Horvat back practicing; where does he fit in the lineup?

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.

 

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.

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18 comments

  1. DCM
    October 15, 2014

    This is a pretty dramatic shift from the past couple of years, where a lot of people of the “fancy stats” persuasion were pretty dismissive of the value of face-offs. Also, I still miss Manny.

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    • Daniel Wagner
      October 15, 2014

      Faceoffs overall have limited value. One team being a few percentile points better at faceoffs means little in the standings. Defensive and offensive zone faceoffs in particular, however, definitely have value, though not as much as people might think. I believe I read something from as far back as 2011 that suggested even-strength offensive and defensive zone faceoffs can mean a swing of one or two wins, which doesn’t sound like much, but is still significant.

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  2. BBoone
    October 15, 2014

    Good article. When would Horvat’s 9 game NHL limit begin ? That is to say, does he get 9 games once he starts ? If he plays 2 and then in press box for #3 does that count as two games or three games. ?

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    • Lemming
      October 15, 2014

      I was under the impression that it was 9 games played in the boxcar counting stats sheet, so I imagine that he would have to be dressed and on the bench for 9 games.

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  3. Chris the Curmudgeon
    October 15, 2014

    I seem to be missing something here. The Curmudgeon did a little research, and learned that this year, the Canucks’ best faceoff man by percentage in the first two games has been: Brad Richardson. Last year, the Canucks’ best faceoff man (who took at least 25 faceoffs) was: Brad Richardson. According to BehindtheNet, no Canuck forward had a higher number of On-ice Defensive Faceoff wins last year than Richardson, and the team won 54.7% of its defensive zone draws with him on the ice (with Kesler, it was 52.1%, with Henrik it was 55.6% and with all other regular centres it was <50%). If the team is worried about their success in winning faceoffs, wouldn't it make more sense to have more of the defensive zone ones taken by: Brad Richardson? Seems more logical to me than hoping for a 19 year old rookie to carry the team in that department. I suppose there's some argument to be made that you don't want to increase Richardson's ice time too much, but if you have him on a line with players like Hansen and Dorsett, you could start them in the D-zone all the time because we know they can get the puck out effectively. Richardson seems to take flak for his low Corsi, but wasn't he the Canuck deployed in defensive zone starts the most and in offensive zone starts the least last year, and wouldn't that skew his numbers unfairly down? I went back and looked at the Canucksarmy player preview with the advanced stat break down of Richardson's Corsi events, where they concluded that Richardson likely depressed his most frequent linemates' possession stats (Booth and Kassian) based on his "WOWY" numbers, and used those stats to make the case that Richardson was in over his head on that line. However, that explanation seems unsatisfactory when you then see that Richardson started in the defensive zone far more often than either of them (48%, compared to 37.9 for Kassian and 36.2 for Booth). Isn't it possible that the nerds are sort of underrating Richardson because they're not accounting for how his Corsi stats are actually accumulating in an uneven fashion as a result of him having been frequently deployed in the defensive zone without his regular linemates? Richardson's Corsi% was actually better without than with Hansen, Higgins, Sestito (self-explanatory), Weise and Santorelli (his next 5 most frequent linemates at 5 on 5), and I would imagine it's because those forwards must have accounted for a good chunk of Richardson's additional defensive zone starts where he wasn't with his usual linemates (Richardson had 444 5 on 5 DZ starts last year, to Booth's 276 and Kassian's 303, while all three had a comparable number of OZ starts, according to BehindtheNet). I have been an occasional critic of advanced stats, even though I recognize their obvious value, because I think there is important info missed, and this seems to be one of those times. Any thoughts as to whether Richardson might actually be a little bit more useful than he's being given credit for?

    Having said all of that, I wouldn't be surprised if Dorsett was the odd man out at least at some point, since he doesn't play any special teams. Matthias might also be the one. As much as Kassian seems to be some sort of sacred cow around Vancouver, I wouldn't be upset if he sat out a game here or there, either, as he's ill-suited for the 4th line if it's to be a defensive zone group and there are other players who'd be far more missed in the top 9. I'd also love to see Weber draw in for Sbisa at some point.

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    • Harrison Mooney
      October 15, 2014

      Block of text! Block of text!

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      • Chris the Curmudgeon
        October 15, 2014

        Hmm, yeah now that I see it all displayed like that, it does look a little bit daunting.

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        • Brent
          October 15, 2014

          Impressive none the less.

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        • Nix
          October 16, 2014

          I wouldn’t sweat it. Here on PITB we seem to be a more literary crowd than average. I think we can hack reading *GASP* a full paragraph of detailed argument!

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    • Neil B
      October 15, 2014

      There is that.

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    • Daniel Wagner
      October 15, 2014

      Personally, I’d be all for Richardson taking some more defensive zone draws. He’s turned out to be much better at faceoffs than his reputation and previous seasons suggested. The issue is that if Richardson is on the third line with Vey and Kassian, that’s probably not a line that you want spending too much time in the defensive zone, as neither Vey nor Kassian are particularly good there.

      Contrary to what you might think, the advanced stat folks aren’t really down on Richardson. If I’m counted amongst them, I recognize that his underlying possession numbers are pretty profoundly affected by his 38% offensive zone starts and his usual linemates. Thing is, I don’t really think of him as a defensive, two-way forward, but as more of a miscast offensive forward. He had 40 points in 38 AHL games in 2007-08, but hasn’t had many offensive opportunities in the NHL.

      That’s why I’m intrigued by the idea of a Richardson, Vey, Kassian third line, as that’s a line that should get sheltered minutes, starting mainly in the offensive zone against weaker competition, and put up some secondary scoring. I’d rather see Higgins, Bonino, and Burrows getting defensive zone starts, as they’re better defensively. The only issue is that Bonino is a sub-50% faceoff guy.

      If you’re sheltering the third line, though, and still want to give the first line prime offensive zone starts, the fourth line needs to soak up some defensive zone starts. Matthias is even worse than Bonino on faceoffs, though, so it’s definitely understandable why Desjardins would be hesitant to send them out in the defensive zone too often.

      If Horvat can be more reliable than Matthias, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll suddenly be taking every defensive zone draw. He’ll just be supporting Bonino in that role and, perhaps, going out there as faceoff insurance late in games.

      Now, maybe I’m underrating Richardson’s defensive ability a ton and he could fill a Malhotra-like role for the Canucks. In that case, you put him with Dorsett and Hansen. Then, you put Horvat with Vey and Kassian as a young scoring line.

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      • Collin
        October 16, 2014

        It seems the real problem is we don’t have a 2nd total-package centerman (like Kesler). All of our centres have their issues. Maybe the coaching staff will just try to rotate them in and out of the defensive zone faceoffs ‘slot’ to see who sticks.

        I like the idea of using Horvat as a faceoff specialist if he turns out to be the best of our non-Sedin centres. But even then it will probably be limited as I don’t see him getting big minutes, thus reducing how many shifts he gets, and I don’t see him being used like Manny and being deployed for 20s just to chip the puck out of the d-zone and get off the ice. I think the coaching staff would want a young player to play regular shifts with consistent line mates.

        The ‘easy’ solution is for Bonino to get good at faceoffs, like Kesler was. Then everything falls into place a little better. I’ll be watching d-zone faceoff deployment and success (or lack thereof) more closely after reading these comments!

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      • Chris the Curmudgeon
        October 16, 2014

        Daniel, I think I tend to agree with you, and I think you hit the nail on the head in the last paragraph. Just to clarify, hockeyanalysis numbers say that only 23% of Richardson’s faceoffs last year were in the offensive zone, with 29% in the neutral zone and 48% in the defensive zone. As I mentioned before, that’s by far the most uneven distribution on the team. I only read this blog and occasionally Canucksarmy, so I suppose it’s unfair to paint all advanced stats nerds into a corner, but that other blog was lukewarm on Richardson’s performance last year, and I was just trying to suggest that they missed something in their analysis.

        Richardson may have some unappreciated offensive ability, as you say, but I was more interested in how he could help the team with their (small sample size) faceoff woes, as he’s one of the few centers they have whom the coach should be able to trust in the defensive zone. If he, Hansen and Dorsett were put together, they could be line 3B with a generally defensive deployment, though we know that both of those wingers are actually reasonably good at advancing the puck, so it could be a very underrated defensive line. Horvat, Vey and Kassian might then be the young 3A, with a more sheltered deployment but with some clear offensive upside. That seems to leave Matthias as the odd man out, as Bonino is a better option for a second line center. You still have the issue that two of your lines are poorly suited for defensive zone starts, meaning that the Sedins probably get more than they should, but I suppose you hope at the same time that either Bonino or Horvat can surprise us in the circle, while not absolutely depending on it.

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        • Daniel Wagner
          October 16, 2014

          Ah, I was wondering where you got Richardson’s deployment percentage from. The standard is to throw out the neutral zone numbers as they have next to no impact.

          I’m just not sold on Richardson as a defensive specialist. I think he’s better suited for a depth offensive role.

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          • Chris the Curmudgeon
            October 16, 2014

            Fair enough on the first point, but with that math, I see 100% * 0.23 (OZ)/[0.23 (OZ) + 0.48 (DZ)] = 33% offensive zone starts. Anyways, the underlying point was the contrasts with his two regular linemates last year, Kassian and Booth, who had much more even percentages (Kassian: 43% by the same math, and Booth: 45%), and that difference mostly reflects that Richardson was frequently sent out without them for defensive zone faceoffs. For as much as Kesler is hailed for his two way ability (mostly deserved), his breakdown is 47%, albeit against a (somewhat) higher quality of competition. Richardson actually started more total shifts in the defensive zone than Kes, 444 – 412 (Richardson was 2nd among forwards in that stat last year, just behind Higgins, who ultimately played far more shifts in general).

            Richardson may not be a true defensive specialist, but I think he gets a raw deal for his two-way ability because of the way the numbers are being parsed. He appears to be one of the better options to center a line to be primarily deployed defensively for this year’s team, and any offence that he ends up being capable of is a bonus. Even with his highly skewed deployment last year, he still produced reasonably well, though I’m sure he won’t get any credit for it (blah blah…percentage driven…blah blah…linemates driving scoring chances,,,blh blah). Really, the Canucks actually have a number of wingers who should be considered reasonably trustworthy for defensive zone start situations (Daniel, Burrows, Hansen, Dorsett, Higgins), and winning the faceoff is the only place where there’s a question mark. Seems to me Richardson is the best option to fill that role.

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  4. akidd
    October 15, 2014

    well, most importantly is the question of paragraphs. chris, is opting for the technical, academic approach of keeping one thought in the same paragraph. sometimes we have a longer, more complex thought. no need to sugarcoat it. we’ve all got long attention spans when we need them, right? one very long paragraph and one short one? the curmudgeon doesn’t care. He treats everyone like and adult and he lets the content define the form.

    daniel, on the other hand, with his well-tempered clavier, shows a more visually sensitive interpretation. his attention to design and form shows itself well. not only is he being kind to his readers he’s also allowing them to devote more processing power to the content itself.

    two very distinct approaches from two very distinct fellas.to vote chris tweet #ilovethecurmudgeon and to vote for daniel tweet #machosensitivo. and put a twenty in an envelope and send it in to make sure that vote gets counted (it worked wonders for the ‘cache’ problem.)

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    • Chris the Curmudgeon
      October 16, 2014

      You’re an odd duck, akidd.

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  5. Kyle
    October 16, 2014

    I like the P2B but I really come here for the comments.

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