With a healthy defence, what should the Canucks pairings look like?

For a brief period of time, the Canucks defence pairings looked a little like this: Dan Hamhuis and Yannick Weber on the top pairing, with Luca Sbisa and Alex Biega behind them, and Ryan Stanton and Adam Clendening on the third pairing. With injuries to Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Kevin Bieksa, and Frank Corrado all overlapping, that’s the defence that Eddie Lack had in front of him.

Amazingly, the Canucks actually managed to win games with those defence pairings.

Now, though, the Canucks’ defence appears to be completely healthy. Edler, Tanev, Bieksa, and Corrado have all recovered, giving the Canucks nine blueliners on their active roster. That means that three defencemen have to sit as healthy scratches every game. So, who should be playing and how should the defence pairings be arranged?

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What’s the deal with Brandon McMillan?

It sounds like the setup to a bad joke, the kind Jerry Seinfeld would skewer, but it’s simply been a source of confusion for Canucks fans? What is the deal with Brandon McMillan? Why did the Canucks claim him off waivers? Why does he continue to get ice time over, at first, Zack Kassian and, more recently, Ronalds Kenins?

It seems plainly obvious to fans that McMillan contributes very little on the ice: in 6 games with the Canucks so far, he has no points, 5 shots on goal, and is averaging around 11 minutes per game. And yet, Willie Desjardins keeps putting him in the lineup. He was even waived at one point and cleared, but didn’t get sent to Utica. What is he seeing that we’re not?

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Finding shooting lanes and blocking shots: a breakdown of the Canucks’ possession statistics

An off-handed comment by Steve Burtch, who writes about analytics for Sportsnet and developed dCorsi, got me thinking about how we look at advanced statistics when judging teams. Essentially, he suggested that looking at “combined” statistics like corsi percentage or fenwick percentage was doing a disservice to the data and that it’s more useful to look at a team or player’s corsi for and against separately, as it provides more information.

This seemed to me to be an interesting point, though I still feel there’s value in combining metrics. After all, the point of hockey isn’t to score or prevent goals, but to out-score the opponent, so looking at just for and against by themselves doesn’t capture the entire picture.

It’s useful, though, to see how a team is getting to their totals, whether it’s via low-event, defensive play or high-octane offence, or somewhere in between. So, I decided to look at the Canucks’ corsi and fenwick statistics both for and against and see where they rank league-wide, to see if it would shed some light on the Canucks’ performance this season. Quite frankly, I was surprised by the results.

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Ryan Miller hasn’t been as good (or bad) as people think

Ryan Miller presents a fascinating conundrum for Canucks fans. On the one hand, he’s second in the NHL in wins and has had some truly exceptional games, including three shutouts. On the other hand, he’s had some truly horrible games and his overall numbers are well below league-average.

It’s tough to know what to make of Miller, which has led to arguments among Canucks fans throughout the province and on social media. Just how good has Miller been? It’s hard to complain about a goaltender with a 16-6-0 record, but there’s also no denying that his statistics are a concern.

One reason it’s been difficult to assess Miller is how extreme his results have been. When he’s been good, he’s been very good, but when he’s been bad, he’s been horrible. Those horrible games, therefore, skew his numbers significantly. But, since he’s been good far more often than he’s been bad, there’s an argument to be made that his save percentage doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, what you really want from a goaltender is for him to give your team a chance to win in as many games as possible.

Has Miller given the Canucks a chance to win more often than not? His record suggests yes, but let’s take a closer look at the numbers using a goaltending metric known as Quality Starts.

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Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa are falling short of expectations

The Canucks have a problem on defence. They’re currently giving up 2.89 goals per game, tied for 12th worst in the NHL. Part of the problem has been their goaltending, which has been outstanding one game, disastrous the next, and mediocre otherwise, with Ryan Miller and Eddie Lack combining for an atrocious .900 save percentage.

But there are defensive issues as well and two players in particular who have underwhelmed in that regard: Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa. For the first time as a Canuck, Hamhuis is a negative possession player, while Bieksa is making a mess of relatively soft minutes.

Both Hamhuis and Bieksa were expected to bounce back from pedestrian seasons under John Tortorella, returning to a partnership that was extremely fruitful as a shutdown pairing under Alain Vigneault. Instead, they’ve struggled and seen their partnership broken up once again. What’s the problem and how can the Canucks fix it?

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There’s nothing wrong with Jannik Hansen playing with the Sedins

Radim Vrbata has recovered from his injury and will play tonight against his former team, the Arizona Coyotes of Phoenix in Glendale. He’ll be back on the top line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, looking to improve upon his near point-per-game numbers this season.

This will come as a relief to both the Canucks and their fans, as Vrbata helps make the Sedins a more dangerous line and should also provide a boost to the Canucks’ suddenly ailing power play that hasn’t scored in the last three games.

Vrbata’s return also means that Jannik Hansen won’t be playing with the Sedins, which is an even bigger source of relief for some than Vrbata’s return. The amount of vitriol I saw aimed at Hansen over the last two games was astonishing, amd it wasn’t just the fans. Jason Botchford and Tony Gallagher were nearly apoplectic about Hansen getting top line duty.

To a certain extent, it’s understandable why: Hansen is not a natural finisher, with a career-high of just 16 goals, so the Sedins’ pretty playmaking is sometimes all for naught, dying on Hansen’s stick. Visually, Hansen’s play is unappealing, full of missed chances, sloppy skating, and awkward falls. He just doesn’t pass the eye test.

What he does pass, however, is the numbers test. Despite appearances, Hansen has been one of the Sedins most effective linemates.

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Will Nick Bonino score 20 goals next season?

After a nearly-historic level of offensive ineptness last season, one of the biggest questions Canucks fans had for the new management regime was where the goals were going to come from next season. That became even more of a concern when the Canucks traded their leading goalscorer, Ryan Kesler.

The Canucks certainly had little choice in the matter and Kesler will likely never again reach the 40+ goal heights of 2010-11, but he’s consistently scored more than 20 goals since 2007, apart from the lockout and injury-shortened 2012-13 season. As much as the Canucks appear to be glad to see him on his way out, they’ll still miss the 20-25 goals he’d have likely contributed next season.

Jim Benning took some steps toward adding scoring, signing Radim Vrbata, who has 140 goals since 2007, 24 fewer than Kesler in that time. There’s hope that with Vrbata joining the top line, he could revitalize the Sedins and help them to a bounce back season. In addition, Alex Burrows can’t possibly have a worse season than last year, Zack Kassian looks poised to breakout, and Nicklas Jensen has shown signs of being ready to put the puck past NHL goaltenders.

Benning, however, is also expecting goalscoring from another source: Nick Bonino, the centrepiece of the package the Canucks received from the Anaheim Ducks in return for Kesler.

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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.

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Big Numbers: Pro-rating the 2013 Canucks over an 82-game season

A player’s statistics in a shortened season can be difficult to evaluate, partly because we’re so used to seeing numbers after 82 games. A 30-goal scorer in a normal season is a 17.56-goal scorer in a 48-game season, which just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

So, in order to ease the evaluation process a little, I have pro-rated the Canucks goals, assists, points, penalty minutes, and shots over 82 games. While we have no idea what might have occurred over games 49-82 if they had actually happened, this should at least give us a better picture of how well each player performed compared to previous seasons.

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Who are the Canucks’ best penalty killers?

While the Canucks have been a mess on the powerplay this season and have been inconsistent defensively at even-strength, the one area that has been a strength all season long has been the penalty kill. The Canucks have allowed more than one powerplay goal in a game just three times this season and haven’t done so since February 24th against the Detroit Red Wings.

Once the Canucks had some actual centres in Ryan Kesler and Derek Roy, the penalty kill got even better, going seven straight games and 25 opportunities without allowing a goal against. As a result, the Canucks finished 8th in the NHL in penalty kill percentage at 84%. It’s been one of the most consistent areas for the Canucks, killing off 86% last season and 85.6% the season before.

It’s sometimes tough to tell who on the Canucks is most responsible for their shorthanded success. Goaltending obviously plays a big role and it’s assumed that coaching is vital, but which defencemen and forwards have been the best on the penalty kill for the Canucks?

It’s harder to figure out than you’d think.

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When it comes to taking penalties, Alex Burrows is Mr. Versatility

The Canucks are taking far too many penalties this season. At least, that’s what it feels like just 18 games in. It doesn’t help that the Canucks are currently 19th in the NHL in penalty killing at 79.4%. Penalties tend to be a lot more memorable when a goal is scored during the subsequent powerplay.

Sunday’s game against the Red Wings is a good example. While there were certainly some questionable calls by the officials, it was the Canucks’ lousy penalty killing that helped make them part of the story of the game. With some better penalty killing in the second period, the Canucks would actually have had a chance to get a point out of that game instead of it becoming an 8-goal debacle.

Over the past couple seasons, the Canucks have had one of the league’s best penalty kills, which played a big part in their back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy wins. This season, the Canucks have given up 15 goals while shorthanded. At 5-on-4, they’re tied for the second most goals-against in the league. That has to be a combination of their poor penalty killing and taking too many penalties.

The biggest culprit so far has been Alex Burrows, who has found himself in the box far too often this season. This just makes matters worse, as he is also one of the Canucks’ best penalty killers.

Over at Backhand Shelf this morning, I looked at the trends in penalty minutes across the entire NHL. I’m going to do the same here, focussing on the Canucks.

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What would a 48-game season have meant for the 2011-12 Canucks?

While nothing has been confirmed officially, by all accounts the NHL season will be starting on January 19th and will last for 48 games. This was, apparently, the shortest season that the NHL would have considered, which makes it awfully convenient that a new CBA deal was reached just in time for a 48-game season to occur.

Setting aside what has brought us to this point for the moment, what does it mean to have 48 games rather than 82? For starters, each game becomes nearly twice as important. Approximately 1.95 times more important, to be a little more specific. To help you visualize a 48-game season, each team plays 48-50 games before the All-Star break in a normal season.

To give you some idea of how a 48-game season changes things, I looked at what it would have meant for last season.

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Who were Ryan Kesler’s best linemates last season?

Sometimes when I get curious enough about something to investigate it, digging up statistics and putting together charts, the answer turns out to be the obvious one. Fortunately, it can also turn up some other interesting information along the way.

Here’s the question I had: which wingers were most effective with Ryan Kesler last season? One of the big questions coming into this season is who should play on the second line with Kesler, once he returns too early? David Booth seems to have his spot all sewn up, but there are many competitors for the opposite wing, including Chris Higgins, Mason Raymond, Jannik Hansen, Zack Kassian, and Nicklas Jensen. Heck, if Shane Doan signs with the Canucks, you can add him and Alex Burrows to that list.

David Booth and Chris Higgins were Kesler’s most common linemates last season, but were they his most effective linemates? To get the answer, I did some WOWY (With Or Without You) analysis to see how Kesler performed with and without various linemates. In this case, the answer appears to be pretty definitively “yes.”

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Chartball’s visual franchise history for the Canucks will blow your mind

Charts and graphs are great. I love charts and graphs. But they do have a tendency to be a trifle boring. Fortunately, Chartball is here to make sports charts and graphs beautiful. Chartball has been around for a few years but has only recently begun making charts for hockey.

This particular chart covers the Vancouver Canucks’ franchise history up until the 2010-11 season, which makes me think it’s been around for a while, but this is the first I’m seeing it.

And yes, it’s beautiful.

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Vancouver Canucks Player Usage Charts for 2011-12 season

Advanced statistics in hockey aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Also, not everyone likes tea in the first place, so when you offer them a cup of tea and they politely, yet firmly, decline and you keep shoving tea in their face, it’s rather rude. And yet, I continue to talk about advanced statistics on PITB, trusting that the tea-drinkers will appreciate a nice rooibos tea while everyone else will ignore it completely.

But what if I promised a pretty picture that might make advanced statistics a bit more clear? Or, in my increasingly forced tea metaphor, what if I added a bunch of high-fructose corn syrup to green tea but still pretended it was healthy by putting ginseng in it?

Robert Vollman of Hockey Abstract has released the 2011-12 Player Usage Charts, which take three of the most common and useful advanced statistics and put them into a handy-dandy chart that makes it easy to see at a glance how a player was used and how well they performed in their role. I’ve taken a look at these charts in regards to the Stanley Cup Finalists over at Backhand Shelf; after the jump, I’m going to look at the Vancouver Canucks’ chart and see what can be gleaned from it.

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