Canucks sign analytics-darling Patrick Wiercioch to one-year deal

Pass it to Bulis

Most of the Canucks moves on the opening day of free agency were completely foreseeable; reports and rumours were swirling throughout the week-long interview period leading up to July 1st. Well before free agency officially opened, Canucks fans knew that Anders Nilsson, Sam Gagner, and Michael Del Zotto were getting signed.

Nobody saw this one coming: the Canucks signed defenceman Patrick Wiercioch to a one-year, $650,000 deal. It's a league-minimum deal for the 26-year-old native of Burnaby, BC.

Wiercioch has long represented a battleground for analytics versus the eye test. In his years with Ottawa, he was a frequent healthy scratch, despite putting up some of the best possession numbers on the team.

In his six years with the Senators, Wiercioch’s corsi percentage was second only to Erik Karlsson’s: 52.9% to Karlsson’s 53.3%. By the numbers, Wiercioch should have been a regular, top-four defenceman. Instead, he was bounced in and out of the lineup.

Wiercioch signed with the Colorado Avalanche last season, which was probably the worst place for him to land. The Avalanche were an utter disaster last season and Wiercioch’s numbers crashed hard: he had the worst corsi percentage among Avalanche defencemen at 46.6%.

Was his season with the Avalanche an outlier? The Canucks are betting that it was, but they’re not betting much.

One question to ask is why is Wiercioch so polarizing? Why does he fail the eye test so thoroughly? My sense is that his 6’5”, 200+ lb size has something to do with it.

When you see a defenceman with Wiercioch’s size, you expect a certain type of player, but he doesn’t play a particularly physical game and he’s not necessarily the best at winning puck battles. When he does get the puck, however, he quickly and effectively moves it out of the defensive zone. And, once it’s in the offensive zone, he’s good at keeping it there.

The thing is, seeing a 6’5” defenceman play a finesse, puck-moving game likely raises the ire of old-school hockey people. It doesn’t help that he’s only an average skater, so he even triggers the eye test of those predisposed to dislike lumbering, stay-at-home defencemen. On top of that, he’s a puck-moving defenceman who doesn’t put up a ton of points.

And yet, up until last season, his underlying possession numbers suggested he should be at least a second-pairing defenceman.

In a vacuum, this is a superb signing, getting a potentially top-four defenceman on a league-minimum salary. If he performs poorly, it’s just a one-year deal and he could be easily stashed in the minors. If he finds his feet and performs well, he could either be traded at the deadline or re-signed for a couple years, as he’s still just 26.

But this deal wasn’t made in a vacuum. It came after the Canucks already signed Michael Del Zotto and so the Canucks blueline is starting to get quite crowded. It makes you wonder if the Canucks intend to make a trade.
 

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