik has taken 17 defensive zone faceoffs compared to 14 in the offensive zone. He’s only won 7 of those faceoffs, but since he’s been fairly consistently above 50% in his career, it makes sense that Desjardins would continue to rely on him.
Meanwhile, Nick Bonino has taken 13 defensive zone faceoffs and next most goes to Brad Richardson, who has taken 6. Meanwhile, the fourth line has taken a total of 5 between Matthias and Dorsett.
Collectively, the Canucks are 45% on defensive zone faceoffs, which isn’t ideal. Before Tyler Dellow was hired by the Oilers and his website went dark, he published some work on faceoffs that said that the shot rate for a team that wins a faceoff in the offensive zone was approximately equivalent to that of a power play for the 10 seconds after the draw. Essentially, every faceoff loss in the defensive zone is about equivalent to giving the other team a 10-second power play.
Horvat was renowned for winning faceoffs in the OHL, but the NHL is another story. The general thought on faceoffs is that experience plays a large factor, as you learn the tendencies of other centres around the league and pick up various tricks over time, both legal and otherwise.
But if Horvat can win even 50% of his faceoffs and be a reliable defensive centre, that may mean the fourth line can start taking on more defensive zone starts, as Matthias, Dorsett, and Hansen are all good in their own end. That, in turn, should have a trickle-up effect, allowing the top line to once again feast on offensive zone starts and keep them from spending shifts pinned in their own zone.
In addition, Horvat should be able to take on some penalty killing duty, allowing Henrik, who is averaging over a minute on the penalty kill through two games, to spend less time on the ice shorthanded.
If Horvat can win better than 50% of his faceoffs, then we’ll likely see him get some extra short shifts with other lines as faceoff insurance. The Canucks are currently 27th in the league in faceoff percentage; if Horvat is effective in the circle, they’ll start climbing up those ranks.Tags: Bo Horvat