SHOULD ALEX BURROWS DROP TO THE SECOND LINE?

Title: SHOULD ALEX BURROWS DROP TO THE SECOND LINE?
Date: July 16, 2013
Original Source: Canucks Army
Synopsis: This article examined how the Vancouver Canucks may be best served rolling out their top two forward lines in the coming season.

Last week in this space, Jeff Angus broke down the current forward crop. Obviously it’s early, and he said as much, but something caught my eye when he drew up the potential top-six:

LINE 1: SEDIN-SEDIN-KASSIAN … LINE 2: HIGGINS-KESLER-BURROWS

Putting Zack Kassian with the Sedins rather than Alex Burrows is a pretty major change. After all, Burrows played over 400 even strength minutes with the twins this past season while Kassian played just north of 100.

I wanted to take a look and see how this may impact the top two lines if Angus’ intuition is correct. Angus’ descriptions for why the switch could be made are logical and make good hockey sense. Jeff’s pretty good, after all.

 

Burrows will still very likely see time with the twins, as expecting Kassian to perform at a high level for 82 games (or even close to it) would be foolish. However, this line has played well together in the past, and Kassian can open up a lot of ice for the twins with his physical presence and ability to rag the puck down low.

 

The physical presence notion makes sense, and there’s also the potential argument that Kassian has a higher upside moving forward, if he can reach it, given that he is 10 years Burrows’ junior.

We’re dealing with a pretty small sample size given the shortened season last year, but let’s take a look at the WOWY numbers for Kassian and Burrows with the Sedins from last season:

 

Comparing Kassian and Burrows
With Sedins (Lower of 2) Without Sedins
GF20 CF% GF20 CF%
Kassian 0.86 60.0 0.749 44.1
Burrows 1.21 63.8 0.816 47.4

 

*GF20=team goals per 20min, CF%=team Corsi%, per hockeyanalysis.com.

 

What this table shows us is that both players, unsurprisingly, were less effective playing away from the Sedins. Part of this may be due to zone starts but the biggest factor is likely the drop-off in linemate quality.

 

Maximizing the production of the Sedins is perhaps as important than getting the most out of Kassian or Burrows, so it’s worth looking at how they performed with each winger as well.

 

Comparing the Sedins with Different Linemates
With Burrows Without Burrows With Kassian Without Kassian
GF20 CF% GF20 CF% GF20 CF% GF20 CF%
D Sedin 1.210 63.8 0.491 58.6 0.860 60.0 0.968 62.1
H Sedin 1.214 62.0 0.703 59.3 0.983 60.0 1.036 61.2

 

To my surprise, the Sedins see a drop-off in performance when Burrows leaves their line. I had assumed this would have some impact given how strong a player Burrows has been but I didn’t expect the difference to be so extreme. They performed slightly better without Kassian, though this is essentially saying the same thing since these two were their most common third linemate.

 

In 2011-12, a larger sample, the Burrows effect was far more muted, only showing up on the Corsi side (scoring remained largely unchanged). Kassian’s sample that year was just 46 minutes but it showed the same pattern as 2012-13.

 

Over the entire 2010-13 span, Burrows has played with the Sedins (using Henrik’s WOWY data as the barometer) two thirds of the time, about 2000 minutes, and has had a generally positive impact on both the line’s scoring and their possession play. Since Burrows has played such a large chunk of the time with them (nobody else has more than 230 minutes), it’s difficult to say if the Sedins could be as successful with another winger.

 

On one hand, perhaps the WOWY data only really shows that the Sedins haven’t been given the time to build up chemistry with any other linemate. But it’s also possible Burrows is just a great fit, and then taking him off the line could be troublesome.

 

But Angus pointed out another reason to consider Burrows on the second unit:

 

Burrows seamlessly transitioned over to the right wing to play on the top line, but does he move back to the left side with Kesler? Vancouver doesn’t have many right-shooting forwards, and Dale Weise isn’t a top six forward in any league outside of the Netherlands. … However, due to a lack of a proven checking center, Tortorella may want to create a tough two-way line with Burrows and Kesler as the key cogs. Throw Higgins on there and you have a line capable of playing in all situations while chipping in with consistent offense.

 

What Jeff is getting at, I think, is that maximizing one line’s production may not maximize the production of the entire team. If Tortorella believes the Sedins can be successful regardless of their third linemate, and by all accounts they’ve still been quite strong without Burrows, then it makes sense to have Burrows help another line out.

 

Burrows hasn’t shown a strong chemistry with Kesler in the past, but like with Kassian and the Sedins the sample is quite small (less than 300 minutes). Kesler and Burrows have been far better apart than together. Burrows has shown some scoring chemistry with Chris Higgins, though their possession numbers have been better apart (in less than a 200 minute sample).

 

All of this is to say, basically, that the Canucks have done some experimenting with the placement of Burrows in the past but never for long enough to really evaluate the impact of those experiments. There is obviously more to on-ice performance than just the WOWYs, and perhaps in those small samples there were red flags or positive signs. Tortorella will do his homework and will probably do more experimenting in training camp, though whether or not that’s enough time to make a proper judgement is better left to someone who has been in a training camp before.

 

My personal opinion is that I’d like to see the top-six that Angus outlined be given a shot. The Sedins are likely to perform well with any winger and Burrows dropping down could solidify the top-six without actually making an addition. The concern would be Kassian’s inconsistency and whether his development would be hampered if he were to be bumped around the line-up after a period of struggling rather than being given time to find chemistry with one set of linemates.

 

But a team near the cap has to get creative in maximizing the assets they have in-house. If the sum of the top-six with Burrows on the second line is greater than with him on the top line, that’s the move.

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