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Dispelling six myths about Sven Baertschi

Baertschi hasn't been given enough credit for how well he's played
Sven Baertschi looks troubled

First impressions are a funny thing: they can blind you to reality. Last night against the Flyers, Sven Baertschi made a great first impression, assisting on the Canucks’ opening goal just over a minute into the game. From then on, his performance seemed to be filtered through that initial nice play in the eyes of fans, at least the ones I saw on Twitter.

Baertschi made a couple nice plays throughout the rest of the game, including springing Hansen on a breakaway, but his overall game didn’t look as strong as in previous games and his line got stuck in the defensive zone for long stretches. Honestly, I thought it was his worst game of the season.

His coach seemed to notice, saying, “He’s just not in the groove.” With Chris Higgins returning from injury, it seems almost certain that Baertschi will be the odd man out. Despite that one weaker performance, he shouldn’t be. Baertschi has played well this season, but has somehow become the subject of a series of myths.

Here are six myths surrounding Sven Baertschi that just don’t make much sense.

1 | If he’s not producing points, he’s not contributing.

Jake Virtanen scored a beautiful goal last night, but still has just three points in the nine games he’s played. Still, no one questions whether he’s contributing to the team’s success. It’s immediately apparent what he contributes: massive, destructive hits. Just because he’s not scoring, doesn’t mean he’s not helping the team.

You can run down the list of Canucks and say what they contribute even when they’re not putting up points: Alex Burrows is an agitator and great defensively, Jannik Hansen has speed on the forecheck and a great two-way game, Brandon Sutter wins faceoffs and kills penalties, Derek Dorsett grinds and fights, etc.

So, what does Baertschi contribute? Possession.

Up until Monday’s game against the Flyers, Baertschi led the Canucks in corsi%, aka. shot attempt plus/minus*. Even after that rougher game possession-wise, Baertschi is still second, behind only Henrik Sedin.

As to why he hasn’t produced, a good portion of it is just bad luck. The Canucks’ shooting percentage with Baertschi on the ice at even-strength heading into Monday was 2.27%, the lowest on the team. Hansen’s first period goal bumped that up to 4.08%.

Now, you can choose to believe that’s Baertschi’s fault or you can accept that oftentimes those percentages are out of a player’s control and that if he continues to keep the puck in the offensive zone, the points will come.

2 | He has to be in the top six or he can’t be in the lineup.

This one might be true if the Canucks still structured their lines around an offensive-minded top six forward group, a shutdown third line, and a physically punishing fourth line. That kind of lineup is starting to look more and more old-fashioned throughout the NHL, however, and it’s certainly not the way the Canucks have put together their lineup.

The top line, with the Sedins, is obviously an elite offensive group, but they also control play with their possession game and keep the puck out of their own end of the ice. The Canucks second line against the Flyers was Burrows, Sutter, and Virtanen, which is sort of a scoring line since Burrows is second on the team in points and Virtanen isn’t exactly a shutdown guy, but Sutter is certainly much more of a defensive centre than an offensive presence.

Baertschi lined up with Bo Horvat and Hansen, both good two-way forwards, but certainly capable offensively. Meanwhile, the Canucks’ leading goalscorer, Jared McCann, is centring the fourth line.

When you’re committed to rolling four lines, why wouldn’t you want a possession-driving playmaker on your third or fourth line?

That’s ignoring, of course, that there’s very little reason Baertschi shouldn’t be playing in the top-six.

3 | He can’t win puck battles.

Not all myths are necessarily false, of course. This is one that’s at least partly true, though I would argue that Baertschi is better in puck battles than some might suggest.

This one is a myth because it just doesn’t matter that much. Yes, it would be great if Baertschi was better in this aspect of the game, because it’s a very important aspect, but it’s also not the only important aspect.

What Baertschi excels at is keeping the puck out of battles with his puckhandling and passing. That way, he gets the puck out of the defensive zone and into the offensive zone with control, a vital component of the game that gets overlooked for more noticeable, blue-collar contributions like forechecking, hitting, and grinding along the boards.

The same passing that people seemed to notice for the first time on Monday has been present all season, but has been combined with a stronger possession game. It just seemed to take a nice finish by Hansen to see it.

In any case, there’s a reason Baertschi has been so good at puck possession despite puck battles not being his forte.

4 | He only has good possession stats because he’s been sheltered.

Has Baertschi been sheltered? To a certain extent, yes. Only Jake Virtanen has started a higher percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone among Canucks forwards and only Adam Cracknell has faced weaker competition, as measured by corsi%.

While it’s true he’s been sheltered, that can’t explain Baertschi’s excellent possession statistics, especially when you consider he’s only had 5 more offensive zone starts than defensive zones tarts. Even being sheltered can’t account for just how good Baertschi’s underlying statistics have been; other players with similar usage around the league don’t have similar statistics.

It becomes even more clear when you use Stephen Burtch’s Delta Corsi (dCorsi) statistic, which takes into account a player’s usage. Baertschi is third on the Canucks’ in total dCorsi, behind only Chris Tanev and Henrik Sedin. When it comes to dCorsi per 60 minutes of ice time, Baertschi jumps to first on the team.

There are two ways we can go with this: either sheltering Baertschi is the right thing to do and the Canucks should lean into it, like Alain Vigneault with the Sedins during their Art Ross seasons, giving him as many offensive zone starts as possible, or, perhaps he doesn’t need to be sheltered anywhere near as much as he has so far this season.

Honestly, given how Jared McCann has struggled with puck possession and is still pretty raw defensively, I’d put him on a line with Baertschi and shelter the crap out of them. Matching a playmaker and sniper together? Might work. But that’s just me.

5 | He’s been given every opportunity.

I think there’s some residual animosity carried over from Linden Vey last season in this one. That’s the only way I can make sense of fans (and media) suggesting that Baertschi has been undeservedly gifted a golden opportunity and not made the most of it.

It’s a bit understandable: both were acquired by trading a second round pick and both basically had to make the team based on their waiver eligibility. But it’s not like Baertschi didn’t earn his way: he played very well in the preseason, scoring 5 points in 6 games, tied for the team-lead.

Also, he’s averaging exactly 11 minutes per game. That’s a far cry from being gifted ice time. Unlike Vey, who got a plumb spot on the first power play unit, Baertschi has played on the second power play unit for just over 12 minutes, 7th among Canuck forwards.

It’s not like Baertschi’s been gifted chance after chance, either. Instead, he’s frequently found himself stapled to the bench in the third period, watching while the Canucks give up leads and lose.

6 | He would clear waivers if sent to the AHL.

Tony Gallagher was banging this drum in the pre-game show last night, insisting that it would be easy for Baertschi to slip through waivers if he continued to “struggle” the way he has. I think I’ve shown pretty clearly that he hasn’t struggled as much as some might think, but let’s let that slide for a moment.

You never know with waivers, as good, useful players clear waivers all the time -- who can understand the thought process of NHL GMs? -- but it seems clear to me that there would be several teams perfectly willing to pick up the skilled 23-year-old winger.

Perhaps a team with a lot of injuries and a proclivity for skilled Europeans like the Detroit Red Wings or a team willing to take on reclamation projects like the Montreal Canadiens, who certainly are not averse to under-sized forwards.

Heck, the Maple Leafs, with their new analytics-based mindset and struggling offence would likely be up for taking a chance on Baertschi.

Remember, Baertschi’s making just $900,000 this season, so it’s not like he’d be difficult to fit under the salary cap. All it takes is just one of the other 29 teams in the NHL to see Baertschi’s potential.

Besides, there’s no need to send Baertschi, or anyone else, down to the AHL. Even with Higgins returning, the Canucks are still only at a 23-man roster. Sitting Baertschi in the press box when he’s been an effective player all season is silly enough; unnecessarily exposing him to waivers would be extraordinarily dumb.

 

*All statistics from war-on-ice.com