Wellwood's Battle

Kyle Wellwood is slated to go toe to toe with Mike Gillis on Tuesday at his arbitration hearing. Wellwood and his agent will argue that 27 points and 10 PP goals is good enough for a far heftier raise than what Gillis qualified him at (a little north of a million dollars). Gillis will argue that he played himself off the first two lines, scored five of his 18 goals after Christmas and needs to show far more of a complete game to be worthy of higher salary.

Surely Gillis wouldn't mind him back (he did qualify him afterall). Last season Wellwood accepted his ever-changing role without any complaints (SOB should take note). He was surprisingly proficient on the PP and became a decent part of the checking line when the playoffs rolled around. The only thing Pudge didn't do last year was play in net and maybe he would have if Lu needed a bathroom break.

But Gills has a team to manage with precious few millions left to find a defenseman, extend Lu, pay for a team outing to see Megan Fox in Transformers 2, you know the essentials. Personally I think the Wellwood debate has become some sort of rallying cry in recent weeks. It reminds me of last summer when Vigneault looked like he was getting the axe and much of the online reaction was "But he won the Jack Adams!" which was fine until you looked and realized that award doesn't mean anything.

I wouldn't pretend to know what his angle is, but I have to ask: did Pudge choose to fight an uphill battle he can't win?

By choosing the arbitration route, I think he's got three things working against him:

1. The ES numbers

I started looking at this around 5:00 AM (because sleep is overrated) the other morning in the comments of another Wellwood post:

Pudge’s 27 points put him in the same family as Jochen Hecht ($2.3 million), Kyle Brodziak ($495,000), Andy Hilbert ($650,000), and Mike Comrie ($3.3 million). The lone difference were his 10 PP goals (55.5% of his total production last year) which you can argue this is an anomaly as it’s over double his career best (meanwhile his three PP assists was a career worst). Also at least five of those goals were rebounds off the board that found Wellwood with an open net staring at him. Wonderful timing, but not a skill that’s going to repeat itself year to year. On average, both Hansen and everyone’s punching bag Bernier had better point paces.

Demitra(!) and Hansen blocked more shots. Pudge had the third most giveaways on the team. His plus/minus was 2, good enough for 277th best in the league. And yes he had great face off percentage. So did Yanic Perreault in yester years and he was averaging damn near 12-15 points more a season in less games than Pudge.

That was my blurry-eyed start, but I basically cherry picked a handful of stats that fit at the time.

Along with his defensive play, I think we can casually agree that Wellwood's top two strengths last year were:

  1. PP goals - 10 goals with the man advantage tied him for the team lead with KesLORD.
  2. Faceoff winning percentage - He ended the season with 57.7%, the best on the team. 

If we ignore SO's and empty net situations, and we know he's productive on the man advantage and damn near never used on the PK (run a report on him here), then what's left is his even strength play. To do so, we'll need Behind the Net, every stat hound's best friend (whereas decimal points frankly scare me).

Right off the bat, he had the third lowest ES TOI in front of regulars Ryan Johnson and Darcy Hordichuk who we can agree are limited to playing in specific situations.

Wellwood's season Corsi was -5.2. The Corsi number, for those who don't know, is similar to +/- but shows how many shots were directed at the individual's net (denoted with a "-") and how many at the opponents (denoted with a "+"). It's a quick look at how effective a player may be at even strength and, for Pudge, he's wedged between Sundin (-.9) and Bolduc (-5.3). Both his linemates later in the season were lower: Bernier ( -7.2) and Pyatt (-10.6).

His Corsi tells just part of the story. Wellwood's 5-on-5 rating was -0.07 which reflects the shift in a team's GF/GA differential when Pudge was on the ice per 60 minutes of ice time. -0.07 is middle of the pack, if not edging into the lower ranks. Both linemates later in the season were also lower: Bernier (-0.45) and Pyatt (-0.87). Not great numbers for someone who is prided on defensive skills.

The quality of the competition Pudge faced was ranked a 0.00 (the higher the number, the higher the "relative strength" of the opposition he's on the ice against). Both Pyatt (.05) and Bernier (.03) saw stronger players so Wellwood's qualcomp was probably affected by missing games and stints on the fourth line where guys like Hordichuk are ranking at the qualcomp bottom (depending on the minimum amount of games you're looking at). Regardless, Wellwood saw the average in his opposition.

Playing with his unemployment brothers or sometimes with Hordichuk did hinder Wellwood's EV effectiveness. Pudge's qualteam ranking (the quality of his linemates) was -0.25 or third worst on the team (hell, even here Hordichuk brings down Johnson who was his regular linemate). So it's unfair to suggest Wellwood's struggles are his alone. Though it does beg three additional questions: can Wellwood alone elevate the play of the third line? How does resurrecting two/thirds of the same line (Wellwood/Bernier) position the team any better heading into next season? And does Vigneault trust him at him at ES regardless of linemates?

Numbers don't always tell the complete story, but they do show Wellwood had a limited skill set last year: if he wasn't out on the PP, then he wasn't offering much. Yes he can play defensively and maybe more digging around would find greater statistical relevance on that front, but he alone wasn't elevating the line either. No matter where he ends up, he needs a better regular season at ES if he wants to be paid as a premier player.

2. The "kid"

Remember a few seasons ago when the center ranks for the Canucks were laughable? You'd have Morrison, Henrik and then a bunch of no namers (leading to hilarious Chouinard-like experiments). Barring another Sundin situation, the top two slots are Hank and Kesler leaving Pudge to be in line for the third or fourth slot. 

Last year he eventually fell to the third line, however that's exactly where many have Cody Hodgson pegged to start his NHL career. There's a whole host of variables that come with that, not the least of which is Hodgson needing a good camp to show he's ready for the dance. But the safe money is that he'll make it.

Wellwood may have had a stronger footing a few years ago, but if it really does come down to Hodgson Vs Wellwood, I imagine management would be behind Hodgson. Rarely have you seen a prospect so well-groomed and anyone connected to the organization is at risk of breaking their legs falling over themselves praising him and his future. If he makes the cut, then expect Hodgson to get limited ice-time and choice opportunities on the PP to become more acclimated to the game and that could come at Wellwood's expense. It's a gamble to replace an experienced player with a rookie, but a gamble worth taking, especially if it saves cap space to shore up the team in other areas.

Pudge could always shift to wing, but in that case, he's still in trouble because he'll be fighting Bernier, Raymond, Rypien and Hansen (should he stay) along with Grabner and maybe a prospect like Desbiens or Glass for one of the remaining slots on the wing in the bottom six. There's always a chance for the top six if when Demitra gets injured...

3. The baggage

This one is completely subjective, but if I'm Gillis I approach Pudge the same way I did with SOB. Something like "Look, we want you here but X and Y have to be better on your end. So here's a one year deal and we'll work with every step of the way on fixing X and Y. If you do, great, we'll talk long term next summer. If not, we'll adjust expectations and see what's in our mutual best interest then."

On the level and fair. SOB agreed, presumably because he knows he can play better and believes he can improve the Vancouver squad at the same time. Wellwood, for whatever the private criticisms are, is viewing it differently.

That's clearly his right, but he's doing it on a team where the heart and soul guys (Kesler & Burrows), the youth (Edler), the A list (Sedins) and hopefully the goalie are all taking less to an extent in the hopes of creating a better team and a winning atmosphere.

We're coming up on the end of July and there's plenty of FA's left, a reality of the economic climate and gun-shy GM's who aren't opening their wallets quickly (except Sather). Now along comes Wellwood, hat in hand, taking the team that gave him a shot to arbitration while only one year removed from multiple game scratches, fairly obvious consistency problems and going ignored on waivers twice which itself followed a camp where the coach publicly blasted his conditioning and a summer fall out with soccer and the Leafs organization based on, yup, poor conditioning (which he blames the Leafs for).

We Canuck fans are quick to point out the better points of his character: his versatility, his willingness to help out the team in whatever capacity, etc. But if we're going to be honest you have to take everything into account and his past isn't exactly a ringing endorsement. Are other GM's taking notice one way or the other?

************************

I would be happy to see Wellwood back at a number that makes sense. I would be pleased to see him out there with his shifty skills. I'd be ecstatic to see him (or anyone for that matter) score on the power play. Maybe if his agent and Gillis had more time to hash out whatever the specific number is each side is looking for it wouldn't have gotten to this. But now it's going to be in the arbitrator's hands and 4.4 million in cap space, while certainly not impossible, leaves very little wiggle room.

Again, Wellwood is entitled to his arbitration rights, but he isn't entitled to a roster slot just because he was a shootout and powerplay specialist last season that wants to be paid like a complete package next season.

Maybe Wellwood wins with the decision next week. If he does, good for him. But that doesn't mean he's a Canuck when camp opens. And, if Gillis balks at the decision and Pudge becomes a UFA, how damaging may that be to the team, if at all?

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