30 IN 30 Expansion Preview - Vancouver Canucks

30 IN 30 VANCOUVER CANUCKS (29th place)

With a new GM desperately needed to come in and bat clean-up for Jim Benning's 'prized' lead-off contributions, a lot of work will have to be done to get this team within the ball park of what they used to be. Intention is not rub salt in the wound by saying Roberto Luongo got out at the opportune time, but seriously, some of his former teammates could've taken his wife's career advice to heart and jumped ship (for those that don't know, Roberto's wife preferred life in Florida, making the decision for him to leave a much easier one). The trade involving Cory Schneider 4 years ago still astounds me, even after fair considerations is given to the draft success of Bo Horvat. Don't even get me started on decisions to trade cheap contract players with the developing offensive production like Nick Bonino and Jared McCann for that of Brandon Sutter and Eric Gudbranson. Although we're noticeably cherry-picking transactional decisions here, management has lacked both direction and the ability to properly evaluate players for too many years post-Stanley Cup Final appearance (2011/2012). A major project is ahead for this team, with the potential for foundational changes this offseason. 

 

Protection list structure

8-1

8 Skaters

  1. Sedin. H (F) (*NMC)
  2. Sedin. D (F) (*NMC)
  3. Eriksson (F) (*NMC)
  4. Horvat (F)
  5. Edler (D)
  6. Tanev (D)
  7. Sbisa (D)
  8. Gudbranson (D)

Goalie

  1. Markstrom

7-3-1

7 Forwards

  1. Sedin. H (*NMC)
  2. Sedin. D (*NMC)
  3. Eriksson (*NMC)
  4. Horvat
  5. Sutter
  6. Granlund
  7. Baertschi

3 Defencemen

  1. Edler
  2. Tanev
  3. ? (Sbisa or Gudbranson)

Goalie

  1. Markstrom

 

AdjCF% vs GF% - 2016/17 Roster Note: players should ideally place above and to the right of the 50% reference lines.

AdjCF% vs GF% - 2016/17 Roster

Note: players should ideally place above and to the right of the 50% reference lines.

With lack of depth on both forward and defence, I struggle to envision a scenario where Vancouver doesn’t pick the 7-3-1 model to protect as many of their NHL calibre players as possible. After the tumultuous season they had, the signs of a fast decline from years spent at the top of the Western Conference have now become reality. The primary roster seen within our positive output plot (to the right) is need of a serious upgrade, as the consistent play of a well rounded defensive unit is well and truly a thing of the past. Younger players have slowly been able to find their game at the pro level, but have the majority already reached their development ceiling? Possibly. It's a scary thought as the Sedin's will most likely ride their careers into the sunset wearing Canucks uniforms, with no return in asset value via trade to replace them. Bo Horvat has made big strides yes, but I don't see him ready or able to anchor the team's first line. His Corsi numbers must continue their upward trajectory (45.8% in 2015-16 to 47.7% in 2016-17) and match the jump in GF% (now at 52.4) and PDO (now 101.7) with his most encouraging trait, the ability to bring up the stats of linemates when playing with him vs without him, on full display this season.

 

Playoff calibre? nah.

To highlight an underlying difference between key role players on the Canucks and those on playoff calibre teams, I'll use Brandon Sutter as my example. Despite playing 'hard' minutes, which we do our best to adjust for in our analysis, often against his opponents top unit, his advanced stats are far from appealing. His goal differential and non-adjusted corsi sit well below team averages, year-in-year-out. WOWY numbers show improved CF% for linemates when they are apart from him, albeit at the expense of a lower GF% when playing without him - pointing to the fact that Sutter plays a game focused heavily on his defensive responsibilities. Don't get me wrong, there is an important place for this sort of player on every team, but that remains on the 3rd (or even 4th) line. In comparison to other players of relative age and contract who fit this role on playoff teams, his numbers still fall on the wrong side of the groups average, making his rather bearable $4,375,000 cap hit not as ideal as some may think. If the Canucks want even a sniff at success, he's a predominant roster player who must improve his impact numbers, with an exception for his already beast-mode face-off percentages, in order for this team to compete night-in-night-out against key Western Conference rivals.

*AdjCF% = CF% multiplied by zone starts factor

*AdjCF% = CF% multiplied by zone starts factor

WHAT TO DO WITH THE 3RD D-MAN SPOT?

As mentioned, the possibility of the 8S-1G option is too damaging to this roster in dire need of players within their system to replace both the selection pick and any potential cast-offs. The 7F-3D-1G model results in us analyzing the managerial decision between Eric Gudbranson and Luca Sbisa as the teams 3rd protected defenceman. Both players have put up pretty lacklustre numbers over the course of their careers, making this analysis of underachievers even more difficult. 

Based upon last seasons stats alone, Gudbranson looks like the weaker contributor of the two. However, when our comparison is opened up to seasons past in order to develop more predictable statistical outcomes, the choice is no longer so obvious. Before the move from Florida to Vancouver, he was rather steadily improving his game, with the added bonus that his primary D-partners have seen their totals drop once playing away from him (the opposite seen in Sbisa). Clearly, his more 'shut-down' style of play is expressed by his point totals, defensive zone starts, and shot driven statistics.

Sbisa has performed rather consistently over the years. Without a massive drop off, like that of Gudbranson's injury shortened first season with the Canucks, you can predict with above-average confidence how he's going to perform in the upcoming season. The downside, however, lies within his unimpressive positive impact rates: 46.2% AdjCF, 48.3% GF over 4 seasons.  Oddly enough, without eye-catching individual point production (13 pts last season), he manages to be on the ice for the 2nd most 5v5 goals for on the entire team, meaning his contribution to offensive play must exist by way of decision-making or break out pass ability. Without these stats presently available to us, it would be interesting to have a look at his first pass ability within the defensive zone in hopes of matching it's performance to this goals for stat. 

*D-Partner = primary defensive partner in minutes played per season.

*D-Partner = primary defensive partner in minutes played per season.

 

OUR DECISION

The decision between the two isn't an easy one from statistics alone, and frankly our decision will fall back on their contracts. Sbisa is locked up for next season at $3.6M, but has the ability to hit free agency next summer and be lost for nothing. I don't exactly see him making bank in free agency, with his salary either staying the same or decreasing. Gudbranson, on the other hand is an RFA this summer, coming off a contract with almost the exact price tag as Sbisa's ($3.5M). An added benefit exists with his current RFA status still carrying arbitration eligibility, meaning that the Canucks can take him to an arbitrator this July with a low-ball offer at a similar rate. My guess being somewhere between $3.8-4.2M. The likelihood of such an offer being awarded will hopefully influence the negotiations between his agent and the organization, allowing for a contract with at least 2-3 year term possible. Although this is still only a 'possibility', the restricted rights status tips the scale in his favour, meaning our last protection list selection will be Eric Gudbranson.

THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS' SURPRISINGLY TOUGH CHOICE

The Golden Knights decision with the Vancouver expansion pick will be a bit of a tricky one. The Canucks don’t have a prominent roster cog to give up and in that respect a depth pick will most likely have to take place. Sbisa appears to be the obvious choice for most due to his market value and experience, however after looking at his advanced stats above (along with Gudbranson's, if the team prefers to leave him unprotected) they are far impressive. An argument can be made that he is indeed capable of handling top-4 minutes without a disastrous effect on the team, but the relative increase in teammate production playing without him is very concerning.  

On forward, there isn’t much to choose from either. All key players will be protected in the 7-3-1 scheme and the likes of impact role player Derek Dorsett will either be knocked out by long term injury exemption or not chosen by George McPhee due to the element of risk attached to his neck surgery rehabilitation. If Vegas decides against the defensive option Vancouver dangles in front of them, they could go with a depth forward option such as Michael Chaput or Brendan Gaunce. Both players would come cheap as RFA’s likely to sign 2-year “prove you can play in the big leagues” deals. The monetary risk for both is low, but the juice might not be worth the squeeze as both could be out of the league in two years without improvement. Gaunce, as a former first round pick and the younger option could be the choice, as his corsi numbers are surprisingly pretty good for playing on an overall bad team. His scoring ability at the pro-level isn't there yet, but opportunity to develop it with more minutes played is the risk a GM would have to take with him. 

Overall, this pick will be a tough call. Building up depth on defence will most likely be the priority for the Golden Knights, and I’d assume they’d pick whomever is unprotected between Sbisa and Gudbrandson, but don’t be completely shocked with a dark horse pick of Gaunce here, as they need to add younger players to a roster that could consist of guys predominantly in their late 20’s/early 30’s up front.

Players of interest in the expansion selection.

Players of interest in the expansion selection.

Final thoughts

The Canucks will need to sign one of their UFA's/RFA's to a contract before the expansion list deadline to fulfill the 'two contracted forwards' exposure requirement. Doing so will ensure the ability to protect core forwards with ease under the 7-3-1 model. As for the team overall: let's hope they can embrace a younger roster, deal with the growing pains, and draft smarter. Having a player like Jake Virtanen bounce back and avoid the draft bust label would also be a blessing.

 

Next up: Arizona Coyotes