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Weekly Thoughts: Sutter’s Deployment, Edler’s Rejuvenation, and the Importance of Zone Exits

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NHL: Vancouver Canucks at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Sutter Has the Toughest Defensive Role Of Any Centre In the NHL

To say Travis Green relies heavily on Brandon Sutter as a shutdown centre would be an understatement. Sutter is the only centre in the NHL who averages more than 17 minutes a game, more than 2 minutes a night on the PK, along with more than 75% of his zone starts in the defensive zone.

In fact, he leads all NHL forwards this season by averaging more than three minutes per game shorthanded.

All that doesn’t even take into account the ridiculous even-strength competition he faces as a byproduct of being the team’s shutdown centre.

Graph courtesy Hockey Viz

The blue bars for numbers one to three on the top right are significantly past the red line standard— indicating that he’s spent a very high proportion of his ice-time against the opposition’s top three forwards.

Sutter’s closest deployment comparable is Mikael Backlund when considering ice-time, shorthanded role, and quality of competition. It’s interesting to note because the Canucks were reportedly interested in Backlund prior to his six-year extension.

Where the two differ drastically have been the on-ice results. Whereas Backlund is on pace for 48 points and helps the Flames control 56.2 percent of shot attempts(CF%), Sutter has the lowest points per hour rate(P/60) of all forwards averaging over 17 minutes per game. Furthermore, the Canucks control just 42.2% of shot attempts with Sutter deployed.

Sutter needs someone to share these defensive responsibilities, but this current roster doesn’t present any answers. Sam Gagner and Henrik Sedin need to be sheltered, whereas Bo Horvat is in charge of leading the offence.

It makes two-way centre Adam Gaudette’s development that much more important.

Zone Exit Inefficiency Plagues the Canucks

One of the biggest findings at this year’s Vancouver Hockey Analytics Conference was that nearly 25% of five-on-five goals scored begin with a failed zone exit by the opposing team.

A failed zone exit is counted when a defending team is unsuccessful at clearing the puck out of their own zone.

The ideal outcome is a possession exit— where a player either passes the puck to a forward outside the defensive zone or skates it out themselves. Dumping the puck out isn’t efficient since you lose possession; though it’s better than an outright failure.

Zone exits are important for steering the puck out of danger and when done successfully with possession, key for offensive breakouts.

It’s concerning to learn then that Canucks defensemen have struggled mightily in that regard this season.

The Athletic’s Corey Sznajder tracks micro stats for NHL games and the results appear poor in the 14 Canucks games that he’s tracked. It’s a small sample size, but still sufficient to get a general sense of the team’s competency at transitioning the puck.

I spoke with Corey who has tracked over 1,500 NHL games, and he told me that the average exit percentage is 79%, while the average possession exit rate is 40%.

Derrick Pouliot is the only defender who has been above average with regards to possession exits, but his team-worst failure rate tells us that he’s struggled mightily with turnovers.

Every single Canucks’ defenceman is below average in either possession or total exit rates, and in many cases, both. Unsuccessfully exiting the zone not only hurts the team’s ability to get the puck out of danger but hinders their chances of being able to counterattack on the rush.

Gudbranson’s Turnover Problems

It should come to nobody’s surprise that the above chart indicates that Erik Gudbranson is worst on the team for possession exits. The Canucks’ issues in retaining possession and exiting the zone with Gudbranson on the ice are reflected in his team-worst on-ice shot differential(CF%) and goals for rate(GF/60).

The bigger issue, however, is that Gudbranson turns the puck over at an astronomical rate.

The chart above combines this season’s data with the 24 Canucks’ games that Corey tracked last year for a larger sample size. The biggest takeaway is that Gudbranson either fails to clear the zone or ices the puck more than a third of the time he has the puck in his own zone.

These failures and icings lead to turnovers in prime scoring positions while unsuccessful clearance attempts keep the team hemmed in their own zone.

Every defenceman makes these mistakes, but as the micro stats indicate, they’ve become a common trend for Gudbranson.

To illustrate how and why these turnovers occur, I compiled some clips from this week’s game versus the Islanders.

In this clip, Gudbranson shows poor puckhandling skills with a porous second touch while receiving the cross-ice feed from Edler. Gudbranson backhands the puck out of control into the corner where he’s now stuck.

After reaching to receive Edler’s pass, Gudbranson misses the puck when initially trying to stickhandle it to a favourable position on his forehand. By the time he recovers, he’s perpendicular to the boards and in no position to make a pass. To make matters worse, he’s unable to chip the puck past Cal Clutterbuck who intercepts and begins the counterattack for the Islanders.

Prior to reaching the puck, Gudbranson rotates his head, but perhaps not far enough for a shoulder check that would have made him aware of John Tavares’s pursuit.

Had Gudbranson been aware of Tavares earlier, he could have pushed the puck wider to create a new clearance lane when transferring the puck to his forehand, or simply adjusted his body position to go off the glass and out.

In this last clip, Gudbranson is indecisive with the puck on the breakout. He misses the chance to spring either Leipsic or Horvat on the rush. By the time Gudbranson gets his head up, he has no options moving forward and so he tries sliding the puck back to Del Zotto who was about to go off for a change.

Gudbranson will have to reduce the mistakes he makes with the puck to ensure that the team is able to get out of their own zone.

Alex Edler’s Offensive Rejuvenation

Alex Edler has been unfairly maligned over the past few years for numerous reasons. Many have criticized the franchise leader in defenseman scoring for not waiving his no-trade clause, turnovers in the defensive zone, and overall lack of engagement on the ice.

Many believe that the soon to be 31-year-old Swede has sharply declined over the past couple of seasons due to injuries and natural age-related attenuation.

Don’t look now but Edler is on track for his best offensive season since 2011/12 when he notched a career-high 49 points.

Edler has been particularly impressive as of late with 17 points in his last 27 games. He’s 22nd in the NHL for points among defensemen during that span.

Assuming he stays healthy, Edler will need six points in his final 14 games to eclipse his 31 point total from 2014/15. Fans should be hoping for increased power play opportunities, as nine of his 17 points have come on the man advantage.