Hockey is a subjective game. Shifts, games, and even series can all be viewed vastly differently depending on the eye of the beholder, and that’s not even getting into the whole eye-test versus analytics debate.
But sometimes, there’s still room for objectivity. Some hockey truths are too concrete to ignore. And that’s why we feel pretty confident stating that when Travis Green delivered the following remarks on his bottom-six forwards following Monday’s game four loss to St. Louis…
Green: They're playing fine. I'm not worried about our depth guys. They're fine. #Canucks
— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) August 18, 2020
…he was, objectively-speaking, wrong.
True, the Canucks have to be better across the board if they want to right the ship and regain their first-round lead over the Blues, but certain elements of the roster have more room for improvement than others.
And the team’s bottom-six forwards have been anything but “fine.”
Trying to score with half a roster
On the positive side of things, the Canucks’ bottom-six has remained consistent throughout all four games against the Blues, making their performance a lot simpler to analyze.
On the negative side of things, almost all of that analysis suggests that Green should have made some changes already.
In attempting to knock off the defending Cup champs, the Canucks are essentially trying to score with half a roster.
Since the series began, the bottom-six of Brandon Sutter, Antoine Roussel, Jake Virtanen, Tyler Motte, Jay Beagle, and Zack MacEwen have combined for a grand total of one assist, belonging to Roussel.
As a group, they’ve only generated 18 total shots, or an average of 4.5 per game.
And if you think we’re blueberry-picking from a limited sample size, think again. Even if you include the play-in series against Minnesota, the bottom-six only picks up an additional three points — two for Roussel, and one for Sutter.
In other words, the Canucks have a proverbial offensive blackhole on their roster. A full half of the forward corps is not producing at all, even in terms of unconverted scoring chances, and that’s allowed Craig Berube and the Blues to place even more emphasis on defending the top-six than they ordinarily would — something that was on full display during Game Four.
While this absolute dearth of production from a full half of the forward corps is no doubt a factor in Vancouver’s shifting fortunes, it’s probably not the be-all and end-all — after all, a team’s bottom-six is only meant to supply supplemental offence while focusing primarily on duties in their own end.
Well, we’ve got some bad news on that front, too.
Getting buried at even-strength
By whatever measure you choose to take, the Canucks’ bottom-six forwards are getting absolutely buried by the Blues at even-strength.
Consider the following set of 5v5 stat lines for the series thus far, courtesy of our friends over at NaturalStatTrick.
Yes, that’s five of the team’s current bottom-six players with corsi for percentages and expected goals For percentages under 40%. That means that, whenever the bottom-six is on, the ice is clearly slanted in St. Louis’ favour — and the results only get worse from there.
The bottom-six is also bleeding scoring chances like there’s no tomorrow.
To pick on Tyler Motte specifically, he’s got a scoring chance rate of 23.26% through four games. That means that, when he’s on the ice, the Blues are racking up more than three scoring chances for everyone the Canucks get.
Which might not be the biggest deal if Motte were being served limited minutes, but he’s not — through four games, Motte had skated more than 52 even-strength minutes, just five fewer than JT Miller.
And when you look at it like that, it’s starting to look like it might have been inevitable for the Canucks to fall behind in the series eventually.
Penalty kill, the saving grace
If anything about the bottom-six’s performance against the Blues thus far can be described as “fine,” it’s the penalty kill — but even that review comes with some caveats.
In this series, the Canucks have seen their PK% drop to a mere 75%, and they’ve given up an average of one powerplay goal against per game. It’s a rather unimpressive rate, and it’s also a dangerous one for a team, like the Canucks, who have issues with discipline and ill-timed penalties.
Speaking of which, it’s also important to note just how many of those penalties come from the bottom-six itself. Virtanen, MacEwen, and Beagle have each picked up two minor penalties in the series thus far. Roussel has picked up four, though two of them were coincidental. Despite playing fewer minutes, the bottom-six is being penalized at a much higher rate than the top-six.
If there really is a saving grace to be found, it’s that the Blues have been even worse in this regard. Through four games, they’ve got a PK% of just 66.7%.
So, as much room for improvement as the Canucks’ killers have, keep in mind that the Blues have even more.
The exception to the Roussel
We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that the exception to the rule of the bottom-six’s underperformance is definitely Antoine Roussel.
Throughout the playoffs, Roussel is the only member of the bottom-six to post positive possession and scoring chance numbers — and, against the Blues, his rates have actually been the best on the team, full-stop.
He’s also posted three points in eight games, a respectable pace, and been a consistent thorn in the side of both Minnesota and St. Louis.
All of which has led to calls for Roussel to be elevated into the top-six for Game Five, most likely on Bo Horvat’s right-wing.
Which might be good news for Roussel — but doesn’t do much to fix the bottom-six.
Instead, that may be up to the offensive wiles of Adam Gaudette, or the steadying presence of Loui Eriksson.
The cost is what kills you
With Vladimir Tarasenko on the sideline, the Blues dressed a bottom-six group of Zach Sanford, Robert Thomas, Sammy Blais, Mackenzie MacEachern, Jacob de la Rose, and Jordan Kyrou for Game Four.
Combined, that sextet has earned a total of four points in the series — better production than that of the Canucks’, but still nothing to write home about.
But it’s the cost that kills you.
For those six players, the Blues incurred a cap hit of just over $5.65 million in 2019/20. That’s an average of less than $1 million per player.
Contrast that with the salary cap structure of the Canucks.
For the sextet of Sutter, Roussel, Beagle, Virtanen, Motte, and MacEwen, the Canucks ate a cap hit of nearly $13.5 million. That’s more than double that of the Blues — heck, it’s almost triple.
And that, in and of itself, is anything but “fine.”
In fact, it’s fair to say that, at this point, the Canucks and their fans don’t just need more out of their bottom-six — they deserve more.
Let’s see if they get it in game five.