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Which Canucks perform the best against elite competition?

How did Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers actually play in a match-up role and do the Canucks have a shutdown forward line?
conor garland darryl dyck cp
Conor Garland celebrates a goal for the Vancouver Canucks.

Heading into last season, the Vancouver Canucks had an interesting quandary on defence. 

The team completely overhauled their defence in the offseason after bleeding shots against the year before. Gone were Alex Edler, Nate Schmit, and Jordie Benn — in were Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Tucker Poolman, and Luke Schenn.

While the defence looked significantly different, there was one major question — who would match up against the opponents’ top forwards? 

The answer, surprisingly, turned out to be two defencemen primarily known for their offence: Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers. Even more surprising, the pairing seemed to actually work. At least, defensively. Myers had the lowest points-per-game of his career and Ekman-Larsson had the lowest since his rookie season, but the two regularly matched up against tough competition and performed admirably.

With the Canucks seemingly returning next season with the exact same defence corps, however, I wanted to take a closer look at how Ekman-Larsson, Myers, and the rest of the Canucks actually performed when matched up against the best players in the NHL. 

Did Ekman-Larsson and Myers perform better or worse than average when up against elite competition? Did any Canucks defencemen perform better when facing elite players? What about the Canucks’ forwards — which ones fared best against the toughest competition?

To answer these questions, I will be using the “WoodMoney” version of Quality of Competition from Puck IQ, which uses a variety of metrics to sort NHL forwards into three categories: elite, middle, and “gritensity,” aka. the grinders and replacement-level players that populate fourth lines around the league. You can then measure how players performed against each level of competition.

By necessity, this involves “binning” the data, which is generally something you want to avoid as it means throwing out a lot of data, but in this case, it can’t be avoided. We want to see specifically how a player performed against elite competition, so we need to throw out all of the time when they didn’t face elite competition. We’re not looking for how good a player is overall but how well they perform in a specific role or situation.

The people behind the “WoodMoney” statistic put together an article about their methodology if you want to dig into the details. Otherwise, let’s get into it.

Canucks defencemen against elite competition

We’ll start with the defencemen. Here are all the Canucks’ defencemen who spent at least 100 minutes at 5-on-5 against elite competition by WoodMoney’s estimation.

Canucks defencemen vs elite

The above chart is coloured in comparison to league averages for defencemen against elite competition: gold means better than league average, white means average, and red means below average. All data is via

Here’s a quick glossary of terms:

  • TOI vs Elite - total ice time at 5-on-5 against elite competition
  • TOI% vs Elite - percentage of a player’s total 5-on-5 ice time spent against elite competition — this demonstrates how a coach used this player
  • CF/60 - corsi for per 60 minutes — the rate of shot attempts by the player’s team at 5-on-5
  • CA/60 - corsi against per 60 minutes — the rate of shot attempts by the opponent at 5-on-5
  • CF% - corsi for percentage — the ratio of shot attempts for to shot attempts against as a percentage
  • DF - dangerous fenwick — a measure of shot quality using unblocked shots, applied to the same rates and ratios as corsi
  • G - goals — y’know, goals, specifically goals for and against when a player is on the ice at 5-on-5
  • On-Ice Sh% - the shooting percentage of a player’s team when he is on the ice at 5-on-5
  • On-Ice Sv% - the save percentage of a player’s team when he is on the ice at 5-on-5

As an example of what a top-end performance against elite competition would look like, Charlie McAvoy stands out above the rest. McAvoy spent 40.7% of his ice time matched up against elite competition — the fourth highest among defencemen — and had the third-highest DFF% at 59.1%. 

McAvoy had the second-lowest DFA/60 among defencemen who played at least 100 minutes against elite competition at 5-on-5. When we look just at the 73 defencemen who played the most against elite competition — 400+ minutes — no one comes even close to McAvoy. His 33.87 DFA/60 is easily the best.

The chart is sorted by DFF% — dangerous fenwick for percentage. Generally speaking, however, I’m interested in the results as a whole, rather than one specific statistic.

For instance, Brad Hunt is at the top of the chart for DFF% and CF%, but that doesn’t mean he should have been used more against elite competition. His numbers are largely the result of an abnormally high shot rate for the Canucks when he was on the ice. 

Defensively, Hunt actually had the second-worst rate of dangerous shots against, which is likely why he was used the least against elite competition among all Canucks’ defencemen last season — just 18.35% of his ice time. Even if Hunt was somehow able to sustain that high shot rate for the Canucks, you can’t give up that many dangerous shots against while the opposition have their most dangerous players on the ice.

Kyle Burroughs was similarly sheltered from elite competition and fared worse offensively than Hunt and only slightly better defensively. He and Hunt, as well as Travis Hamonic, were the only Canucks’ defencemen on the ice for an above-average rate of goals against when facing elite competition.

So, there’s not much reason to believe that Hunt and Burroughs ought to have played more against elite competition — they likely would have just given up more dangerous scoring chances and goals over time.

The Canucks' match-up pair held their own but no more

Myers and Ekman-Larsson spent the highest percentage of their ice time against elite competition, which makes sense. The results in that ice time are interesting. 

In terms of shot attempts against — CA/60 — Myers and Ekman-Larsson are just slightly worse than league average. They’re right around league average in dangerous shots against — DFA/60. But in goals against, Myers and Ekman-Larsson are among the best in the NHL.

The question is, how much of that is due to Myers and Ekman-Larsson as a shutdown pairing and how much of that is the goaltending behind them? Against elite competition, Canucks goaltenders posted a .963 save percentage behind Ekman-Larsson at 5-on-5 and a .962 save percentage behind Myers. Those are exceptional numbers.

If the goals against are primarily a product of goaltending, then that raises some concerns for Myers and Ekman-Larsson as a shutdown pair. They managed league-average results against elite competition — don’t you want your shutdown pairing to be better than average?

The other concern is that they were below average offensively when facing elite competition. So, Myers and Ekman-Larsson were below average overall when facing elite competition but appeared to be well above average thanks to exceptional goaltending.

They’re also another year older and time could start to slow both of them down. Prior to last season, Myers and Ekman-Larsson didn’t have great defensive results — so, was last season an aberration or can they repeat their performance?

The trouble for the Canucks is that they don’t really have any other options. Poolman was the only Canucks’ defenceman who had a better than average DFA/60 against elite competition but he was worse offensively than Myers and Ekman-Larsson and it’s a question mark whether he’ll even play next season.  

Both Quinn Hughes and Luke Schenn had above-average corsi percentages against elite competition but both look worse once you take shot quality into account. Perhaps with another year under his belt (and a legitimate top-pairing partner), Hughes could play more of a match-up role, but there’s a lot of uncertainty there and it might hurt his ability to create offence.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a major concern. With Thatcher Demko in net, maybe the Canucks don’t need anything more than a league-average match-up pair, but goaltending can be unpredictable. 

At least Travis Hamonic is no longer on the Canucks’ blue line — his results against elite competition were utterly awful across the board last season.

Canucks forwards against elite competition

Next up, let’s look at the forwards to see who was used the most in a match-up role and who performed the best and worst against elite competition.

Canucks forwards vs elite

There’s a lot here, so let’s try not to get overwhelmed. Let’s start with what top-end performance looks like.

Among forwards who faced at least 100 minutes of elite competition at 5-on-5, Patrice Bergeron had the lowest rate of shot attempts against, with a CA/60 of 43.16. He also had the lowest rate of dangerous shots against, with a DFA/60 of 28.97. He also spent the 15th highest percentage of his ice time against elite competition. So, he not only faced elite competition a ton, but he was also very good at doing so. 

Bergeron is essentially the gold standard of this type of statistic. He’s the platonic ideal of a matchup, shutdown centre. 

While none of the Canucks’ forwards are going to meet that ideal, we’ll start with the players used most in a match-up role.

How did Miller and Horvat play in a match-up role?

J.T. Miller and Tanner Pearson lead the way in percentage of minutes against elite competition, followed closely by Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser. Also checking in at slightly above average usage against elite competition is, perhaps surprisingly, Nils Höglander.

How did those five players perform?

Defensively, Pearson fared best, hovering around league average defensively in both shot attempts against and dangerous shots against. Miller and Boeser were both around league average in shot attempts against but drop below average in dangerous shots.

Höglander and Horvat are interesting — both were below average in shot attempts against but improve to average in dangerous shots against. They gave up an above-average number of shots against but managed to limit the quality of those shots.

Where Horvat struggles the most, however, is in creating offence when matched up against elite competition. He can put up league-average results defensively, but his offensive numbers crater.

In shot attempts, Höglander and Boeser are nicely above average offensively but their numbers dip to just below average when looking at dangerous shots — too many shots from the outside against elite competition. Miller is slightly better — right around average in DFF/60. 

When we look at the players who were matched up against elite competition the most, goaltending once again helps them out a lot in goals against. In goals for, Miller and Pearson saw a league-average shooting percentage when they were on against elite competition, giving them a league-average rate of goals for, while Höglander, Boeser, and Horvat were all fairly unlucky in terms of finishing chances against elite competition.

Overall, none of the forwards matched up against elite competition did particularly well. Miller, Pearson, and Boeser largely played against elite competition because they were generally the top line and were matched up best-on-best. They would have lost that battle if not for elite goaltending behind them. 

It seems clear that Horvat is not a shutdown, match-up centre. At best, he can tread water defensively against elite competition, but it comes at the expense of his offensive game.

Do the Canucks have anyone else they can use in a match-up role?

Not the Motto Line, who are all gone

The players at the bottom of the chart are interesting. It’s the Motto Line of Tyler Motte, Juho Lammikko, and Matthew Highmore. They were occasionally used as a match-up line by Bruce Boudreau and, in terms of shot attempts and dangerous shots, they weren’t very good in that role.

Motte had the highest rate of shot attempts against on the Canucks when facing elite competition and the second-highest rate of dangerous shots against. Highmore is right there with him, except he produced even worse offensive results. 

Where they look great is in goals, with a well-above-average on-ice shooting percentage boosting their scoring rates against elite competition. That wasn’t sustainable but that brief period where that line was scoring goals was certainly fun.

The upshot is that it looks like the Canucks were right to let Lammikko and Highmore go to free agency. As much as fourth-liners may not be expected to play a match-up role, they’ll inevitably end up on the ice against elite players during the season. 

Should Pettersson be the Canucks' match-up centre?

At the top of the chart is where there might be some optimism for a match-up line. 

Conor Garland is not necessarily the player you think of as a match-up player — he’s 5’8” and known more for being a waterbug in the offensive zone than a checker — but he put up the best results on the Canucks against elite competition in terms of dangerous shots. He had the lowest DFA/60 at 44.99, which gave him the best DFF% on the team in combination with an average DFF/60.

Garland is a puck possession beast and, evidently, that’s true even when he’s playing against the best of the best in the NHL.

conor garland hockeyviz heatmap

Then there’s Vasily Podkolzin, who had the best CF% against elite competition on the team, which is impressive for the rookie winger. He also was second in DFF% behind Garland and, unlike Garland, saw the Canucks out-score elite competition when he was on the ice. 

Just behind Podkolzin is Elias Pettersson, who put up better results in terms of shot attempts and dangerous shots than Miller when facing elite competition, but the goals don’t reflect that because of a 5.49% on-ice shooting percentage for Pettersson. 

If that shooting percentage can be expected to rebound for Pettersson, then it seems like Pettersson should be centring the line that goes head-to-head with the best forwards on the opposing team rather than Miller. 

Pettersson could line up with Podkolzin in a match-up role with either Garland or Höglander on the other wing — both lines were quite good last season and Podkolzin, Pettersson, and Höglander were arguably the Canucks’ best line.  

It actually makes a lot of sense. Pettersson’s defensive game is underrated and Podkolzin was billed as a lesser version of Mark Stone, arguably the best two-way winger in the league. Add in a possession-driving winger like Höglander or Garland and it’s understandable that they would get good results, even against elite competition.

What about quality of teammates?

The biggest caveat to the WoodMoney quality of competition statistic is that it doesn’t take into account quality of teammates. I’ve spoken to Micah Blake McCurdy, the PhD of Mathematics behind the analytics site HockeyViz, about this issue of quality of competition before.

“You shouldn't ever be allowed to talk about a guy's competition without making a quantitative comparison to his teammates,” said McCurdy. “I don't think you can say anything fairly unless you observe that rule of thumb.”

“Shift by shift, [Quality of Competition] is very meaningful; it's the aggregate patterns that average out,” he added. “Coaches are much more consistent with their lines than with their matchups, partly by necessity. Your linemates are all from one team (basically, not counting trades) and your opponents are from 30.”

For example, Charlie McAvoy and Patrice Bergeron were at the top of the defencemen and forwards who played against elite competition according to WoodMoney, but they’re also teammates on the Boston Bruins. 

Bergeron and McAvoy spent 529:24 in ice time together at 5-on-5, which is the second-most time Bergeron spent with any teammate behind only Brad Marchand. They were likely deployed together against elite competition as often as former head coach Bruce Cassidy could get them out there.

So, that raises the question of how much of their results was their individual prowess against elite competition and how much of it was a combination of their strengths. Would McAvoy have put up elite numbers against elite competition if he didn’t spend so much time with Bergeron?

To put it in the Canucks’ context, would the Canucks’ forwards have better results against elite combination with a better shutdown pairing on defence? Alternatively, would the defencemen have performed better with stronger two-way forwards?

The Canucks' new forwards against elite competition

The Canucks haven’t made changes on defence this offseason, but they have added some forwards that could help improve their overall results. While it’s tough to say how they’ll perform next season with the Canucks, we can look at how they played against elite competition last season.

Canucks new forwards vs elite

The one new forward missing from this is Andrei Kuzmenko, who played in the KHL last season. He’s a real wild card for the Canucks — if he can quickly adapt to the NHL and provide some scoring, it changes things a lot for how they can put together their lines. That said, I don’t know that anyone is expecting Kuzmenko to immediately play a match-up role against elite competition.

Ilya Mikheyev and Curtis Lazar played a decent amount against elite competition last season and put up very strong results, particularly when it comes to dangerous shots against. Lazar, in particular, lands 15th in DFA/60 amongst all forwards with at least 100 minutes played against elite competition at 5-on-5.

Those are encouraging numbers for Mikheyev and Lazar — these are players that are comfortable playing against the best forwards in the league and have put up strong results when they have done so. 

It’s hard to say how much of their results was because of their teammates and how they will perform on a new teams but statistics that attempt to parse our individual performance, such as Evolving Hockey’s RAPM, paint a picture of two very strong defensive forwards — the two right columns on the below charts show that Lazar and Mikheyev are significantly better than the league average in expected goals against and shot attempts against at 5-on-5.

lazar vs mikheyev rapm chart

There’s a lot more uncertainty surrounding Dakota Joshua, who put up strong underlying numbers for the St. Louis Blues but was largely sheltered from playing against elite competition. 

The Canucks believe Joshua can play a larger role for them in the coming season but it’s tough to say from last season’s small sample how he’ll perform if he faces elite competition with more regularity. 

While it's unclear how Joshua will perform, Lazar seems like a clear upgrade on the fourth line from the likes of Lammikko and Highmore. Mikheyev could be a good fit as the third forward with Pettersson and Podkolzin on a line that matches up against the best players in the NHL. 

The Canucks' forwards, at least, appear better equipped to face elite competition next season.

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