BY THOMAS DRANCE
On Friday night, Ryan Kesler will return to the Canucks lineup against the Dallas Stars (Dallas Stars at Vancouver Canucks (-200, 5)). His return couldn’t have been timed any better, really. With Manny Malhotra exiting stage left due to the lingering impact of his eye injury, and Vancouver’s special teams sputtering mightily to begin the season a Kesler injection was pretty much exactly what the doctor ordered for the Canucks.
To the credit of the entire organization, the Canucks managed to do a lot more than merely tread water while Kesler’s recovered from a couple of offseason surgeries. In fact, they established a vice grip on the Northwest Division, and got off to the best start the team has recorded during the Mike Gillis era. It’s impressive stuff, but it’s also an awful lot of smoke and mirrors.
You see, to begin the season the Canucks have been extraordinarily fortunate. Yes they’ve mostly been good too, but the bounces have been going there way especially defensively. So far the Canucks all-universe goaltending tandem of Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo are saving .958% of shots faced at even-strength. You have to be good to be lucky, of course, and Vancouver’s goaltenders are better than good admittedly, but they’ve also been absurdly lucky. At five-on-five this season, Vancouver’s opponents have been completely unable to catch a break and that’s made the Canucks look like a much stingier defensive club than they in fact are.
Among all of the NHL’s teams, the Canucks have allowed the fewest goals against at even-strength and it’s not even close. Excluding the season opening debacle against the Anaheim Ducks, the Canucks have allowed 7 even-strength goals against in their last 11 contests which is absurd. It’s a percentage driven run of defensive success, and it won’t continue.
Generally speaking, I’d look at the Canucks and say something like “they’ve nowhere near as good as their record indicates this season,” but in this case it’s a little bit more complicated than that. You see, while the Canucks are guaranteed to regress to the mean defensively, they’re also poised to get an awful lot better in terms of their possession game and special teams play with team MVP Ryan Kesler returning to the lineup. An interesting question we might ask then is how much will Kesler’s return offset the inevitable pain the Canucks are cruising for when the favorable bounces they’ve been enjoying begin to even out?
I tend to think it’ll be pretty much even. Ryan Kesler has been far and away the best possession player on Vancouver’s roster for the past three seasons, it’s not even really all that close. He tilts the ice at even-strength regardless of matchups and deployment, and now he’ll be re-joining a roster that has controlled play as well as all but four other teams in the league to begin this season. It’s not difficult to imagine that the Canucks – who have been taking about as many shots for per game, as they’ve allowed this season – will begin to more consistently outshoot their opponents, while allowing fewer shots (and scoring chances) against as a direct result of leaning on Ryan Kesler for fifteen minutes or so per game at even-strength. Canucks goaltenders are due to allow a few cheesy goals against going forward, but if there’s fewer shots against for them to give up softies on, perhaps this inevitable regression won’t be nearly so painful.
In the offensive end of the rink, it’s tough to argue that the Canucks have been unfortunate. They’re shooting at an 8.6% clip at even-strength as a team, which is a number that is probably within the realm of sustainability going forward and is certainly high enough that we’d be wrong to describe Vancouver’s lack of overall goalscoring as “unlucky.” Even with that scoring clip, Vancouver’s offensive output is way, way down to start the season. The major culprit in my view: conservative systems play.
So far this season, and the samples here are still miniscule so that’s a major qualifier that we have to keep in mind, the Canucks are the best puck possession team in the entire league when they’re down a goal. They’re the best by a wide margin too. When the Canucks are up by a goal, however, they’re a negative possession team and allow their opponents to control the game while they play a defensive shell, enforce extremely short shift lengths, and suck all scoring chances out of the game. The gap is massive (basically a difference of controlling 17% of all unblocked shots), and because the Canucks are executing such a conservative game plan and are also good enough to open the scoring more often than not, their defensive shell is – I suspect – a major reason why the team’s shot-rate has fallen off a cliff this season. Basically the Canucks are taking three fewer shots on goal per game so far this season when compared with their shot rate a season ago, and as a direct result: they’re scoring an awful lot less.
I’ll be curious to see whether or not the return of Ryan Kesler leads to the Canucks coaching staff allowing fun hockey games to break out occasionally. If they do, I think the Canucks could score an awful lot more over the balance of the season than they’ve done so far. And even if Vancouver’s coaching staff doesn’t, I still think the Canucks will manage in the neighbourhood of 100 goals at even strength (they’re currently on pace for 92 even-strength goals in a 48 game season). My assessment here is that while Vancouver is bound to run into a tough run of luck in the defensive end of the rink, Ryan Kesler’s superlative possession play and offensive talent should help the Canucks outscore those issues.