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Carolina Hurricanes v Vancouver Canucks
Do you make the Brock Boeser face when someone’s rosterbation exercise is wildly different from yours?
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Configuring the Canucks’ Best Line Combinations Using Analytics (And Maybe Even Logic...)

With the return of hockey around the corner, it’s time for a little rosterbation.

With hockey’s restart just a few weeks away, Travis Green will be busy at work trying to figure out the best line combinations for his club.

So, why not take on a similar exercise here?

Our CanucksAbbyFan2 undertook this assignment earlier in quarantine. For this exercise, I wanted to see what the numbers tell us about the best line combinations for the Canucks.

Is Tyler Toffoli or Brock Boeser a better fit on the top line? Who belongs beside Bo Horvat on the second line? Where does Micheal Ferland fit in? I hope to answer some of that here by diving into the numbers.

Configuring the Canucks Top Six

Forwards Considered for Line One: Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Brock Boeser, Jake Virtanen

Line One: No sense in separating Petterson and Miller

NHL: JAN 27 Blues at Canucks
Vancouver Canucks Winger J.T. Miller (9) celebrates with teammate Center Elias Pettersson (40) after scoring a goal agains the St. Louis Blues during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on January 27, 2020 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Photo by Devin Manky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller were clearly the Canucks best two forwards this season, but is there any sense in breaking them up to spread out the offence?

Your first reaction was probably something along the lines of “nooooooooooo!” Well, the data backs that up as well.

Canucks’ First Line Options

Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GP TOI CF% SF% GF% xGF% SCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Faceoff %
Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GP TOI CF% SF% GF% xGF% SCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Faceoff %
Elias Pettersson Brock Boeser JT Miller 56 426:15 58.4 57.6 66.7 58.4 56.6 12.2 91.7 1.039 73.1
Elias Petterson JT Miller Tyler Toffoli 10 119:46 57.0 58.9 76.9 58.5 56.2 13.2 94.3 1.075 60.5
Elias Pettersson Brock Boeser Tanner Pearson 56 40:28 38.7 40.6 0.0 53.6 46.9 0.0 89.5 0.895 91.7
Elias Pettersson Brock Boeser Jake Virtanen 56 10:33 52.6 45.5 25.0 31.8 40.0 20.0 50.0 0.7 87.5
Elias Pettersson JT Miller Jake Virtanen 68 123:36 58.9 57.2 75.0 58.7 56.9 6.9 96.9 1.038 76.7
Elias Pettersson Tyler Toffoli Brock Boeser N/A
Natural Stat Trick

Pettersson spent nearly 75% of all his even-strength minutes playing with Miller this season. When you look at some of the options here where Miller is taken away from the first line, you can see that there isn’t the same level of success there.

Of course, the best options all include Miller and Pettersson together on the first line, and they’ve had statistical success with Brock Boeser, Tyler Toffoli and Jake Virtanen this season.

Although Virtanen succeeded there at the midway point of the season, the Canucks likely want to load up that first line come playoff time. However, there really isn’t much separating Toffoli and Boeser on the first line. Both wingers formed a dominant trip alongside Pettersson and Miller, so perhaps there’s a better answer by looking at the options for line two.

Line Two: Finding an answer the Toffoli vs. Boeser debate

Forwards Considered for Line Two: Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Brock Boeser, Jake Virtanen

So we take Miller out of consideration for line two, keeping the Canucks terrific forward duo in tact. That’s worth mentioning because every line that featured Horvat and Miller for an extended period of time did have great underlying success.

Small sample size is a factor here, as Horvat and Pearson did have a rotating door of right wingers. However, you could argue that these numbers help us draw a conclusion on the top six debate.

Canucks’ Second Line Options

Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GP TOI CF% SF% GF% xGF% SCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Faceoff %
Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GP TOI CF% SF% GF% xGF% SCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Faceoff %
Bo Horvat Brock Boeser Tanner Pearson 57 26:25 31.7 36.4 50.0 31.7 30.4 12.5 92.9 1.054 46.7
Bo Horvat Tanner Pearson Tyler Toffoli 10 5:10 66.7 66.7 - 31.4 50.0 0.0 100.0 1 75.0
Bo Horvat Jake Virtanen Tanner Pearson 69 118:22 47.9 52.2 40.0 48.6 40.9 5.6 90.9 0.965 47.2
Bo Horvat Jake Virtanen Tyler Toffoli NA
Natural Stat Trick

While slipping Boeser down to the second line might be wise in theory, the underlying numbers are ugly for the trio of Boeser, Horvat and Pearson. Again, the sample size is small, but there’s another reason to give the untested likes of Pearson, Horvat and Toffoli a try.

Toffoli is touted as a solid two-way, defensively responsible player. He’s perennially been a driver of possession with the Los Angeles Kings for years.

New York Islanders v Vancouver Canucks
Scott Mayfield #24 of the New York Islanders looks on dejected as Bo Horvat #53 of the Vancouver Canucks is congratulated by teammates J.T. Miller #9 and Tyler Toffoli #73 after scoring during their NHL game against the New York Islanders at Rogers Arena March 10, 2020 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

When you look at how Travis Green likes to deploy the second line, it’s clear that he wants to match-up Horvat against the other team’s best players. Horvat and Pearson already had success in that role, and adding a savvy veteran in Toffoli to aid them makes all too much sense.

If Horvat and Pearson can have success with Loui Eriksson, imagine what they can do with Toffoli...

In short, it makes the most sense put the better shooter in Boeser on the top line, and slide Toffoli down to the second line to help Horvat and Pearson match-up against the other team’s best players.

Line One Verdict: J.T. Miller — Elias Pettersson — Brock Boeser

Line Two Verdict: Tanner Pearson — Bo Horvat — Tyler Toffoli

Configuring the Canucks Bottom Six

Line Three: Who Slots in at RW beside Roussel and Gaudette?

Forwards Considered for Line Three: Adam Gaudette, Antoine Roussel, Micheal Ferland, Jake Virtanen, Brandon Sutter, Zack MacEwen

*Josh Leivo was excluded from this exercise, since he’s still recovering from a fractured kneecap and therefore is unlikely to suit up when hockey resumes.

One of the biggest challenges for the Canucks might be finding a bottom-six that can match-up well against the Wild.

When you look at the top two lines of both teams, the Canucks clearly have an edge. However in the bottom six, the Wild boast a number of forwards with play with an edge, can put up some offence and most important, are responsible defensively.

The same cannot be said for the Canucks, although they do have some scoring threats in the bottom six. Adam Gaudette took a step forward in his sophomore year with 33 points. That total would be fifth-best on the Wild among forwards (it ranks eighth on the Canucks when you account for Toffoli’s 44 points on the season). Gaudette is locked in as the third-line center.

NHL: MAR 10 Islanders at Canucks
Vancouver Canucks Center Adam Gaudette (88) celebrates after scoring a goal against the New York Islanders during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on March 10, 2020 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There are five forwards listed about that you could reasonably consider to play alongside Gaudette on the third line. However, since Micheal Ferland has barely played this season, I’ve relegated him to the fourth line for now. Even the Ferland we did see in 14 Canucks games ranked last among forwards in shots-for and expected goals for at even-strength.

Antoine Roussel seems locked in as Gaudette’s third line winger. Logically, it does make sense to put the veteran winger beside Gaudette.

Roussel is a responsible player who can chip in offence. Despite a drop in production compared to 2018-19, his 1.58 points-per-60 is right at a regular third-line pace. You could argue that Ferland has a higher potential to create offence, but as of right now, it’s Roussel who should get the shot the third line.

Here’s a look at some of the potential combinations for line three.

Canucks’ Third Line Options

Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GP TOI CF% SF% GF% xGF% SCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Faceoff %
Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GP TOI CF% SF% GF% xGF% SCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Faceoff %
Adam Gaudette Jake Virtanen Antoine Roussel 41 178:52 48.3 47.2 56.3 47.8 44.5 9.6 93.3 1.029 68.9
Adam Gaudette Jake Virtanen Brandon Sutter 34 4:15 37.5 20.0 - 12.1 33.3 0.0 100.0 1 0.0
Adam Gaudette Antoine Roussel Brandon Sutter 25 32:43 49.2 47.1 40.0 47.3 47.2 12.5 83.3 0.958 45.5
Adam Gaudette Antoine Roussel Zack MacEwen 11 28:31 50.8 48.4 71.4 65.5 64.3 33.3 87.5 1.208 85.0
Adam Gaudette Brandon Sutter Micheal Ferland 3 17:39 33.3 35.7 50.0 26.3 36.4 20.0 88.9 1.089 46.2
Adam Gaudette Brandon Sutter Zack MacEwen N/A
Adam Gaudette Zack MacEwen Micheal Ferland N/A
Adam Gaudette Jake Virtanen Micheal Ferland N/A 0:49
Adam Gaudette Jake Virtanen Zack MacEwen N/A 0:31
Adam Gaudette Antoine Roussel Micheal Ferland N/A
Natural Stat Trick

After looking at the numbers, I think there’s an argument to be made for three different combinations here.

Antoine Roussel — Adam Gaudette — Jake Virtanen: This was a common third line trio that spent 178 even strength minutes together this season. Despite hanging around the 47-48% range in terms of Corsi-For, Shots-For and expected Goals-For, they were on the ice for nine goals together as opposed to seven against. Virtanen and Gaudette both still have work to do defensively, which might make Green shy away from this duo.

Antoine Roussel — Adam Gaudette — Brandon Sutter: In 32 even-strength minutes together, this trio didn’t really post inspiring possession numbers, although their started more shifts in the defensive zone. The arguments here is that Sutter insulates Gaudette on face-offs, he’s a more responsible player than Virtanen, and he actually scored at a third-line rate this season with 1.58 points-per-60.

Antoine Roussel — Adam Gaudette — Zack MacEwen: This is a trio which, in a limited 28 even-strength minutes together, posted a 65% expected Goals-For total. They also had with 64% Scoring Chances-For mark. They did score on five of their 15 shots together, meaning their on-ice shooting percentage of 33% is wildly unsustainable. However, the group was clearly effective in limited minutes, and statistically they’re the best of the bunch.

NHL: FEB 22 Bruins at Canucks
Vancouver Canucks Right Wing Jake Virtanen (18) is congratulated by Defenseman Troy Stecher (51) Center Adam Gaudette (88) and Left Wing Antoine Roussel (26) after scoring a goal against the Boston Bruins during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on February 22, 2020 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Verdict: Antoine Roussel — Adam Gaudette — Jake Virtanen. Despite the defensive liabilities, this sets up as a line meant to give the Canucks a secondary scoring jolt. Virtanen’s 1.93 points-per-60, along with Gaudette’s 1.84 mark are both second-line scoring rates. There’s an argument to be made for Ferland here if health holds up and he looks great in camp.

Line Four: Finding the right balance among remaining roster castaways

Forwards Considered for Line Four: Jay Beagle, Tyler Motte, Loui Eriksson, Micheal Ferland, Brandon Sutter, Zack MacEwen

Okay, ignore the title for this section, because the whole “using analytics to find the best line combination exercise” goes out the window here. Also, for the players that did spend some time together, the analytical outlook isn’t great.

Canucks’ Fourth Line Options

Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GP TOI CF% SF% GF% xGF% SCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Faceoff %
Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GP TOI CF% SF% GF% xGF% SCF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO Off. Zone Faceoff %
Jay Beagle Brandon Sutter Tyler Motte 17 83:01 33.6 35.2 40.0 31.1 35.0 8.0 93.5 1.015 9.6
Jay Beagle Brandon Sutter Loui Eriksson 25 8:16 53.9 63.6 100.0 72.5 50.0 14.3 100.0 1.143 25.0
Brandon Sutter Tyler Motte Loui Eriksson 13 18:24 52.9 56.5 0.0 52.7 46.2 0.0 90.0 0.9 33.3
Natural Stat Trick

The six forwards remaining combined to play in 51% of the Canucks games this season. I suppose that makes sense when you have six guys vying for three spots on the bottom lines. Not to mention, four of these six guys would be sitting out if Josh Leivo were healthy.

The main things I wanted to consider here when constructing the fourth line was:

1) Which of these forwards gives the Canucks penalty kill the biggest jolt, and
2) Which of these forwards would work best together to give the Canucks an energy line?

First for the penalty kill. The numbers suggest that Tyler Motte is clearly the Canucks best penalty killing forward. He was on the ice for the fewest number of chances against (per 60 minutes) and the fewest goals against at 3.51. His expected goals against total of 5.86 per 60 was also best among Canucks forwards.

After that, Brandon Sutter, Jay Beagle and Loui Eriksson all have similar possession numbers shorthanded. They’re all between 6.7 and 7.1 goals against per-60. Nothing really separates these forwards on the kill aside from Beagle’s uncanny ability to win faceoffs. However, all of these forwards fare better than any of Pearson, Horvat or Miller, the Canucks other regular penalty killing forwards.

In terms of providing energy, one way to measure that analytically is to look at hits. All of Ferland, Motte and MacEwen (in that order) were tops among forwards in hits per-60, by a wide margin too.

Arizona Coyotes v Vancouver Canucks
Tyler Motte is the ideal player to have on your fourth line. He’s statistically the Canucks’ best penalty killing forward, and he leads all forwards in blocked shots per-60 as well.
Getty Images

Because of penalty kill prowess and his tenacious nature, Motte is my first pick for the fourth line. Then, I think there are two more battles to sort out.

Ferland vs. MacEwen. Despite criticism for Ferland’s play and praise for MacEwen’s, both posted gaudy points-per-60 totals in limited minutes (Ferland posted 2.41, MacEwen posted 2.25). However, you could argue that MacEwen was certainly luckier with a 29.4% shooting percentage. Ferland, on the other hand, did have three primary assists in 12 games.

If Ferland looks good in camp, he should get the nod over MacEwen.

Sutter vs. Beagle. The main argument for Beagle is that he wins face-offs, but how much does that matter when the Canucks are getting outscored 2-1 while he’s on the ice? Beagle’s Goals-For percentage is currently at 30.3% on the season.

He’s certainly a warrior and he’s one of the team leaders in blocked shots, but he’s a black hole on offense, and it’s not like his defensive game is so strong that he needs to be in the line-up.

Even though Sutter doesn’t win as many face-offs or block as many shots, he’s a decent penalty killer who can win draws. He also scored at at third-line rate this season, while Beagle scores, well, never. I’m taking Sutter over Beagle and I don’t think it’s all that close.

Sorry, but I have no argument for Eriksson. Wait, why am I apologizing?

Verdict: Micheal Ferland — Brandon Sutter — Tyler Motte. This is arguably the best balance of offensive potential, energy and defensive awareness. It won’t happen, since Beagle’s virtually guaranteed a spot. For the record, I think the Canucks will go with Ferland, Beagle and Sutter in the bottom six.

What do you think makes most sense for the Canucks when hockey resumes? What does your rosterbation for this forward group look like?

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