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What do the Canucks have in Sven Baertschi?

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NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Detroit Red Wings Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Sven Baertschi has been a staple alongside Bo Horvat, and more recently, Brock Boeser on Vancouver’s unofficial top-line— one that’s produced more than two and a half goals per 60 minutes of 5v5 play. Baertschi’s mere inclusion on the first line doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a legitimate top line talent — the Canucks, after all, are deprived of high-end scorers.

The logical question to ask then is what exactly do the Canucks have in Baertschi? Is he a fringe first line forward? A middle-six scorer? A legitimate second line player? These questions are something both the team and Baertschi’s representatives will have to address and dissect given the 25-year-old’s pending RFA status.

It’s my goal in this piece to provide a little bit more clarity on this complex situation.

Point Production

Baertschi’s raw scoring rate is what’s stood out to most people and so it’s what I’ll tackle first. As Baertschi is a streaky scorer, I’ll be consolidating data to include both his scoring and on-ice numbers from last year and this season for a larger sample size.

Baertschi has followed up a 35 point campaign with 24 points in 44 games this season. Accounting for games missed leaves the Swiss winger scoring 0.53 points per game over the past two seasons — good enough for 43 points over an 82 game season. That pace would rank him 144th among forwards and 39th among left wingers in the league during that span.

There are two schools of thought for evaluating whether a forward is top-six material since the word in itself is ambiguous. If you go by the literal definition, there are 186 top-six forwards(six forwards per team multiplied by 31 teams). Baertschi easily fits that criteria based on point production.

The alternative perception refers to a legitimate top-six player as a forward that can step into almost every contending team’s top two lines. A study done by Nation Network’s Shawn Reis suggested that the baseline for a bonafide top six player should be in the early 40s with regards to point totals.

Baertschi’s 43 point pace qualifies him as a top-six player by this criteria as well, suggesting that he’s a low-end top-six player regardless of your perception of the word.

It’d be easy to end the conversation here, but digging beyond the surface is where things get really interesting — with results that question the sustainability of his raw offensive production.

Diving Deeper

The most obvious sign of unsustainable offensive production is Baertschi’s 5v5 shooting percentage— which at 16.1% ranks him 9th highest in the league over the past two seasons. The average 5v5 conversion rate of 7.8% this season would leave Baertschi with just 10 even strength goals over the past two seasons instead of 20.

Baertschi’s an above average finisher though, so using his career 5v5 shooting percentage sans this season and last would be more useful. That 12.9% conversion rate would give Baertschi four fewer 5v5 goals than he’s actually had. It doesn’t seem like much, but these differences add up.

There are also a couple of stats that suggest that Baertschi hasn’t been a significant driver of offence, with one of those signs being his individual contributions for goals that were scored while he was on the ice.

The graph above tells us that Baertschi has primary points on only 51.6% of the 5v5 goals that the Canucks score with him on the ice.

The caveat though is that left-wingers as a whole tend to be complementary pieces; with the top 60 left wing scorers only getting primary contributions on 53.7% of their on-ice goals on average — 2.1% higher than Baertschi’s rate.

Baertschi’s had a slightly higher proportion of secondary points too; with more than 25% of his 43 total 5v5 points courtesy of secondary assists.

Secondary assists are largely dependent on luck and are thus typically unsustainable in the long run as theorized in this study by Carolina Hurricanes’ analytics expert Eric Tulsky.

Henrik Sedin’s low primary points rate stands out, though he is likely an outlier to the theory considering he’s a pure playmaker who’s gotten points on 80.3% of the team’s goals while deployed, versus Baertschi’s 69.4% clip.

Baertschi’s proportion of primary points is only a bit below average, but it’s still fair to wonder how that might affect the sustainability of his point production — even if it’s just by a few points over the course of a season.

Baertschi’s on-ice offensive metrics further support the idea that his current production rate might be inflated and/or unsustainable.

The Swiss winger has always been a player that’s prioritized quality over quantity when it comes to shots, but it’s still underwhelming to see that he ranks 12th out of 15 Canucks’ forwards for on-ice shot attempts(CF/60) since the start of the 2016/17 season.

It’s even more concerning when you consider that the Canucks aren’t generating scoring chances and high danger shot attempts at a, particularly impressive rate with Baertschi on the ice. He sits middle of the pack on the team in both those regards.

These lack of high-quality chances explains why Baertschi’s individual expected goals for rate(ixGF/60) leaves him 10th on the team, despite his actual individual goals for rate ranking him 3rd.

To get a better picture of where Baertschi stands league-wide, let’s look at his on-ice numbers over the past two seasons relative to all qualified NHL forwards.

Scoring chances and high danger shot attempt(HDCF/60) rates had to be separated year by year since Natural Stattrick doesn’t allow you to view aggregate data for multiple seasons. That being said, those metrics still tell us that the Canucks don’t generate quality scoring opportunities at a high rate with Baertschi on the ice.

The combination of lack of volume and quality with shot attempts is depicted in Baertschi’s mediocre expected goals for rate, which takes factors such as shot location, angle, and type into account to calculate an expected total of on-ice goals.

Baertschi’s underlying numbers do have to be taken with a grain of salt though. While he has spent most of his time on a line with Horvat, the Canucks as a whole are still very poor — a factor that undoubtedly hurts every Canucks’ player’s on-ice metrics.

Still though, I’m inclined to believe that conversion ability and the poor team aren’t enough to bridge the gap between Baertschi’s underlying numbers and his offensive production. That assertion is validated when you examine Boeser and Horvat’s underlying numbers. (Note that I’ve included on the chart below where each player ranks relative to the team’s 15 qualified forwards over the past two seasons in brackets.)

While Boeser and Horvat could be in line for some regression as well, they still favour comparably to Baertschi — who lags behind in every underlying metric.

All this is to say that Baertschi’s on-ice numbers would indicate that his offensive production over the last two seasons has been inflated — even if it’s just by a small margin.

Conclusion

While Baertschi’s raw offensive production suggests that he’s a legitimate top-six forward, his abnormally high shooting percentage, mediocre underlying numbers, and higher proportion of secondary assists suggest that the 25-year-old may be in for a mild correction.

All this doesn’t even take into account the favourable competition that he and Horvat faced last season when the Sedins were still facing the other team’s shutdown line and top pair.

Personally, I’m far more comfortable projecting Baertschi as a middle six scorer who can put up points in the mid to late 30s than I am labelling him as a legitimate top-six player capable of consistently cracking 40+ points.

It’s a necessary distinction that the Canucks will also want to make so that they can negotiate the 25-year-old to a more favourable multi-year extension come this offseason.

*All stats courtesy Corsica and Natural Stattrick