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Canucks Player Autopsy: Luca Sbisa

If ever there were a perfect Rorschach test for how people view this regime, it's what you think about Luca Sbisa. He's either the worst defenseman in the league, with a contract that makes you fundamentally doubt Jim Benning's fitness to run an NHL team. Or he's an admittedly flawed defender who adds a much needed element of grit to an altogether too gentlemanly Canucks defence.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Who?

Luca Sbisa

Born: January 30, 1990 in Ozieri, Italy (on the Isle of Sardinia). His family moved to Oberägeri, Switzerland when he was 1, and Sbisa plays for Switzerland internationally.

Height 6' 2", Weight: 207 lbs, Shoots: L

Contract: Too long and for too much money

Before I begin this write up, I should admit my biases. I have no problem with Luca Sbisa on the Vancouver Canucks blue line. He is an old-fashioned kind of gritty that I think advanced stats alone do a fairly poor job of valuing. He fights, he blocks shots, he hits, he plays big, he skates well. He is a stopgap while the Canucks develop younger, cheaper options to do the same things, like Andrey Pedan and Nikita Tryamkin. Would I want eight Luca Sbisa-types on the back end? No. Like anyone, I'd prefer to have Chris Tanev and Ben Hutton type players. But I want some grit, so opposing forwards don't feel they can cross the Canucks blue line with impunity. Physicality is much less a part of the NHL than it used to be, but that doesn't mean it's not still a necessary element. And I will argue that possession metrics haven't yet developed to measure the value of physical play. For a rehash of this argument, check out Dan Murphy and Thomas Drance on Sportsnet.ca.

Also, the chorus of attacks on Sbisa, both in the media and from some in the fan base, often veered into character assassination. That made me think of him much more sympathetically.

What did he do this year?

Well, for one, he was injured a lot. He was reduced to only 41 games this year with a variety of maladies, including foot and hand problems. By the numbers, his year looked like this:

There is no papering over those poor advanced stats. The team just doesn't possess the puck when he's on the ice. The takeaway/giveaway stats are alarming, too. No one is handing Sbisa the Norris Trophy anytime soon. Still, he's an NHL caliber defenseman.

One of the coolest charts on hockey-reference.com shows comparable players to any player of interest. You can see the precise way these similarity scores are calculated here. And here are Luca Sbisa's career comparables:

Who can forget the illustrious Vancouver Canucks careers of Adrien Plavsic, Dave Richter and Jamie Huscroft? The Canucks have employed a lot of mediocre defensemen over the years. But I digress. Clayton "Grizzly Bear Hunter" Stoner is Sbisa's lone contemporary on the chart. It's worth noting, according to General-Fanager.com, Stoner's current contract pays him $3.25 million a year through 2017-18. Stoner is 31, while Sbisa is 26. Perhaps Sbisa and Stoner reflect scarcity of a particular skill set at D? At the very least, there are NHL precedents for Sbisa's contract, just like there are Canuck precedents for employing underwhelming D.

Luca Sbisa is an honest hockey player. He laid out Nikolaj Ehlers with a big hit:

And he answered the bell against the gargantuan Anthony Peluso later in the game:

He fought Michael Ferland of Calgary after Ferland got carried away taking runs at Canucks players. There is real value in this kind of thing, both as a kind of deterrent and in enhancing bonds between teammates:

That Sbisa is willing to stand up and fight Ferland on behalf of his teammates makes moments like the one in February in Denver, when Sbisa channeled Bobby Orr for a gorgeous end to end rush, all the sweeter for his teammates:

Sbisa-tube

Both of his goals from last year came on nice looking point shots against Montreal and Arizona:

Obligatory Canucks player promo videos:

What's Next?

The Canucks are finally developing some depth on the back end. Alex Edler, Ben Hutton, and Andrey Pedan are the Canucks other left-sided D. On the right side, they have Chris Tanev, Nikita Tryamkin, Philip Larsen, and Alex Biega. They also have a growing prospect pile that includes Jordan Subban and Troy Stecher nearest to ready for the Canucks, and younger kids like Anton Cederholm, Guillaume Brisebois, Tate Olsen, and Carl Neill.

All of this spells the eventual displacement of Luca Sbisa on the Canucks D corps. He lacks a no-trade clause, and while some may suggest his play is effectively a no-trade clause, I think those people might be surprised. Sbisa will have been a polarizing player as a Canuck, but he will also have been a decent stopgap for an organization that paid criminally little attention to drafting and developing D for far, far too long.