BY THOMAS DRANCE
At beginning of this 2013 lockout shortened NHL campaign, the Canucks were short-handed due to a couple of injuries to their best two-way forwards Ryan Kesler and David Booth.
Now Ryan Kesler is a Selke winner well known for his defensive prowess, but few observers tend to think of David Booth as a two-way ace. But he is. Booth doesn’t kill penalties generally speaking, and isn’t a guy who often appears to be doing the hard work in his own end. Largely that’s because he doesn’t have to: Booth dominates the puck and is excellent in puck battles along the boards. Sometimes the best defense, is a good offense and while David Booth’s finishing ability may be below average (and he’s pointless through four games) his ability to tilt the ice towards the opponent’s net makes that the case here.
In his four games this season, David Booth appears to be none the worse for wear as a result of the groin injury he suffered at the very first day of fitness training. Playing primarily alongside Jordan Schroeder and Mason Raymond, Booth is posting some completely ridiculous possession numbers and arguably that third line has been Vancouver’s best since Booth’s return. These numbers are inflated by the small sample of games that Booth has appeared in and are probably unsustainable, but the Canucks have controlled 70% of all on-ice events (goals, shots, missed shots and blocked shots) with Booth on the ice over the course of nearly fifty minutes.
The goals haven’t been there for Booth yet and that’s a concern, I suppose, mostly because the evidence is mounting that he’s a shooting percentage outlier. But it’s worth remembering that Booth’s 0.0% on-ice shooting percentage is, uh, completely unsustainable and he hasn’t had much of any power-play time to start the season. That’s especially baffling considering that Booth is Vancouver’s third most efficient power-play scorer over the past four seasons (behind only Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler). The goals will come for Booth – especially if Vancouver dominates their games with him on the ice, as they’ve done in his first four contests.
Ryan Kesler meanwhile is a more interesting case in that unlike Booth who has returned and been gangbusters right off of the bat – Kesler appears to still be labouring from his pair of offseason surgeries. He’s been reasonably productive through seven games, recording five points in those contests and reinvigorating the Canucks’ moribund power-play. But to the eyes, and by the numbers: Kesler hasn’t been himself in his seven games so far and that has to be a matter of some concern for the Canucks.
Playing primarily with Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen, Ryan Kesler is under-water by the underlying data with his line “losing” more shifts than they’re winning. They’ve had some good moments – a stellar shift late in the first period in Detroit, a dominant shift in the second frame in Nashville, but those moments have been few and far between so far. Maybe we’re just spoiled and expect Kesler to kick his opponent’s teeth in regardless of his matchups or deployment (as he’s done since 2008 at least) and in fairness his line is facing more difficult competition and playing bigger minutes than the Schroeder-Booth-Raymond line. All qualifications aside, Kesler hasn’t looked or performed like Vancouver’s best even-strength forward so far.
In Kesler’s case it’s likely that his form will return as his strength and conditioning get back to normal levels. Until that happens, however, Vancouver will remain only a “very good team” and not an “elite” one.
One thing that might be worth trying out, if only to give Kesler’s line a jump-start, could be to see how he performs with David Booth. While many observed that Kesler and Booth appeared to “lack chemistry” a season ago, in truth, they were actually one of Vancouver’s most reliable lines. Booth is crushing it from a puck possession standpoint early on in his return, while Kesler is struggling in this regard. I tend to think the Canucks would prefer Booth to offset the lack of size that Raymond and Schroeder possess – especially since Zack Kassian hasn’t performed like a top-9 forward since January. But with Kesler struggling to find his groove, perhaps it might be worth it to let Kesler ride Booth like a backpack for the time being.
Coming off of two straight uninspired losses at the hands of the Red Wings and the Coyotes, I think we can safely expect Alain Vigneault to juggle his lines a bit ahead of this weekend’s double header against the Kings and the Flames. Reuniting Booth and Kesler, and getting Booth some power-play minutes should be priority number one and two.