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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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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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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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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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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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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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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What happened to the old Mason Raymond?

Mason Raymond has been a target for criticism for the vast majority of the season and it’s easy to understand why. The speedy winger has just 8 goals and 8 assists in 46 games and has been noticeably prone to losing his edge and falling to the ice. He’s survived a broken back, but it’s unknown if he’ll survive the displeasure of Vancouver hockey fans.
His recent promotion to the first line with the Sedins made sense on closer inspection, but that didn’t stop Canucks fans from freaking right out and calling for Vigneault’s head. Fortunately, the Canucks organization installed a statue of Roger Neilson in front of Rogers Arena and not a guillotine, or things could have gotten ugly.

I’ve been quick to defend Mason Raymond this season, pointing out that his deficiencies frequently mask his proficiencies. After all, Raymond was often criticized last season for his lack of production, but his underlying numbers were still strong, indicating that he was still a useful player whose efforts were under-appreciated. It was easy enough for me to assume that the same was the case this year, that Raymond’s lack of offensive production was making him an easy, and undeserved, target of criticism.

I was wrong.

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Drance Numbers: The Official PITB Advanced Stat Glossary

Drance Numbers is the silly research wing of PITB. While Messrs. Wagner and Mooney blog nationally and solve mysteries, Drance Numbers will look into the minutiae of quantifiable NHL data and bore you with it every Friday. Today, Drance defines some terms.

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Did Cody Hodgson take Manny Malhotra’s job? Mark Spector thinks so; Jonathan Willis does not

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ve likely figured out by now that Daniel is far more of an advanced stats guy than I am. That said, while I may not be a massive fan of tables and math, I’m still of the mind that it’s absolutely vital to pay attention to a few of the underlying numbers, especially in regards to the Canucks. Otherwise, you run the risk of coming to some spotty conclusions.

If you’re not following Alain Vigneault’s deployment strategies, for instance, you’re simply not getting the full picture. No NHL head coach pays more attention to zone starts, and it informs every aspect of his players’ statistical production. In Manny Malhotra’s case especially, if you understand his role, you’ll discover that his scoring and plus/minus stats border on completely irrelevant.

If you were only looking at Malhotra’s basic numbers, it would be reasonable to make the conclusion that Sportnet’s Mark Spector made on Friday, when he wrote the following:

“You have to believe GM Mike Gillis would move Manny Malhotra, whose job has been claimed by Cody Hodgson. But with 13 points and a minus-7 this season, we are sad to come to the accepted conclusion that Malhotra’s game has simply not returned in whole after the serious eye injury he suffered last season.”

While there are elements of this paragraph with which I agree (I’ll get to that), there are also elements that show a misunderstanding of how Hodgson and Malhotra are deployed.

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Manny Malhotra takes the shortest shifts in the NHL

Few seem to understand the value that Manny Malhotra brings to the Canucks. The Vancouver Sun’s own Fan Attic, for instance, recently argued that Malhotra is paid too much for his role as a fourth-line centre, noting his lack of point production, his minus-6 plus/minus, and his lack of hits.

Unfortunately, this fails to really account for what Malhotra contributes to the Canucks. He is certainly being paid more than the average fourth-line centre, but this is because he isn’t an average fourth-line centre. The way that he is used on the ice is essentially unprecedented in the NHL and is a key reason the Canucks are successful as a team.

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Big Numbers: On penalties, powerplays, and pitiful second periods

Herein you will find a compendium of interesting stats. Take from them what you will. Or, if you’re feeling particularly sluggish this Monday morning, take from them what I have taken from them. Whatever.

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Canucks’ best shot blocker is heading to the press box

The Canucks announced some great news today: Aaron Rome will be back in the lineup against the St. Louis Blues after missing 12 games with a broken thumb. With Sami Salo still out with a concussion, Rome’s return alleviates some of the concerns regarding the Canucks defensive depth.

Here’s the odd thing: he won’t be replacing Alex Sulzer, who would seem to be the obvious choice. Instead, he’s replacing Keith Ballard.

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Stop worrying: Cody Hodgson gets enough ice time

10 minutes into the first period of Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings, Canucks fans got a chance to see a delightfully old-school moment: a slap-shot off the rush that rang off the post and in. That type of goal used to be a lot more common: the highlight reels from the 70′s and 80′s are full of players flying down the wing and unleashing a slap-shot from the top of the faceoff circle past a helpless goaltender. That just doesn’t happen anymore.

What was even more electrifying was who scored the goal: it was Cody Hodgson, the rookie, giving the fans a flashback to the golden years of the slap-shot.

It was a surprise not just because of how rare the slap-shot goal off the rush has become, but also because we haven’t seen that side of Hodgson’s game yet. The majority of Hodgson’s shots this season seem to have been wristshots, with most of them being, to put it as nicely as possible, unimpressive. Hodgson’s goal on Jimmy Howard Wednesday night should serve to remind everyone that he was considered to have one of the hardest shots in the OHL: he was voted as having the second hardest shot in 2009 by OHL coaches and the third hardest in 2010, the year he only played 13 regular season games. Clearly, OHL coaches respected his shot.

Suffice it to say, a lot of people were talking about Hodgson on Twitter, the radio, and the Canucks.com forums. Oddly enough, though, most of them weren’t talking about his gorgeous goal and his hellacious slap-shot. Instead, they were talking about his icetime.

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One of the biggest questions heading into this season for the Canucks was how they were going to replace the scoring of Christian Ehrhoff. The German blueliner had a career-high 50 points in 2010-11, leading all Canucks defencemen in scoring by a margin of 17 points.

Many worried that Ehrhoff’s absence would be gravely missed, particularly since the Canucks didn’t acquire anyone to replace him. Back in September, we noted that while the Canucks would miss his potent offensive talents, they would be able to replace his production from within, and they wouldn’t miss his defensive lapses. Henrik suggested they wouldn’t miss Ehrhoff at all, saying “I don’t think we lost anything,” which seemed a bit strong at the time.

Turns out, he might have been right.

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Chris Higgins scores goals, has abs

If I told you before the season started that, 20 games into the season, Chris Higgins would be tied with a Sedin for the team-lead in goals, you would assume I was joking. If I told you the Sedin was Henrik, you would know I was joking.

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