For the first time in franchise history, the Canucks are sitting on top of the National Hockey League. They are prohibitive favorites to win their first Presidents' Trophy as regular-season champions and will enter the playoffs as one of the favorites in a crowded Western Conference field. They are first in the NHL in goal differential, first in goals for and third in goals against.
Vancouver has won its division and finished with 100-plus points in four of its past five seasons, but it seems to have taken it to the next level this year. What's been the secret ingredient?
The main factors in the Canucks' success have been using players in the roles they're best suited for, smart hole-plugging and wise management of the salary cap. Let's start with the role issue.
Their deep group of forwards is where the Canucks most obviously excel. Vancoucer has the league's reigning MVP, Henrik Sedin, but it's arguable if he's even the real No. 1 center on the team; the go-to guy on the Canucks roster is Ryan Kesler. The league's top centers -- players like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Pavel Datsyuk, Anze Kopitar and Steven Stamkos -- are expected to play at both ends of the ice, face the opposition's top line, win faceoffs and key the team's offense. With the exception of driving the offense, these are all roles that are filled more effectively by Kesler than Sedin. Kesler has even averaged more ice time than Henrik. While Daniel Sedin is likely to garner more Hart Trophy votes because of his point totals, the real engine of Vancouver's team is an American.
On many teams, the best players are expected to do every job, but the Canucks have such a wealth of talent at forward, especially at the center position, that they can have specialized lines. The Sedin-Sedin-Alex Burrows line is used in a purely offensive role, with a zone start ratio of 70 percent, which means that this trio takes 70 percent of all non-neutral zone draws in their offensive end. Meanwhile, the line of Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen does the defensive work. Malhotra, in particular, has a zone start ratio of 24 percent, meaning he starts three times as often in his own end as in the opponents'. This has pushed Kesler and the Sedins up the depth chart, allowing them to make better use of their offensive talents. No other team uses players in such extreme offensive and defensive roles as Vancouver does:
Most faceoffs for top 10 NHL teams
The above chart shows for each of the top 10 teams in the NHL, the player who has been on the ice for most excess offensive zone faceoffs or defensive ones. The Y axis shows how many more offensive (positive values) or defensive faceoffs (negative values) players have been on the ice for relative to their team average. Only Dave Bolland comes close to Malhotra as a purely defensive center, and his presence liberates the Chicago Blackhawks' offensive talents, especially Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, the same way Malhotra and Kesler do for the Sedins. This is why Malhotra's injury is a bigger blow to the Canucks than it appears: While he doesn't put up many points, his great defensive play frees up other players to score.
Vancouver has built a quality blue line, with no Norris Trophy candidates but a huge amount of depth. The Canucks have five "top four" defensemen: Alexander Edler, Christian Ehrhoff, Sami Salo, Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa, plus Keith Ballard, who was a top-four defenseman with Florida. This has made them injury-resistant, as Salo has missed most of the season, Hamhuis has missed time, Bieksa is currently out with a broken foot and Edler is recovering from back surgery. Finally, in Roberto Luongo, the Canucks have one of the few consistently elite goaltenders in the NHL. In the five years since Luongo's arrival in Vancouver, the Canucks have won four division titles (including this season's) and averaged 23 fewer goals against than the league average.
One of the reasons for this success is that many of Vancouver's top players are signed for below market value. Kesler and the Sedins are world-class players, yet none cracks the top 30 in NHL cap hits. Burrows and Mason Raymond, at $2 million and $2.5 million, respectively, are incredible bargains given their ice time, roles and results. This intelligent management of the salary cap has allowed the Canucks to take advantage of opportunities when they have arisen. Ehrhoff was stolen from San Jose prior to the 2009-10 season in what was effectively a salary dump after the Sharks acquired Dany Heatley (he leads the Canucks in total ice time this season), Malhotra and Torres have been inspired free-agent signings and Hamhuis was signed for a reasonable price in the summer because of his desire to return to his native British Columbia. This has allowed the Canucks to overspend somewhat on their defensemen, which has served them well through their current rash of injuries.
The Vancouver model should be used as an example for coaches and GMs throughout the league. The main lessons are: draft and develop homegrown talent, only pay top-line prices for top-line talent, use players in the roles they are best suited for and maintain cap flexibility as long as you can. Whether this model will translate to a Stanley Cup is the lesson yet to be learned.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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