2018-19 Canucks will depend on youth for offence; is it too much to ask?

Pass it to Bulis

The free agents have been signed and the dog days of summer have begun for hockey fans. There’s little left to do but look back at the season that was and looking forward to the season that will be.

As you glance back and forth between the future and the past, you might ask yourself the same question that Canucks fans have been asking for several years: who’s going to score goals?

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The Sedins have moved on to a more relaxing life of running grueling cross-country races, and the Canucks chose not to sign any offensively-inclined players in free agency, so the Canucks have little choice but to pass the baton to their youth. Sure, there’s the little issue of a lack of spots in the lineup available for youth, but the signing of Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, and Tim Schaller in free agency sent a pretty clear message: they would handle the defensive stuff, so the kids could provide the offence.

Jim Benning said as much to The Athletic.

“They’re skill guys,” Benning told The Athletic earlier this week. “They’ve got to be put in skill positions. We wanted to make sure the rest of our lineup was stable, that they had the support from a penalty-killing standpoint, from a matchup standpoint where [head coach Travis Green] could play these players in roles that they can be successful in.”

We’ll see how that plays out within the season. Last season, Travis Green frequently gave the veterans that he saw as more reliable more minutes than the Canucks’ skilled young players. It will quickly become a talking point if Jay Beagle starts getting more minutes than Elias Pettersson, but we’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it.

For now, let’s assume that the stated goal of giving the Canucks’ youth a little more rein offensively will actually occur. What can we expect from the young players on the Canucks in terms of goal-scoring next season?

Ah yes, it’s the return of a fan favourite: Reasonable Expectations™.

As always when we try to make predictions about the future, let’s remember the wise words of the author of Ecclesiastes: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

In other words, we legitimately have no idea how each individual player on the Canucks will perform. Brock Boeser could erupt and score 50 goals or he could suffer a sophomore slump and score 10. Jake Virtanen could blossom into a top-six power forward and pop in 25 goals or forget how to drive to the net and score 5.

With that in mind, let’s run some numbers!

Let’s start by looking at the Canucks’ youth. I’m going to use 25-year-old Sven Baertschi as the youth cut-off, because he still seems to be considered one of the “young guys.” That means Markus Granlund, who is a few months younger than Baertschi, is officially young, but 27-year-old Erik Gudbranson and 28-year-old Tim Schaller are officially old.

I looked at the Canucks’ youth and their shots and shooting percentage from last season. Then I adjusted their shooting percentage according to their career shooting percentage and the league average for their position, using a method that I won’t share because all the hockey analytics guys will laugh at me.

Even if my method was a little ramshackle and roughshod, it still gave me a pretty reasonable baseline expectation for each player’s shooting percentage for next season. From there I made the assumption that each player would take the same number of shots per game and projected their goal totals over an 82-game season.

For the prospects, I didn’t do any of that. I just took their goals per game from last season and applied the NHL Equivalency numbers from Emmanuel Perry for their respective leagues.

Player Projected Goals per 82 Games
Brock Boeser 34.09
Elias Pettersson 30.81
Bo Horvat 25.19
Sven Baertschi 18.02
Nikolay Goldobin 15.72
Markus Granlund 15.29
Jonathan Dahlen 13.18
Jake Virtanen 12.17
Adam Gaudette 11.01
Brendan Gaunce 8.80
Brendan Leipsic 7.84
Olli Juolevi 7.08
Derrick Pouliot 3.61
Ben Hutton 3.24
Troy Stecher 3.07
Quinn Hughes 1.88

There’s a big assumption here, of course, that each of these players will play 82 games. They obviously won’t, both because of injuries and because there’s no room in the lineup for all of them.

Still, we get some interesting numbers.

34 goals seems like a conservative projection for Brock Boeser based on him scoring 29 goals in just 62 games last season. I regressed his shooting percentage towards the league average a little bit, using a method that in no way resembles actual regression analysis by actual statisticians. That produced an estimated shooting percentage of 14.4% — still higher than Alex Ovechkin’s last season, but lower than his 16.2% from his rookie year.

Pencilling Elias Pettersson in for 30+ goals, on the other hand, is far less conservative. His historic production in the SHL last season combined with the strength of the SHL relative to the NHL leads to that optimistic projection.

Apart from Pettersson’s projection, nothing seems too outrageous here. 15 goals might seem a little bullish for Markus Granlund, but he did have a career low in shooting percentage last season, so a bounce back doesn’t seem too crazy.

If Sven Baertschi plays a full season, it would be easy to see him match his career high of 18 goals. If he gets on the first power play unit in the absence of the Sedins, he might even exceed that.

15-16 goals for Nikolay Goldobin in a full season seems pretty reasonable as well, particularly when you look at how similar players have performed in the past. The only question is whether he’ll actually play a full season.

That’s the main issue. The Canucks’ roster has a bevy of veterans, some of whom could take top-six ice time away from younger players. Let’s look at how my layman’s projection method treats each of them.

Player Projected Goals per 82 Games
Loui Eriksson 18.75
Sam Gagner 15.95
Brandon Sutter 15.01
Tim Schaller 12.39
Alex Edler 9.22
Antoine Roussel 9.02
Jay Beagle 7.02
Michael Del Zotto 6.86
Alex Biega 3.72
Chris Tanev 3.65
Erik Gudbranson 3.30

Loui Eriksson, Sam Gagner, Brandon Sutter, and Antoine Roussel all had below average seasons in terms of shooting percentage last season. Assuming a better shooting percentage for each of them gives us 19 goals for Eriksson, 16 goals for Gagner, 15 goals for Sutter, and 9 for Roussel.

Remember that this is over 82 games. Sutter has averaged 54 games per year over his three seasons with the Canucks, so perhaps a more reasonable projection would be 10 goals over 54 games.

On defence, there isn’t a lot of positivity, even with an overly optimistic projection of 9+ goals for Edler, a total he hasn’t reached since 2012. The Canucks didn’t get much goal-scoring from their defence last season and with the same defence corps returning, it’s hard to imagine them getting much next season either.

So, that’s the individual players; what about the team?

To project goal totals for the team, we’ll need to project a lineup. This is, of course, where arguments get started and friendships ended. I’m simply going to use the lineup that makes the most sense to me based on how the Canucks have constructed their roster.

Sven Baertschi - Bo Horvat - Brock Boeser
Loui Eriksson - Elias Pettersson - Sam Gagner
Antoine Roussel - Brandon Sutter - Jake Virtanen
Tim Schaller - Jay Beagle - Markus Granlund

Alex Edler - Troy Stecher
Michael Del Zotto - Chris Tanev
Derrick Pouliot - Erik Gudbranson

There’s a little bit of youth in the top-six and you could quibble with including Eriksson and Gagner on the second line, but I have a suspicion they’ll put Eriksson with Pettersson to add some defensive responsibility and I’m really not sure where Gagner fits on this lineup if he’s not there to play a little centre and ease Pettersson into the position.

I’m also going to be exceedingly optimistic about the Canucks’ ability to stay healthy and just use the goal totals for 82 games. Essentially, this projection imagines that either this Canucks roster stays perfectly healthy all season or that those who come in to replace injured players score at the same rate as the players they’re replacing.

It has the added benefit of being the easiest possible method.

Here’s the upside: that lineup, over 82 games, is projected to score 243 goals. That’s not bad! It could be a lot worse and, in fact, has been a lot worse over the last three seasons.

243 goals would put the Canucks right in the middle of the NHL last season, tied with the New Jersey Devils for 15th in the league. So, while 243 goals would be a big improvement from last season’s 218 goals, it would still only be around league-average.

If you would like to view this as positively as possible, that was enough for the Devils to make the playoffs and 31 goals would put Elias Pettersson in a position to potentially win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. In addition, if some of the veterans get injured, the Canucks have some young players who could be double-digit goal-scorers ready to jump into the lineup.

If you feel like being a bit more pessimistic, recognize just how optimistic these projections truly are. The truth is that if Boeser and/or Horvat get injured, the Canucks can’t replace them. Pettersson scoring 31 on a non-Sedin Canucks team seems too optimistic. There still isn’t anyone on defence who can score.

Worst of all, the Canucks might not have some of those young players to step into the lineup or replace injured veterans. Goldobin and Leipsic are both waiver-eligible and one or both could be gone before the season starts.

“If I can’t move them, we’ll have to waive them and send them down,” said Benning to The Athletic. “I guess that’s the worst-case scenario. Of course I’d try to move them first. And if I could recapture a draft pick or something, I’d look to do that. If I couldn’t, we’d waive them and send them down.”

It might not seem ideal to announce to the hockey world that players on the Canucks’ trading block will soon be available for free on waivers, but it’s not like other general managers are unaware of the Canucks’ situation with their veterans and prospects. Benning has always been a little too open and honest for his own good; some might even see that as a positive.

Even with all those things considered, it might soothe some nerves to know it’s not unreasonable to think that the Canucks can score more goals next season even without the Sedins. That in itself is a reason for rose-coloured glasses.



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