What’s gone wrong with the Canucks’ power play?

The Canucks are going into the All-Star break on a roll, or maybe they’re not, depending on how few or how many games you want to bundle into the phrase “going into the All-Star break”. As pointed out earlier this week, the Canucks enter the break with a loss, but won three-of-their-last four, but only won five-of-ten in January.

We can say pretty definitively, however, that the Canucks’ power play is not on a roll going into the All-Star break, unless you mean rolling down a hill towards a pile of sharp rocks, gaining speed all the while.

After failing to score on a whopping 7 power plays against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Canucks have now had 13 straight power plays without a goal. It’s even worse when you consider the Canucks had two 5-on-3 power plays against the Lightning, playing with a two-man advantage for over a minute-and-a-half, and only managed two shots on goal in that time.

That only represents three games without a power play goal, with the Canucks going 2-for-3 against the Philadelphia Flyers and their 29th-ranked penalty kill. Before that, they went 0-for-10. That means they’re 2-for-26 on the power play over the last 8 games, for a 7.7 power play percentage. That’s bad. That’s really, really bad.

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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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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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Complete statistics from the 2014 Youngstars Tournament

The 2014 Youngstars Tournament did not go particularly well for the Canucks. While their prospects managed to take two of three games to overtime, they still lost both in the end, then got thoroughly tromped by the Flames’ prospects in the tournament closer. While wins and losses aren’t really the point of a prospects tournament, [...]

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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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Under John Tortorella, the Canucks get plenty of shots but few scoring chances

There are many reasons why the Canucks are on the verge of being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but the biggest can be summed up in three words: they can’t score. The team is 28th in the league in goals-per-game, ahead of only the woeful Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres. Their leading goalscorer is Ryan Kesler, with 23, and they’re likely to finish without a single 30-goal scorer for the first time in a non-lockout year since the 2007-08 season.

That season, they at least had three players with 20+ goals. Chris Higgins needs three goals in the Canucks’ final six games to reach 20 or Kesler will be the only Canuck above that mark.

The one bright spot? They’re currently on pace for 193 goals, which would be one better than their franchise low 192 in 1998-99. They need 14 goals in the final six games to avoid a historic low.

Many suggest the issue is personnel, that the Canucks lack legitimate snipers to finish chances, but the scoring struggles of normally reliable forwards like Alex Burrows and Daniel Sedin make me question that assessment. The Canucks could certainly use more talented goalscorers, but that doesn’t explain the struggles of the scorers they do have. For the moment, let’s set that aside and look elsewhere.

With Alain Vigneault back in town, it makes sense to look at coaching. Has John Tortorella’s coaching style and the offensive system he has put in place hurt the Canucks’ ability to score goals?

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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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Do the Canucks need more legitimate snipers?

One criticism of the Canucks that I have frequently heard, either in the comments section here, on Twitter, or from fans I know offline, is that the Canucks don’t have enough legitimate snipers. Great scoring chances were wasted, these fans say, by players who just weren’t able to finish them off. They stop short of calling them illegitimate snipers, because it’s rude to question someone’s parentage like that.

Golden opportunities that end up hitting the goaltender’s logo tend to loom large in people’s memories, particularly if they come at key points in a game. So I wanted to take a look at the statistics and see whether the Canucks actually are below average when it comes to finishing their chances.

Turns out they may have a point.

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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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How do the Canucks’ forward lines compare to the rest of the NHL?

Thanks to a litany of injuries (and, apparently, dehydration), the Canucks’ forward lines have been a complete mess recently. During one game, last season’s second line of Ryan Kesler, David Booth, and Chris Higgins was out, and Keith Ballard has now played three games as a forward on the third line. After passing up Jussi Jokinen on waivers, the Canucks are still relying on Andrew Ebbett to centre their third line until Kesler returns.

Despite all this, the Canucks are on a five-game winning streak, largely thanks to some stellar goaltending by Cory Schneider, as well as secondary scoring from the second and third lines. While some fans have complained about the Canucks’ depth at forward, it strikes me that their forward depth is actually pretty strong for the team to be missing so many players and still ice a lineup capable of winning games.

So how do the Canucks’ lines compare with the rest of the NHL? Despite missing Ryan Kesler, the Canucks’ lines compare very favourably.

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Chris Tanev thinks he’s a road hockey goalie

You may have noticed that Chris Tanev is getting beat up in front of the net recently — Not by opposing players, but by the puck. It seems to be a nightly occurrence for Tanev to block a heavy shot, drop to the ice in pain, and then make his way to the dressing room, get attended to by Mike Burnstein, and come back to the game. It’s happened so often that I’ve taken to calling him Chris “Walk it Off” Tanev.

For instance, he took a Shea Weber slapshot to the knee that cracked his knee pad during the Canucks’ game against the Nashville Predators on March 14th. He went directly to the dressing room and I thought his night was done. That’s the same Shea Weber that shot a puck through the net during the Olympics. Instead, he walked it off and came straight back to the bench. He ended up not missing a shift.

Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues, Tanev took a shot to the side of the head on Patrik Berglund’s goal and left the game. There was good reason to be concerned: a puck to the head can break a player’s jaw or orbital bone or even cause a concussion. But, after the game, reports came in that Tanev was fine.

Why does Tanev keep getting (temporarily) injured by shots? It’s because he seems to think that he’s a road hockey goalie. By all indications, he’s a pretty good one too.

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Roberto Luongo has outplayed Cory Schneider: should he be getting the bulk of the starts?

Last season, Cory Schneider wasn’t just good — he was phenomenal. He finished second in the NHL in save percentage, third in goals against average, and second in winning percentage. Combine that with his previous season, when he finished third in save percentage, fourth in goals against average, and first in winning percentage, along with his solid performance coming into a difficult situation in last year’s playoffs, and it becomes pretty easy to see why everyone thought he was ready to take over the number one job from Roberto Luongo.

So far this season, Schneider has certainly proven that he’s ready to be a starting goaltender, but he’s fallen short of proving that he’s one of the best goaltenders in the league. As we reach the halfway point of the season, it’s clear that Luongo has outplayed Schneider, raising the question of who will get the bulk of the starts over the second half.

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On David Booth, expectations, and what it means to be a second-liner in the NHL

David Booth has received his share of criticism from Canucks fans, essentially centred around his lack of production compared to the size of his contract. His start to this season hasn’t helped matters: he has zero goals and just 1 assist in his first 8 games. Considering he’s currently the fourth highest paid forward on the team, it’s understandable why some fans would be upset.

Still, there’s no need to be quite as upset as many are. Given the scoring chances that he has created recently, Booth shouldn’t be goalless for long, and he should start picking up more assists as well, if his chemistry with Zack Kassian over the last few games is any indication.

In addition, I believe that much of the criticism of Booth stems from unrealistic expectations, created by both his contract and a flawed perspective on what it means to be a first line, second line, or third line player in the NHL.

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Big Numbers: Freaky Sedins, Offensive Hamhuis and Identical Goaltenders

Every now and then we like to take a break from all the words and just post some numbers. And some words describing the numbers, as otherwise it would just be a whole bunch of numbers with no context, which would be really weird. Here are some odd and interesting numbers and statistics from the Canucks season so far.

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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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Lapierre might want to start mouthing off again; looking at the Canucks’ penalty plus/minus

Prior to the start of this season, Maxim Lapierre suggested that he was going to be chirping opponents a lot less when he was on the ice. For the most part, it seems like he’s followed through so far. He’s been avoiding most of the scrums and has only gotten yappy a few times at the bench.

It’s been important for Lapierre to stay focussed on his play: with Ryan Kesler out of the lineup and the announcement that Manny Malhotra is done for the season, Lapierre has been relied upon more at centre than ever before. He’s had to take a lot of faceoffs, particularly in the defensive zone. He’s currently second on the Canucks in total faceoffs, behind Henrik Sedin.

Shutting his mouth has seemed to have an unintended negative consequence: he’s not drawing anywhere near as many penalties. Unfortunately, he’s still taking his share of penalties so, overall, is putting the Canucks on the penalty kill more often than he’s putting them on the powerplay.

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Dale Weise is doing all the right things; the puck’s just being a jerk

When Dale Weise won the fastest skater competition at the Canucks Superskills on Sunday to the tune of “Highway to the Danger Zone,” the reaction from Canucks fans was one of incredulity. Even Joey Kenward seemed shocked at the arena, saying, “I know a lot of your teammates are going to be surprised that you won the fastest skater competition, but you’re not surprised at all.”

Weise’s deadpan reaction was perfect: “No, not at all.”

The shock was understandable. When you think of speedsters on the Canucks, the names Mason Raymond, Jannik Hansen, and Jordan Schroeder come to mind. Maybe, you think of Keith Ballard, who won the fastest skater competition last year and whose mobility is his greatest asset. Weise doesn’t even enter into the discussion.

In fact, Canucks fans generally have a low opinion of Weise, mainly because of the role they see him playing. When the Canucks picked him up off waivers from the New York Rangers last season, it was essentially because Steve Pinizzotto got injured during the pre-season and their next best option was Victor Oreskovich. Weise was coming in as a fourth-liner and was expected to do typical fourth-line stuff: bang, crash, and fight.

The problem is that Weise is not a particularly good fighter. While he’s a willing combatant (most of the time), he’s not the kind of guy who strikes the fear of God in the opposition. Since he didn’t fight particularly well and only scored 8 points in 68 games, some Canucks fans decided he wasn’t much use and needed to be replaced.

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Jannik Hansen is riding the percentages

We’ve been extolling the vices of Jannik Hansen a lot over the past few months — his violence and behaviour, his inability to be calmed down, his cross-checking of referees, and his fictional elbows to the unmentionables — but he also has a fair number of virtues. He’s a speedy, defensively sound two-way forward, who’s great on the forecheck and penalty kill.

Also, after his goal against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, Hansen is tied for third in Canucks scoring with 6 points in 10 games. To put it another, more exciting and inflammatory way, Hansen has the same number of points as Henrik Sedin.

While we’ve long said that Hansen is an underrated playmaker, this new scoring pace is still a surprise. He’s on pace for 49 points if this were an 82-game season, a full 10 points more than his career-high last season. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to happen.

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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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On Ultra Boy, Alex Edler, and Bounces

One of my favourite comic book concepts is the Legion of Superheroes, which can be summed up in a simple sentence: a thousand years in the future, superpowered teenagers battle to save the universe. One of my favourite members of the Legion of Superheroes is Ultra Boy, the result of a pure comic book question: what if a character had the powers of Superman, but could only use them one at a time?

Ultra Boy has many phenomenal powers: super-strength, invulnerability, flight, super-speed, and various vision powers, including x-ray vision and heat-vision. With that combination of superpowers, he ought to be one of the most powerful superheroes in the universe, but for that one weakness: he can only use one of those superpowers at any given time.

Why am I talking about Ultra Boy? Because he is, essentially, Alex Edler. (The main difference is that Edler has never been eaten by a space whale.)

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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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Stanley Cup Playoffs Round One Preview: By The Numbers

Game one of the Canucks first round playoff series versus the Los Angeles Kings is starting in just a couple hours. To get you ready, I’ve compiled a plethora of numbers from these two teams in order to draw some comparisons. Ultimately, the numbers suggest that this will be a tougher series than the first-versus-eighth matchup would suggest.

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Henrik Sedin really is Captain Hook

Ever since Henrik Sedin was named Captain of the Vancouver Canucks, we’ve referred to him as Captain Hook. This isn’t because Henrik is a one-handed pirate who fights children and has a fear of crocodiles, but because he has a strong penchant for taking hooking penalties.

Turns out he has a stronger penchant for hooking penalties than even I thought. Henrik currently leads the entire NHL in hooking minors with 11.

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