Vancouver Canucks: using K values to describe the team’s style of play

VANCOUVER, BC - DECEMBER 17: Head coach Travis Green of the Vancouver Canucks looks on from the bench during their NHL game against the Calgary Flames at Rogers Arena December 17, 2017 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Calgary won 6-1. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BC - DECEMBER 17: Head coach Travis Green of the Vancouver Canucks looks on from the bench during their NHL game against the Calgary Flames at Rogers Arena December 17, 2017 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Calgary won 6-1. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Canucks continue to struggle with offence this season. There is a slight improvement with Brock Boeser in the lineup, but it is still not good enough. I will use a different area of analytics to explain the reason this is happening.

It’s no secret that the Vancouver Canucks have been struggling with offence for the last few years. That tends to happen with consecutive bottom three finishes, with a third one likely at the conclusion of this season.

Vancouver is on pace for 220 goals this season, a potential 42 goal increase on last year’s dismal effort. However, that total would only be good enough for 18th in the NHL last season and this year has seen a higher rate of goal scoring compared to last year. Even if the Canucks reach that total, who knows where they will stand with the rest of the teams in the league.

Currently, the Vancouver Canucks are ranked 24th in goals for with 98. Corsica tells us, that only 56 of those goals were scored at even strength (5-on-5), which is the fifth lowest total in the NHL. Since teams have played different numbers of games, using rate statistics can take out this difference.

The Canucks’ 2.65 goals for per game is 29th. To take it a step further, we can factor for all the additional time NHL teams have played beyond regulation by taking their even strength goal rates per 60 minutes. As with their ranking for even strength goals, their production per 60 minutes is also the fifth worst in the league.

Introducing K values to describe goal scoring

We are just scratching the surface and this already doesn’t sound good. The Canucks may be a better team than last year on paper, but are producing marginally better results when you look at the standings.

There is an area of analytics that has intrigued me for a while. The K value model means to look at the regression of a team’s goal-scoring ability and takes a variety of factors into account to determine a rating.

If you are interested in learning about how this model was created and further details of how it works, Emmanuel Perry gives a great introduction to this concept. To elaborate on this, I want to provide an important quote from his piece:

"Additionally, this yields a component-based product that mustn’t necessarily be summarized in a single number. Ratings are given by an agent’s influence on each of these processes by acting as a variable in the regressions. Agents may be teams, skaters, goaltenders […] exerting an influence on these processes."

Essentially, K values will look at the shot rates generated for and against, the quality of shots going each way, penalties drawn/taken and important contextual points during a play. I can already see some of your eyes glossing over the sea of numbers. Don’t worry, there are only a few numbers I will present to you. Then, we can switch gears to take a more visual and qualitative approach over the usual quantitative one.

According to Corsica’s K rating model, the Vancouver Canucks have a rating of -5.28, sixth worst in the NHL. The idea with K values is that you want the largest positive value. For comparison’s sake, the Tampa Bay Lightning are currently the best team in the NHL. They have a K rating of 31.33. As you can see, the Canucks have a mountain to climb to play with the elite.

Visualizing the team’s style of play

We are going to see a few graphs in this section, so I would like to take the time to let you know where I got these visual aides. Sean Tierney has done an impeccable job compiling much of this data from Corsica into a easily understood visual representation. If you are not following him on Twitter, I do recommend you check out his work.

From the graph, we can see the Canucks are teetering on the border between being a defence-first squad and just being plain bad. Their defensive K value neither helps nor hurts them notably in terms of even strength goal production. What is really interesting is seeing how much of a negative impact their offensive K value has on scoring.

We get a general idea that scoring woes are present and have isolated to the team’s offensive structure. I am not saying that the defensive play, especially as of late, has had no effect. However, we are seeing that the Canucks’ offence is a significant negative impact on scoring goals.

Details within the graphs

It is harder to see, so I recommend you visit his hockey viz to get a better look at what I am talking about. One thing you can’t see on the static image is the minute effect from quality chances for and against. The Canucks allow slightly more quality shots than they produce, which can hurt their goal production down the line.

For your curiosity, the team’s lower rates of all shot types against does aid in scoring goals (as small as the effect is). With that all in mind, let’s focus on the two biggest bars on the Canucks’ K chart.

First, let’s look at the shorter blue bar on the right with a “PD” label. This represents penalties drawn and is tied to the reliance on the power play to generate offence. As poor as the Canucks have been in terms of even strength shot generation and goal production, their power play has been one of the brightest spots at this point of the season.

Despite injuries to our key offensive players, the Canucks currently have the 9th best power play in the NHL. Even strength goals have been hard to come by, but there has been an increase in power play goals. In fact, the Canucks have the fifth most power play goals with 28.

The crux of the team’s offensive woes may seem simple on first appearance, but is complicated enough to require its own section down below.

The biggest problem on offence

Do you see that red bar on the Canucks portion of the graph? This is by far the largest bar for the team and is the main reason why the Canucks have such a negative K value.

More from The Canuck Way

Their even strength rates for are the worst in the league. Minnesota is close, but the Canucks are not generating enough shots and goals at even strength. I am beating you over the head with this fact because those metrics at 5-on-5 are the key for long term success.

It’s simple to say the Canucks just need to outscore the opposition, but we need to analyze why. And for the last time, it is not because of injuries. Don’t get me wrong, the injuries certainly don’t help. However, there is a more fundamental issue at work.

Earlier, I showed a graph where the Canucks are almost a defence-first team. This was the strategy issued by Travis Green when he began the season. He was forced to do this, as was Willie Desjardins before him because there is a distinct difference in talent between the Vancouver Canucks and the elite teams of the NHL.

Brock Boeser is a great talent to have, but one incredible player doesn’t make a team. A collective pool of talent is required and the Canucks have not had that since 2011. Look at our even strength goal production.

Expectations for this team are not high on this graph. With an xGF% less than 50, it is expected that the opposition will score more goals than the Canucks. When comparing that to the team’s actual GF% on the season, they meet those low expectations. The roster is shallow and everyone should have known that things weren’t going to last after 15 games on a soft schedule. Here are the shot rates produced by the Canucks.

Can you spot the Canucks? They are hiding behind the Sabres logo and it looks like their team defence is no longer enough to cover for their lack of offensive power. This is supported by the K values and honestly, we are witnessing it on the ice. Things are not trending well, regardless of who is on the ice.

Being truly competitive

When people warn you after 15 games that the Canucks aren’t playing sustainable hockey, maybe listen to them next time. From the first game on, this team was going to need every single thing to go right for them to make the playoffs. This included an injury-free year, which was next to impossible if you have been watching the Canucks for more than half a season.

All of the underlying analytics showed that this team was going to be in trouble down the line. Our best players had sub-50% metrics and would need to rely on high shooting percentages for sustained success. When our goaltending regressed as expected, the team fell hard.

The Vancouver Canucks have the sixth worst Corsi For percentage and the sixth worst shot rate per 60 minutes. When looking at the number of goals scored and shots taken per game, the team has been bottom ten in the NHL for the last three years. None of this is a recipe for success. It’s a flimsy house of cards that depends so much on luck, which is something this franchise can’t depend upon.

We are going to see defence-first hockey until the next wave of talent hits this team. I hope they all succeed, because there is a lot of faith riding on players that have proved nothing in the NHL at this point. Our defence needs an overhaul and we only have one game-breaker in our forward group. As fans, we need to demand more from the people running this team.

Next: 3 Christmas wishes we have for 2018

The last two years should be clear lessons. In the modern NHL, you have to find skilled players with talent. Things like size, character and physicality should just be bonuses to a player, not their primary attributes. It should reinforce the lesson that no team makes the playoffs in the first month of the season. Those 82 games are a tough grind. Regular season games are a war of attrition. But those games are the easy part. The real grind, the competitive one, starts in April.