A Tale of Two Sbisas


It seems fair to say that so far this season, no Vancouver Canuck player has been such a universal conductor of criticism as Luca Sbisa, a high-event defenseman who draws ire his way more effectively than Manny Malhotra draws pucks in Defensive Zone faceoffs. (In fact, if the coaches were somehow able to convince Sbisa that the puck was a disc made not of rubber, but of pure media criticism, they could put him at center for every draw and solve the Canucks’ faceoff and defensive woes in one shot.)

In a way, it’s actually kind of beautiful, the way he’s managed to unite a fan-base whose opinion is usually fractured over everything. We can’t agree how we feel about Jannik Hansen, Brad Richardson, Ryan Miller, Zack Kassian, etc. but man oh man, do we all hate Luca Sbisa.

So of course, just to be a contrarian, I was going to write an article defending the good things Sbisa has been doing that have gone unnoticed. I was going to talk about his penalty kill prowess; about how in the first game of the year he was instrumental in killing off what could have been a disastrous 5 on 3; about how on the PK against the Blues, Sbisa made a play so good it even forced the generally curmudgeonly Jason Botchford to Tweet his approval. And finally, I was going to do some investigation into his underlying numbers to reveal a plethora of positive possession stats as an indicator that he was more than that guy who was good for one or two bone-headed turnovers (or pizza deliveries as Sbisa himself once hilariously, and now infamously called them).

But then that Colorado game happened. (I’m not going to link to it here, because I’m still trying to pretend it didn’t happen.)

On ice for 5 of 7 Avalanche goals, Sbisa delivered pizza after pizza until the final buzzer rang, putting to an end a tireless shift worthy of Panago Employee of the Month Status. Needless to say, I was deflated, and my article idea was shelved.

Flash-forward to Tuesday. It’s still hours until game time against the Hurricanes, and I’m in a much better mood. Buoyed by a victory against a strong Caps team, and distanced from the Avs game by time, data research and careful breathing exercises, I think I’m finally willing to do my due diligence to argue that while Luca Sbisa has nowhere proved himself to be a fully-good player, he’s not been all that bad, and has in fact given us enough good to be hopeful (or at least curious) for what the future has in store.

So, without further ado, here it is–my tepidly pro Sbisa defense:

1. His coach still trusts him.

Now, admittedly this argument is fairly light. It’s inherently subjective, and can be dismissed with a simple scoff and a righteous, “well what does he know?” However, I think we all agree that Willie Desjardins is a smart coach, with a good track record, and a keen eye for player development and relations. So far his tactics and strategies have been met with respect within the clubhouse and the general market around the Canucks. He’s a guy who knows what he’s doing, and day in and day out he sees more of these players than we do, and is more aware of what they are capable of when performing at their best.

After Sbisa’s black-hole game of doom vs. Colorado, when another coach could have sat him (Vigneault and Ballard, anyone?) Desjardins showed trust and confidence in him, by putting Sbisa back in, handing him the iron to even out his own wrinkles. He didn’t turn in the best game of his career against the Caps, but he did play a full 15 minutes of ice-time, and score the game winning goal, so I’d say that’s a step in the right direction.

2. He’s not the only one who’s been pretty bad.

This might seem like a weak defense, but overall, the Canucks’ season has been all about weak defense. (Heyo!)

But seriously, take a look at these numbers: (all stats in this article courtesy of www.war-on-ice.com)

Player A: Fenwick Rel%: -4.64 Fenwick For%: 48.90 Fenwick +/-: -5

Player B: Fenwick Rel%: -3 Fenwick For% 47.40 Fenwick +/-: -10

Now, to be clear, neither of those numbers are particularly good. However, they are comparably bad, which is why it might be shocking to some to know that Player A is Dan Hamhuis, while Player B is Luca Sbisa. Crazy, right? Of course, it’s important to realize that Hamhuis is playing more minutes, against tougher competition; however, with the way Desjardins rolls pairings out more evenly, the discrepancy between the two isn’t as drastic as it might be between other top-pairing and third-pairing defenders.

The point of this comparison isn’t to hate on Hamhuis, obviously–he’s a proven skilled top-end defenseman who we can safely assume will bounce back from a bout of shaky play. The point, though, is to show that if we can’t rely on Hamhuis  yet this year, we can’t reasonably rely on any of the data: fancy stat, or eye-test until we’ve seen more games. Likely a lot of Canucks’ defense problems are systemic: not because they’re playing a bad system, but because they’re adjusting. I think we’ve seen enough positive signs in Sbisa’s game to believe that we may not have seen his full upside yet, and that is encouraging. It also leads me to my final point:

3. The underlying numbers show that he hasn’t been as bad as we think.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. In that Colorado game his Fenwick For% was 10%. Now, I had to double check that number, because that’s so obscenely bad I’ve never seen anything like it. On the other hand, it’s so obscenely bad, I can’t help but feel like we will never see anything quite so bad again. I just don’t think players fall into a pit of despair as deep as that twice, without being a literal zombie. And besides, it’s not really fair to single out one player for being bad in that game, when the entire team was a special kind of awful, being dominated in chances to a final sad overture of 39% Fenwick For, even with massive score effects coming into play. Even Sbisa’s -5 on the night is a bit misleading: he only was on ice for 8 Fenwick attempts against, meaning 5 of those 8 managed to go in somehow. That’s some pretty colossal bad luck, even if the logical solution to that bad luck is, you know, creating chances going the other way.


If we eliminate that game, and only look at the previous games played, we realize that up until the game in St. Louis, Sbisa has actually been a positive possession player for the Canucks, while playing a solid amount of minutes for a third pairing defenseman. Included in this are the game against Calgary where he dominated 60% of Fenwick events in his favour, as well as the Dallas game, where he was actually one of the best players on the ice in terms of chance differential, posting a 71% Fenwick For% as well as a kind of absurd %24 Fenwick Rel%, meaning that the team generated chances 24% better when he was on the ice than off. In other words, of the two gross blowout games the Canucks have had so far, Sbisa is really only to blame for one. (Yay for minor positivity!)

Unfortunately, however, his last three games, against the Blues, Avs and Caps haven’t been nearly as positive, as he’s been a negative possession player in all three.

This is interesting, because it simultaneously suggests that a) Sbisa wasn’t as bad as he was being credited for earlier, b) He’s kind of getting to be that bad now, and c) What we’re really seeing is a lot of random variance in a small sample size, suggesting two contradictory things we both know to be somewhat true: Sbisa has the potential to be pretty good, and Sbisa has the potential to be very bad.

Given this information, it actually makes my first point make a lot of sense. Desjardins’ playing of Sbisa might brilliantly seem like ‘trust’ to the player himself, which will hopefully boost his confidence, but it also might be a case of Willie being smart enough to see more of what we have, before he makes any judgments. And overall, that’s what I suggest we as fans do as well. Because so far, while the overarching narrative of the season has been Sbisa’s poor play, to me he’s shown flashes of both brilliance and idiocy, and I’m willing to wait out at least 10 or so more games before we come to any crazy conclusions.