2016-17 was a breakout season for Markus Granlund. In his first full year with the Vancouver Canucks, he set a career high with 19 goals in just 69 games.
You could come up with a number of explanations for him breaking out. It could have been the change of scenery and the fresh start with a new team. He went from playing predominantly at centre with the Flames’ organization to the wing with the Canucks. Perhaps, at 23, things just clicked mentally and physically for him as he hit what should be the start of his peak.
More likely, extended playing time with the Sedins and a bump in shooting percentage explain his spike in goals, as he came crashing down to earth the next season.
His 19 goals were almost a curse, as they raised expectations for him to be a top-six forward. When he instead fell into a checking role and scored just eight goals, the disappointment in Vancouver was palpable. Heading into this year’s training camp, there were plenty of Canucks fans who wanted Granlund waived and sent to the AHL.
Instead, Granlund is on the roster, in the lineup, and playing a key depth role for the Canucks.
While Granlund is on a scoring tear at the moment, with two goals and six points in his last seven games, that hasn’t been Granlund’s biggest benefit to the lineup. Instead, he’s played a secondary shutdown role, where he’s been more effective than some might think.
We can see the role he’s played in a couple different ways. First, we can look at his teammates and competition via HockeyViz and see that he’s primarily played with third-line forwards while spending an above-average amount of time against second-line opposition.
We can also look at Granlund’s zone starts and see that only Brandon Sutter has started a higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone among Canucks forwards. So, we have a pretty good idea of how head coach Travis Green is using Granlund: a checking-line forward facing difficult competition, if not the most difficult, with weaker-than-average linemates.
With that in mind, it’s remarkable that Granlund leads the Canucks in metrics that measure shot quality.
According to Natural Stat Trick’s scoring chance metric, Granlund has been on the ice for the lowest rate of scoring chances against on the Canucks: 20.93. That’s well ahead of the next best Canuck, Tim Schaller at 23.71, and compares favourably to the rest of the NHL. He’s 26th in scoring chances against per hour among the 366 forwards that have played at least 100 minutes.
Looking at another metric, Corsica’s Expected Goals Against (xGA), Granlund again leads the Canucks, with 1.74 xGA per hour. That’s 11th in the NHL among forwards that have played at least 100 minutes.
In other words, when Granlund has been on the ice at 5-on-5, the Canucks have been able to limit scoring chances and have made it more difficult for their opponents to score. That’s a very positive sign.
We can see Granlund’s effectiveness in another way, by looking at the heat map of shot attempts against when he’s on the ice.
There’s a scary amount of red on one side of the slot, but it’s significantly better than the majority of the rest of the lineup, which features a lot more red in even more dangerous areas. Granlund’s Threat — a metric designed by HockeyViz creator Micah Blake McCurdy — of -9% means that he’s significantly better than the league average when it comes to preventing scoring chances.
Would it be preferable if Granlund could be a top-six winger, scoring 25 goals from the second line? Perhaps, but for now it seems like the Canucks have found the right role for him on the current roster.