The Vancouver Canucks opened the floodgates against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday. At least in a relative sense.
While the three goals Vancouver scored on Saturday may not seem like much, for a club so goal-starved as the Canucks, it probably meant the world. The Canucks, as I’m sure you know, are off to the worst offensive start in franchise history, averaging just over 1.5 goals per game. For context, there isn’t another team averaging fewer than two.
It’s safe to assume that the Canucks are likely to suffer these ills going forward, too. Even with the added caveat that positive regression is inevitable. They’re going to get their fair share of bounces eventually. Whether they can convert on enough of their chances to beat the opposition on a regular basis is another thing entirely.
The Canucks have to be desperate to add a bona fide offensive contributor. It could be their only hope to salvage what’s already developing into another lost season. Unfortunately for the Canucks, it’s not as though there are a wealth of options to parse through.
Adding a legitimate 40+ point producer at this juncture seems a near impossibility. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Canucks can’t make moves to build value along the margins and improve their overall offensive output accordingly.
I’ve been down this road before, so I won’t spend too long here. The trade market is dry right now, and the Canucks will not be dealing from a position of strength. As far as acquiring that 20-goal scorer the team reportedly covets, the pickings are very slim.
They could be in a position to deal one of their defensemen for a forward prospect that’s ready to jump into the league, however. It wouldn’t be without a small amount of risk, but Jim Benning has shown he’s willing to take on projects in exchange for young players that won’t be ready to make an impact for 4-5 years.
A few teams are looking for help on the back end that might be willing to part with a young forward with upside if it’s the right fit. The most obvious team would be the Toronto Maple Leafs, who find themselves in the opposite situation from Vancouver right now, with a glut of forwards but a relatively thin defence, at least from a depth perspective. They have a number of young, NHL-calibre forwards right now like Seth Griffith, Peter Holland, Brendan Leipsic, and Josh Leivo that probably don’t factor into the team’s long-term plans. I’m spitballing here, but perhaps there’s a move that could be made involving the two teams and one of the Canucks young defensemen that can’t crack the lineup.
At this point in the season, it should be obvious that the free agent pickings are slim. The Canucks aren’t going to make a splash by bringing in a veteran on a PTO, but they could make marginal gains at the bottom of their lineup. Regardless of what you think of Jake Virtanen, he’s not going to produce playing eight minutes a night, and players like Skille, Dorsett, and Alex Burrows have next to no offensive value at this point in their careers. I’d say optimistically you could expect five or six goals from each over a full season, but a shrewd veteran signing could conceivably double that number.
The four names that intrigue me are Alex Tanguay, Tomas Fleischmann, Brad Boyes, and David Jones. By all accounts, these players aren’t hoping to retire yet, and are ostensibly waiting by their phones hoping for a call from an NHL team.
Obviously, none of these players are saviours, and health issues may rule out Fleischmann entirely, but the Canucks are desperate to add some scoring. I’d wager that one of these players is at the very least a marginal improvement in that regard over some of the players the Canucks have dressed this season. Truth be told, if the Canucks were going to go this route, there were many better options available four months ago, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Generally, any inferences we make about how a player is being deployed are nebulous at best. Attempting to quantify the effect of deployment on a player’s offensive output can be very tricky, regardless of whether you’re using stats-based analysis or just the eye test.
— J.D. Burke (@JDylanBurke) November 4, 2016
It’s not hard to see that Canucks’ lineup decisions may not be conducive to producing offence based on simple logic, though. At this point, it’s very difficult to understand why Loui Eriksson hasn’t gotten an extended look with Bo Horvat. The same goes for keeping Troy Stecher out of the lineup with Chris Tanev and Alex Edler healthy. These are relatively small quibbles, but when the team is performing as poorly as they have over the past eight games, everything should be second-guessed.
Desperately need a goal with one minute left, so you have Sbisa, Granlund, and Sutter on the ice
— Jackson McDonald (@Johnny_Perogy) November 4, 2016
The Canucks’ deployment with the man advantage, on the other hand, is much more obviously an issue than it is at evens. The Canucks currently have the league’s worst conversion rate when up a man, with just over seven and a half percent. Much of this stems from their first unit’s 1-3-1 formation, wherein most of the offence runs through Philip Larsen. Canucks Army Managing Editor J.D. Burke addressed this earlier this week, advocating a switch from their current 1-3-1 formation to an overload system on the man advantage:
We all knew the plan going into this season was for Larsen to run the Canucks’ power play from the point. I didn’t think that would entail running more than 50% of their attempted shots through Larsen. All of which are coming from the least dangerous regions of the offensive zone. That goes a long way towards explaining the Canucks standing as the league’s 10th worst team by scoring chance generation…
Looked at in the context of the big picture, it does beg the question as to why the Canucks felt secure in handing the keys to their power play to Larsen. He’s an apt puck mover, and there hasn’t been a noticeable drop in their ability to move the puck from Alex Edler last season to Larsen in this one. By that same token, we’re talking about a player who’s never scored more than a single power play goal in a season; a player who’s shot four-and-a-half percent over the course of his career…
There isn’t any one size fits all way to run a power play. Where I take umbrage with the Canucks current setup though is that it takes the onus of finishing out of their best players hands and tries to generate the majority of its offence from a point man who hasn’t really demonstrated to this stage in his career that he’s capable of doing that. Particularly not in the context of their scheme.
…The Sedins desperately need to be placed in a situation where they can best utilize their skills. I just don’t see that from the Canucks’ current setup. If they keep moving towards an overload system that emphasises quick puck movement, I’d expect improvement to follow not long thereafter.
The coaching staff may also want to take a look at who they’re putting on the team’s first unit. Much has been made about Willie Desjardins’ reluctance to play Jannik Hansen on the power play, but I’d be curious to see how Horvat looks on the team’s PP1 as well. Either player would be a noticeable improvement over Brandon Sutter, who’s shown little aptitude for converting while a man up thus far.
This isn’t a solution so much as it is a reality of the business. If anything, listing the options the Canucks currently have at their disposal should go a long way towards showing that the Canucks are going to be hard-pressed to make any serious additions to their offence. They can make improvements around the margins, but in the big picture, it’s tough to see how they’ll be able to add a significant contributor without making a trade- something they’d be well advised not to do.
The good news is, it can’t stay like this forever. The Canucks are currently rocking a ~5% shooting percentage at evens, which just isn’t sustainable. Loui Eriksson will score again. Sven Baertschi will score again. The Canucks may have truly awful shooting talent, but carrying a conversion rate of 4.9% over a full season would be unprecedented. A positive regression is inevitable.
It’s not as though at least some help isn’t on the way either. Anton Rodin should be coming off the relatively soon, and regarding the bigger picture, the Canucks will likely be adding Brock Boeser to their lineup next year, and both players will likely help the Canucks’ offence. (Though I might add that it may not be nearly as much as some would hope).
At this juncture, the team’s management may need to address the elephant in the room, which is that this roster probably isn’t making the playoffs even with the addition of one or even two offensive producers. With that in mind, they’re best off exhibiting some patience, and not sacrificing the long-term health of the franchise just for the sake of a few additional goals over the course of this season.