It’s awfully difficult to ignore six million dollars. If you or I found six million dollars on the side of the road, we’d probably pull over and at least take a look. If six million dollars showed up in your chequing account, you would probably head straight to the bank while double-checking your balance on your phone every five minutes.
For the moment, however, I want you to ignore the six million dollar cap hit attached to Loui Eriksson. It’s a difficult task, I know, but I want you to try, because that’s what Canucks’ head coach Travis Green does every day.
Green doesn’t care that Eriksson is the highest paid player on the Canucks. When he looks down his bench, there’s just one thing on his mind: will this player help the team win.
It’s clear that Green believes Eriksson does the little things that help a team win hockey games, to the point that “Little Things” has become a derisive nickname for Eriksson. As far as I can tell, however, Green never directly said the phrase “little things” in reference to Eriksson.
“I thought he was playing good with Pettersson,” said Green before Saturday’s game against the Bruins. “He was good defensively and does some subtle things that people don’t notice — nor does he get recognition for – and I’m not worried about Eriksson, I can tell you that.”
“Subtle Things” doesn’t have the nice alliteration with “Loui,” however, so it’s understandable that people ran with “Little Things” instead.
After the game, Green was even more effusive in his praise, despite the box score showing zeroes across the board for Eriksson.
“I thought this was Loui’s best game this year,” said Green, mainly becaue of who he played against. Along with Brandon Sutter and Antoine Roussel, Eriksson was hard-matched against one of the best lines in the NHL — Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak — and held them off the scoreboard.
In fact, the Canucks out-shot the Bruins 6-4 when Eriksson was on the ice against the Bergeron line, and they held that line to just one high-difficulty scoring chance, as measured by Natural Stat Trick.
A coach like Green loves players like Eriksson, because they execute on the details and minimize mistakes. It’s a hoary cliché that hockey is a game of mistakes, but it’s also largely true. The best scoring chances occur because someone made a mistake, so the team that makes the fewest mistakes generally wins.
Sometimes those mistakes are big and noticeable: a defenceman tries to force a pass up the middle and gives the puck away to an opponent in the slot; a forward takes his eye off his check, who slips in behind him for a backdoor pass; a defenceman makes a poorly-timed pinch in the offensive zone, leading to an odd-man rush the other way.
Sometimes, however, the mistakes are harder to notice: we might blame a defenceman for a turnover, when the fault lied more with a forward who wasn’t in the right position on the breakout. A forward might have had to leave his check open for a backdoor pass because he had to cover for a defenceman who left a man open in the slot. A defenceman frequently will get blamed for a bad pinch, but where was the forward who was supposed to rotate up to the point when the defenceman moved down the boards?
Green has repeatedly stressed the details to his team and to the media. During one practice last season, he yelled at the players, “Details: they ****ing matter!”
“There’s details in faceoffs. There’s details in O-zone structure. The whole structure of your game, there’s details within it,” said Green after that practice. “And each part helps another. If you miss an assignment on a faceoff in your own zone when you win a draw, instead of getting a nice offensive chance in the other zone because you break the puck out clean, you spend the whole shift in your own zone. That affects your offence, that detail.”
That’s where Eriksson shines: he executes on the subtle details that don’t get noticed by anyone other than the coaching staff. Harman Dayal broke down one of those details over at The Athletic, noting how Eriksson is excellent at providing deep support for the defence on breakouts.
You can see exactly that on Elias Pettersson’s first NHL goal. Eriksson swept down low to provide a passing option as Derrick Pouliot and Chris Tanev retrieved the puck. When Tanev rung it around the boards instead, Eriksson was in perfect position to pick up the puck and move it up to Pettersson.
Later in that same game, Eriksson picked up a second assist with a long shot from the point that was blocked. Pettersson found the puck and fed Nikolay Goldobin for the goal. The reason Eriksson was at the point, however, was that he was covering for Erik Gudbranson, who had jumped up in the play for a shot a few seconds earlier.
On Pettersson’s second career goal, Eriksson was a big reason why the Canucks had long puck possession in the offensive zone before he scored. In the clip below, Eriksson first presented himself as a passing option for Goldobin, giving him more room to shoot, because Dalton Prout was unable to play Goldobin aggressively.
Then Eriksson got to the puck first on two occasions, keeping the puck moving before Goldobin finally set up Pettersson in the slot.
On Pettersson’s fourth even-strength point this season, a tip-in goal against the Lightning, Eriksson once again provided those subtle things that help you win.
First, he was in the right position along the boards for the breakout, protects the puck, then safely hoists the puck out of the defensive zone. A pass with possession would have been better, but Eriksson wanted to avoid making a mistake by turning the puck over. Pettersson and Goldobin then created a scoring chance, after which Eriksson made a beeline for the front of the net.
When Pettersson tipped the puck in, there was Eriksson in front of the net, providing a fantastic screen that gave Andrei Vasilevskiy no chance to see the puck.
Those are just a few of those subtleties that led directly to a goal, but Green wants players to execute on those details on every shift. Eriksson, for the most part, does exactly that. He’s in the right place at the right time on breakouts, he rotates to cover the point when a defenceman pinches, wins battles for loose pucks, and positions himself well defensively.
Ideally, a player would do all of those subtle things and also show up in the box score with goals, assists, shots, and hits, particularly if he is the highest-paid player on your team.
Yes, you can stop ignoring that six million dollars now.
Loui Eriksson was signed to a six-year contract worth $6 million per year to do more than just the “subtle things.” When Jim Benning signed him in 2016, he described Eriksson as “an elite scorer and playmaker.” Eriksson was coming off a 30-goal, 63-point season with the Boston Bruins, and it was hoped he could do the same with the Canucks.
So far, through 124 games with the Canucks, Eriksson has 21 goals and 50 points.
That’s not good enough.
Perhaps Pettersson would not have been as effective at even-strength this season without Eriksson executing on those subtle things — he’s been involved on all four of Pettersson’s even-strength points — but for six million dollars you expect more than a complementary player. You expect someone that can do those subtle things and also help drive the offence with his scoring and playmaking ability. Eriksson has not provided that.
There’s an argument, then, that Eriksson should not be in the top-six forward group and probably shouldn’t be on the second power play unit either. You can’t make an argument, however, that Eriksson doesn’t belong in the lineup at all.
If you peruse social media, you would think that Eriksson is the worst player on the team, with calls for the Canucks to cut their losses and, at the very least, make him a healthy scratch, if not waive him and send him down to the AHL. For those fans, Green saying that Eriksson’s “best game this year” was one where he didn’t even have a single shot attempt is laughable.
That’s because they’re looking for different things out of Eriksson. Green doesn’t see Eriksson’s salary or cap hit; he sees a player that executes the subtle details that Green wants from all of his players. When Green says that Eriksson is the least of his concerns, he’s not lying or twisting the truth: he doesn’t have to worry about Eriksson, because he is always doing the things that Green wants him to do.
That can be frustrating for a fanbase that is desperate for goalscoring. The only team that has scored fewer goals than the Canucks over the last three seasons is the Vegas Golden Knights, and they have the excuse of only being in existence for one of those seasons.
So, when the highest paid player on the team isn’t scoring goals, it’s understandable to be upset. That doesn’t mean that Eriksson isn’t an NHL player and that he doesn’t belong in the lineup. He does, and the Canucks are a better team when he’s on the ice. It just doesn’t always look like it.