When the Canucks waived Sven Baerstchi, they sent a simple message: they believed there 13 forwards on the roster who would be more useful to them come opening night. It was a surprising decision for multiple reasons, and after the dust settled and the veteran went unclaimed due to his $3.37M cap hit, many are left wondering why it happened in the first place.
There are a few possibilities as the why that decision was viewed to be the best for a team who is pushing harder than it has over the last handful of years for a playoff berth. Given the arrivals of Ferland and Miller into the top six, it did raise question marks as to where in the lineup Baertschi would slot in, but almost everyone expected Baertschi to slot in somewhere. However, by season start, the perception of the player from the team and the market differed significantly. Let’s explore why that might have been the case and why Sven Baertschi ended up getting sent down.
Reason #1: The Canucks believe the other forwards are a better fit for the philosophy of their bottom 6
As I touched on at the beginning of the article, the Canucks may have chosen to keep other players in the lineup because they view him as a less useful player for a role in the bottom-six. This gives us insight into their philosophy that the bottom line or bottom-six should have a much different identity than the top two lines. Specifically, one that emphasizes checking over scoring and one that employs forwards that are comfortable on the penalty kill.
Around the league, teams appear to be moving away from the philosophy of icing one-dimensional checking lines that result in limited offense for either team while they are on the ice. Top teams like Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Washington and Toronto want their bottom six to be capable of holding the fort defensively, but also skilled enough to produce offensively.
The trend of deploying skilled players in what used to be traditional checking roles is quickly catching on across the league, but other teams have adopted that philosophy more quickly than others. Over the past decade, we’ve seen teams employ less muckers and bruisers on their fourth lines, and we are also starting to see third lines with more scoring punch as opposed to just deploying a set of three players who limit offense at both ends of the ice.
The decision to send Baertschi down can be seen as the Canucks not adopting this philosophy and still viewing bottom-six players as one-dimensional unskilled players who should be expected to do little else but play shut down hockey and kill penalties. This is something other teams are moving away from because it limits scoring depth and puts that much more pressure on the top six to produce enough offense to keep the team competitive. As for killing penalties, it would still be easy to find at least four capable players even with Baertschi in the lineup, given that seven players who killed penalties for the team last year remain on this year’s roster.
Reason #2: The Canucks simply believe the other forwards are better than him.
One can argue that the Canucks genuinely see 13 forwards better than Baertschi and that’s why he was sent down. However, a look at the underlying numbers disproves that notion so strongly that I have a tough time believing that the Canucks see it that way. Even if we take a look at a few basic numbers, we can see that there are at least four players who come out looking worse from a statistical standpoint than Baertschi does.
You may say that the above statistical categories don’t capture Baertschi’s defensive shortcomings compared to those other players, so for a more defensive focused metric, we can use xGA60 (expected goals against per 60). Baertschi ranked 6th on the team last season in this metric among players with at least 10 games played, indicating that he would likely be a better option defensively than many of his peers. For example, over the past two years Virtanen, Schaller, Eriksson, and Motte have had much higher xGA60 rates than Baertschi.
After a quick glance, it’s clear that the production and expected goal shares from Baertschi is unmatched by many of the players who made the team over him. Over the last two seasons, he put up the best numbers in each category out of the four players I listed above in all but one instance. Based on the numbers, it would be very tough to argue that Baertschi isn’t one of the 13 best forwards on this team.
Waiving Baertschi may have been done because the Canucks believe he isn’t one of the 13 best forwards on this team, but if that is what they believe, it would be interesting to know what they are seeing that we aren’t. By all statistical accounts, it seems that the numbers Virtanen, Schaller, Eriksson, and Motte have posted over the last two years provide much more reason to be sent down.
Reason #3: Health
Another possibility for the demotion is that coaches and management simply don’t think he’s ready for the pace and rigors of regular season play yet. This thought wasn’t discussed much, but it was out there and his injury history may have been factored into the decision.
For a player that battled concussion symptoms so much last year that it drove him to question his future in hockey, he sure looked up for the task in preseason gameplay, scoring two goals and two assists. That’s what makes this a bit of a tougher reason to be sold on, but if it is the case then conditioning time to gain more confidence may be what Benning and Co. feel is best for the recently healthy forward. Of all the possible reasons I’ve listed, this one would seem to be the most legitimate.
Are any of these reasons are good enough to justify waiving him?
No, not really.
In the end, there isn’t an argument solid enough to justify sending Baertschi down over the names mentioned in this article. The fact that Baertschi cleared waivers isn’t the point of contention because truthfully any of Schaller, Eriksson, and Motte would have very likely cleared waivers as well. Instead, the point of contention is that those three players were deemed to be more valuable to a team trying to make the playoffs. If that was due to an outdated view of how a team’s bottom-six should be constructed, or due to the team’s belief that Baertschi’s play has genuinely been worse than a handful of questionable names who made the team on opening night, it’s a bad omen for future roster decisions.