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Canucks, Hockey

Let ‘Em Through, Boys: Are the Canucks Avoiding Blocking Shots?

by Brian Beitz

Who's Blocking This?

"I wish someone would get in front of these..." Rich Lam / Getty Images

Saturday night, against the Colorado Avalanche, the Canucks were granted a prolonged 5 on 3 after an always-exciting delay of game, puck over the glass penalty. During that powerplay, the crowd rose to their feet to applaud Smugtoria native Ryan O’Byrne after he blocked 3 shots from the point. But what effect did that have on the final score? If you ask the Canucks, they might tell you “not much,” as they are almost always near the bottom of the league in that category. A few months ago, Pass it to Bulis considered the Canucks lack of shot blocking and what it indicated about the team. We at Smug Nation found this interesting, and decided to look a little deeper. Keep reading after the jump to see what we found!

***

Over the past several years, blocked shots has become a heralded statistic for players, a sign of courage and sacrifice. Yet, it is a difficult one to measure. As Daniel Wagner discussed in his post for Backhand Shelf, many now feel that the need to block a shot derives from lack of puck possession. Many things can cause blocked shots, and it is often the fault of the shooter. As he says:

“Blocking a shot is not inherently negative. In general, if an opponent is shooting the puck and you have the opportunity to block the shot, you do so. At the same time, blocking a shot is not inherently positive. Preferably, you are the one shooting the puck rather than blocking it.”

It stands to reason that if shot blocking is so great, the best teams would all have the most blocked shots, right? Yet, a quick look at the blocked shots by team for the league shows us that many of the top teams in the NHL have the fewest blocked shots. Why? For one, they tend to have the puck a lot, meaning they aren’t facing shots. Two, they leave a higher quality shot blocker in their crease—you know, the one with all the padding? But this can’t explain everything, or Columbus wouldn’t be 26th and Nashville certainly wouldn’t be 11th.

Here’s a look at the Canucks blocked shots over the past 6 years, including their league ranking in that area (Note: data does not include Monday’s game vs. LA):

Season GP Blocked Shots BS/GP NHL Rank
2007-08 82 988 12.05 19th
2008-09 82 993 12.11 22nd
2009-10 82 991 12.09 24th
2010-11 82 1071 13.06 25th
2011-12 75 925 12.33 27th

First off, and most obviously, we see that the Canucks consistently rank in the bottom of the league in blocked shots. What’s more interesting about this is that despite the Canucks blocked shots staying roughly at the same number per game, their league ranking drops every season. This is the case even despite their increase in 2010-11. This happens because NHL teams as a whole are blocking more shots each year. In 2003-04, the last season before the lockout, a Craig Mactavish-led Edmonton team led the league in blocked shots with 1114, and only 2 teams had more than 1100. Last season, only 8 teams had less than that number, and the NY Islanders led the league with 1387.

There are many things that might lead to this league-wide increase. The new post-lockout rules eliminated clutching and grabbing in an effort to increase offence; a lot of that increase in offence comes from more shot attempts; more shot attempts mean more shots blocked. It could be a prevailing mindset among NHL coaches and GMs, a prevalence toward shot blocking as method to reduce goals against. It could also be a predominant mindset among players, like I mentioned above, that shot blocking is the ultimate sacrifice for your team. Most likely, it’s a combination of the three. But there are several teams avoiding this trend, including Vancouver, Detroit, and New Jersey.

Last year, the Canucks saw an increase in blocked shots of about a block per game. Perhaps not coincidentally, they also saw a large increase in man games lost to injury. While I’m not suggesting that all of these injuries were the result of shot blocking, some were—Alberts and Bieksa each suffered broken bones after blocking a shot. This year, the Canucks blocked shots have dropped again, especially among the forwards—the ratio of blocked shots by forwards to blocked shots by defencemen for the Canucks has dropped from 66% to 55%. It’s interesting to note that the only Canuck who has seen a dramatic increase in blocked shots per 60 minutes on ice this year, Aaron Rome, spent time on the shelf due to a broken finger he suffered while, guess what, blocking a shot.

But a team’s shot blocking will ebb and flow based on any number of factors, including shot attempts against and injuries to players who “excel” at shot blocking. To see if there was really a difference in the Canucks play or in Alain Vigneault’s coaching style, I looked at skaters who were picked up by the club over the last few seasons and compared their blocked shots per 60 minutes on ice in their last season before joining the Canucks with their first full season with the Canucks (40 games+). Here’s what I found:

Player Last non-Van Season BS/60 1st Full Van Season BS/60 Difference
Maxim Lapierre 2.32 1.57 -0.74
Christian Ehrhoff 3.30 2.70 -0.60
Raffi Torres 0.90 1.14 +0.24
Chris Higgins 2.30 1.36 -0.94
David Booth 0.97 0.92* -0.05
Andrew Alberts 6.40 4.62 -1.78
Keith Ballard 6.56 5.17 -1.39
Steve Tambellini 1.75 1.73 -0.02
Ryan Johnson 5.55 7.38 +1.82
Dan Hamhuis 3.44 3.17 -0.27
Mikael Samuelsson 1.11 0.76 -0.35
Pavol Demitra (RIP) 2.15 1.59 -0.56
Shane O’Brien 3.67 2.82 -0.85

*Note: Booth played the first 6 games of this season with the Florida Panthers.

As you can see, with the exception of a negligible increase in BS/60 for Raffi Torres and a large increase for Ryan Johnson (who, let’s face it, did not have much else going for his game in Vancouver), every player saw a decrease in shots blocked per 60 minutes of icetime upon joining the Vancouver Canucks.

Is this change intentional or merely situational? Considering what we know of the Canucks organization, I think we can assume there is a reasoning behind this aversion to blocking shots (apart from the fact that it really hurts). Interestingly, the last time an Alain Vigneault-coached team ranked highly in blocked shots was Montreal in 1999-2000, when the Canadiens were 4th in that category—they missed the playoffs that year in large part due to injury. Since that time, AV’s clubs have never ranked higher than 19th in blocked shots. Why this change?

Consider that the opponent is a tsunami and the defending team is a building on the shore. Many in the NHL believe that the goal is to make sure the building is large and sturdy with concrete walls. But the pressure and pounding of the waves against those walls, like pucks hitting defenders, will cause them to eventually crumble like a fruit dessert topping. The new theory in architecture, and it would seem for some in the NHL, is to build narrows supports with glass walls to let the waves break through. Sure, you might get a few more pucks past and goals against, but your skaters—your buildings—will remain standing to face the next wave.

It also helps that the Canucks know they can win when outshot in a game. Over the past 3 seasons, the Canucks have a higher winning percentage when outshot by an opponent than when they outshoot them. This is not surprising considering their possession play and their penchant for prodigious primary period point-getting. They score a lot in the first period, is what I’m saying, causing other teams to have to shoot more to try and catch up. This is called score effects, as explained here by Thomas Drance. However, over the past 3 years, only 5 teams with a win percentage of more than 0.500 have a higher winning rate when outshot by than when outshooting their opponent, and only 1, the Canucks, with a win percentage of over 0.600 during that span.

What does all this mean? Why does Mark Ruffalo always look like he’s smelling poop? Nobody really knows… There will probably never be a consensus on the importance of blocking shots, in part due to the difficulty in tracking the effectiveness of the act (who knows if the puck would go in or not if it wasn’t blocked) and in part due to the Don Cherry’s (Cherries?) of the game who consistently applaud it. Either way, it is becoming more and more apparent that the Canucks are doing their best to avoid an increase in shots blocked each year. I don’t know which is the best way, but I do hope that for the Canucks this season, much more than last, their buildings remain standing.

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About brianbeitz

I'm a Victoria native who once sat down in front of the TV, saw Vancouver playing the NY Rangers in game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, and hasn't stopped watching the Canucks since. Now, I've decided to bring my horrible opinions to a public forum. Enjoy! Follow me on Twitter @oldjohnnycanuck.

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