Feb 032009
 

My friends will attest that I’m a big Shane O’Brien fan. I think he’s a solid guy, considering his third-pairing role. I think he’s a tough guy that doesn’t hesitate to defend his teammates when he needs to. (Mason Raymond probably agrees with me as well.)

Today though, one night after being a healthy scratch for the first time since being acquired by the Canucks, he spoke out about his role (Hosea Cheung, Canucks 24/7):

After Monday’s practice, it was Shane O’Brien’s turn to speak out.

“I’m not asking to be first unit powerplay, 25 minutes a night,” said the big blueliner, who was scratched Saturday. “I like for them to trust me and put me on the ice and if you can’t put a guy out in the third period, then maybe he shouldn’t even be here.”

The 25-year-old was venting after being told during a player-coach meeting that he needed to drop the mitts more, something he has not done since Dec. 14.

“They asked me why I haven’t been fighting and I didn’t think that was really as big of an issue here,” he said. “I thought I was a good enough player to play and help the team win but I’ll fight when the situation is right, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. I was just surprised that fighting was an issue. I thought they thought I was a player and I guess they don’t anymore, they’re confused, I don’t know what’s going on.”

Not surprisingly, Mike Gillis has a quick response (Matthew Sekeres, Globe and Mail):

Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis has denied claims by defenceman Shane O’Brien that he was asked to fight more often.

Gillis, head coach Alain Vigneault and two other Canucks executives met with all of the team’s players last week to address a prolonged losing string — now eight consecutive games and nine in a row on home ice.

O’Brien, fresh off a benching during a 4-3 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild last Saturday, said that in his meeting, the GM instructed him to fight.

“In no uncertain terms was he told he had to fight,” Gillis said last night. “How he ever got that message is unbeknownst to me. He clearly misinterpreted the message that we were trying to send, that each player has to be accountable and work hard individually.”

Gillis said O’Brien was told he had to play more physically with and without the puck and not take as many minor penalties, but added “we don’t ask players to fight.”

Normally, I would consider an incident like this to be a minor one. Was it a miscommunication between GM, coach and player? Perhaps so, but in the midst of a 8-game losing streak and other extra-curricular activities, it’s become big news. In the past couple of days alone:

  • A minor altercation broke out between players in practice.
  • Pavol Demitra spoke out against Alain Vigneault’s line juggling.
  • And now this.

I realize everyone’s frustrated but it’s frightening to think that the team’s recent lack of on-ice success may have spread to off-ice problems. If setting a new club record in futility is not reason enough to make some changes, maybe a possible divide in the dressing room is.

Back to SOB for a second.

Here are some stats from the Canucks top-5 defensemen in the month of January (I left out Sami Salo on purpose because he only played in 3 games):

[Table=8]

SOB had the lowest average ice-time of the group, but also, opposing teams scored a goal every 12:35 minutes SOB was on the ice, easily the worst ratio of the group.

Now here is the breakdown of goals scored against by situation. First in even-strength situations:

[Table=9]

And while shorthanded:

[Table=10]

It would seem that SOB is decent in even-strength situations. Granted, he doesn’t face opposing teams’ first lines on most nights, but when he’s on the ice, it would seem that he’s not that much of a defensive liability. His play on the penalty-kill isn’t as good, but his 1:13 average ice-time tells me he gets sent out in a shorthanded situation only to give the other penalty-killers a breather.

Now, let’s go back to the 1st table. In January, SOB had the best plus-minus rating of the 5 defenseman. He was a +7 on a team that went 2-5-5. But think of this too (and please correct me if I’m wrong on calculating this) – if he was on the ice for 8 ES goals against, that means he was on the ice for 15 ES goals for. Considering the Canucks only scored 26 ES goals in January, that means SOB was on the ice for more than half of them.

Not bad, huh?

Now I’m not saying Vigneault wrongfully benched SOB on Saturday night. I’m just saying SOB is probably right to feel a bit frustrated. He’s not the team’s best defenseman, but he’s also not the worst. At the very least, he’s shown that he’s capable of playing defense and not just dropping his gloves.

Feb 012009
 

I’ll admit that there were a lot of positives in the Canucks’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild last night. They played their best game since their 2-1 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks and they came back from a 2-goal deficit to take a point. They finished January 2009 with 7 points in 12 games (2-5-5), and maybe, the “comeback” is the baby step they need to get back to winning.

The cold reality is, however, that the team’s losing streak has now 8 games. Their home losing streak is now 9 games. After a 3-2 overtime win against Detroit on November 24, the Canucks’ first home game back after they lost Luongo to injury but managed to get 7 of 8 points on a 4-game road trip, they had a formidable 7-2-1 record at GM Place and optimism in Canuckland was probably close to its peak; in 16 home games since then, they have managed just a woeful 4-9-3 home record.

Here are some numbers to illustrate just how woeful that record is:

[Table=5]

What sticks out most in this table is the difference in the their goals against. In their first 10 home games, they allowed a grand total of 12 goals against (1.20 GAA). In their last 16 games, they allowed 56 goals (3.50 GAA). In other words, since their November 24th win against Detroit, the Canucks are allowing more than 2 more goals per game at home.

[Table=6]

The good news is, the powerplay has actually been better recently. The bad news is, the penalty-kill, at least at home, has been a lot worse. As of November 24th, their penalty-kill rate at home was a very good 86.7%; after that, it slipped to a mediocre 72.7%. For what it’s worth, their PK rate has been better on the road, improving from 75.0% (39/45) to 85.0% (51/60) during the same date periods.

[Table=7]

It’s the same story on even-strength play. At one point this season, the Canucks were among the league’s best in even-strength situations. They used to outscore their opponents 5-on-5 or 4-on-4 by a full goal per game (2.27-1.27) and were especially tough at home with more than a goal per game advantage (1.90-0.60). Since November 24th, they have been outscored (1.93-2.25 overall and 2.13-2.38 at home). The obvious difference is that, in the first 10 home games of the season, the Canucks allowed 6 even-strength goals; in their last 16 home games, they allowed 38 even-strength goals.

So much for home-ice advantage, eh?

Jan 282009
 

Year after year, we complain about the Canucks’ schedule. So much so that Mike Gillis actually lobbied (perhaps successfully) to have the team’s travel schedule simplified next year. This year however, they enter the stretch drive with a schedule that might actually be their saving grace. At a quick glance anyway, it seems that the Canucks may have the more favourable schedule among the 8 teams vying for 4 playoff spots (i.e. Vancouver plus Phoenix, Edmonton, Columbus, Anaheim, Minnesota, Dallas and Colorado).

I’m not a statistician so I don’t know how accurate this would be, but I put together a difficulty rating using each of the Western Conference teams’ points percentage (total points gained divided by total points available), times the number of games left against each of those teams, and then divided the result by the total number of games left. Lo and behold, the Canucks’ opponents come out with the lowest average. (Note that I didn’t include the teams’ remaining games against the Eastern Conference to get the difficulty rating.)

[Table=4]

Other things to note from this table:

  • Of the Canucks’ remaining 34 games, 17 of them are in the friendly confines of GM Place (though maybe too friendly given their recent record there). They only have 2 long road trips left – an 8-gamer in February (actually 7 road games with a home game against Montreal in the middle of it) and a 6-gamer in March.
  • The Canucks only have 5 remaining games against the top 4 teams in the Western Conference, the least number among the 8 teams. They also have 7 games left against the 3 bottom-feeder teams in the West (i.e. Los Angeles, Nashville and St. Louis); only Phoenix and Columbus play more games against those teams.
  • Almost half of the Canucks’ remaining games are against teams they’re battling with for a playoff spot. Needless to say, they most certainly hold their playoff destiny in their own hands.

For once in the Canucks’ history, the schedule makers seem to be on their side. Can they take advantage of it?

Jan 052009
 

With the first half of the season officially over, it’s time to take a mathematical look at how the Canucks need to perform for the rest of the season.

There was of course a lot of worry when Roberto Luongo injured his groin back in November. There was worry as to how the team would respond and if they would be able to keep pace in a competitive Western Conference. The team’s response? Points-wise anyway, the Canucks have done relatively-well since November 20 (Luongo’s last full game was on November 19 against the Rangers).

[Table=1]

The race is undoubtedly close, but in that 22-game stretch dominated by road games, they gained enough points to keep themselves right in playoff contention. As I type this, the Canucks sit with 47 points in 41 games, good for 5th place in the Western Conference and 7 points up on 9th place Columbus. They were obviously better with Luongo in net – 19 GP, 11-6-2, 24 of 38 points (63%) – but credit to the team for hanging on without him. (And thank the hockey gods for not allowing any other team – well, except for Calgary – to pull away.)

James Mirtle has his annual playoff push post up. Currently, he predicts that teams need to finish with at least 90 points to qualify for the postseason, though it’s worth noting that the 8th place teams in the 3 seasons since the lockout needed 96, 95 and 91 points.

So what does this all mean?

If the Canucks and the other Western Conference teams play at the pace they’ve played since November 20, the Canucks will get to the magic 90 points and qualify for the postseason.

[Table=3]

Now how do they get there?

Let’s assume a couple of things: first, that Luongo would be fit to return right after the All-Star break; and second, that they get 4 more OTL/SOL points (approximately 10% of their games – their historical average).

The Canucks gained 52.3% of available points since Luongo went down. They currently have 47 points in 41 games, and if they continue at that 52.3% pace in the 7 games until the All-Star break, they’ll have 54 points in 48 games by then. They’ll need 36 points in the 34 games after the All-Star break to get to 90 points (53% pace) – that’s about a 16-14-4 record – though the hope of course is that they get better than that especially with Sundin’s addition and Luongo’s, Salo’s, Johnson’s and Pyatt’s returns. As disappointing as the last couple of losses have been, there’s no reason to write the Canucks off just yet. Despite the adversity of the last two months, they’ve put themselves in a good position for a second-half playoff push.

(Note 1: I purposely left San Jose, Detroit and Chicago off the tables.)

(Note 2: God help us if Calgary actually does rack up 112 points this season.)

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