Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Vancouver Canucks: Unlucky or Not Good Enough?

The Vancouver Canucks are one of the best regular season teams in the past couple of years if not the best one, they also went to the finals in the 2010-2011 season and came within a game of winning it all, eventually losing to the Boston Bruins in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. The Canucks are far from a poorly managed team, that said we will still try to take a look at why the Stanley Cup has eluded them despite being a very successful team.

The first thing that should be mentioned is that it is entirely possible that they just weren't lucky enough, in hockey as in any other sport but possibly even more so games tend to sometimes come down to bounces and puck luck, over the long-term that luck tends to even out, however when you're in a short format competition in the style of NHL playoffs a couple of bounces or injuries going your way or the other can make a world of difference. The other thing that should be mentioned - in the salary cap era it is near impossible to stack teams the way you could when spending wasn't limited (think of the pre-lockout Detroit and Colorado teams) and even then, luck always played a role. It is safe to say it is impossible in the present day to build a Stanley Cup winner, you can only build a Stanley Cup contender and hope that the team goes all the way in one (or more) of the years.

While it is entirely possible the Canucks just didn't have the bounces go their way, we are going to play a bit of a devil's advocate here and discuss the option B – the team just wasn't/isn't good enough. With that said let me introduce you to the player usage chart:

To give you a quick explanation of what it means – the higher the player is on the y axis the tougher competition he plays against, the further right on the x axis the more of his shifts start in the offensive zone. Now I want you to pay attention to where the Sedins and Malhotra are on the chart. What you will notice is that the Sedins didn't quite get the toughest minutes on the team in the form of quality of competition, but what's especially interesting is the fact that the Sedins started nearly 80% of their shifts in the offensive zone while Malhotra took barely any at all. In 2011-2012 season there was no other team with such extreme zone-specific player deployment (if you want to check out other teams' charts, they are all available in the link posted below the chart). In fact this has been a staple of the Canucks for years.

Under the chart we have Scott Cullen's take:
"That doesn’t mean they are incapable of starting in the defensive zone or facing more difficult competition, but head coach Alain Vigneault is putting them in the best position to be successful and there is little evidence that it would be better for the Canucks to have the Sedins doing more heavy lifting while giving Malhotra, Lapierre or Pahlsson more offensive zone starts." (source:

I have bolded the part that I find particularly interesting. While that kind of player usage has clearly worked for the Canucks in the regular season, the bolded makes me question whether it is the Sedins that can't handle a more all-around role or is it the supporting cast in question that can't handle anything more than a shutdown role? To elaborate, if we believe the Canucks regular season record is indicative of their talent level as one of the best if not the best teams in the league, then why are they afraid of playing power vs power matchups all over the ice instead of using this kind of specialization? Surely the better team would come out ahead in such a match-up? 

Why not try the old hockey cliche of outplaying the guy on the other team, meaning let Henrik Sedin outplay Kopitar/Toews/Datsyuk/etc. on the whole ice, and so on down throughout the lineup line-by-line. Surely that is a reasonable proposition if you have confidence in the Canucks being the best team in the league as their regular season record suggested over the last couple of years? Unless you're trying to hide something behind the specialization? Maybe Henrik Sedin isn't as good of an all around player as a guy like Kopitar or Toews is? Or maybe the Canucks supporting cast isn't as good as the supporting cast of Chicago or LA? If that's the reason, then it might be time to re-evaluate whether the Canucks truly are the best of the West and what to do to fix it. Certainly abandoning their specialization approach for a power vs power approach would if nothing else help illuminate any deficiencies, and just maybe if there aren't any the Canucks go on and win the Cup. Why not give Henrik Sedin the opportunity to match up against the West's best centers on the whole ice without being sheltered, and so on down throughout the lineup? I can hardly think of a better motivational tool than the idea of outplaying the guy playing the same role on the other team in every facet of the game. If the Canucks are truly as good as their record indicated in the last couple of years, they should come out ahead more often than not. If they aren't, this approach will at least expose the holes instead of hiding them behind specialization.

To be fair to the Canucks while they still employ the same type of player usage this year, their numbers seem to have normalized a little bit. Henrik Sedin now starts 69% percent of his shifts in the offensive zone and Maxim Lapierre took over the Malhotra role with only 25% of his shifts starting in the offensive zone. The Sedins also rank a bit higher relative to the team in the quality of competition they are facing than they did in past years. That said the approach is still the same if a bit more mild. The Canucks also added Derek Roy, with Sedin/Kesler (if healthy)/Roy down the middle that should make them even more comfortable in taking the power vs power approach if they so desire.

To finish it off, while it is entirely possible the Canucks simply didn't have enough bounces go their way to win the Cup so far (it is hard after all to criticize a team that came within a game of winning it all as recently as the Canucks did), a different approach might help illuminate the issues if there are any or maybe even prove fruitful enough to finally win that Cup.

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