Curious Case of Thomas Vanek

Photo courtesy of The Windsor Star

While some are still surprised he’s actually a Montreal Canadien (myself included), it’s time to come to terms with it. The big man is here for the playoff run and there isn’t anything we can do about it.

I’m talking about Douglas Murray, obviously. He’s bad. But, I digress. Let’s move on to Thomas Vanek.

The 2003 5th overall draft pick has already been around for 10 games. In my opinion, the time has just whizzed by. He was born in a place I not only can’t properly pronounce, but also can’t find on a globe. I do know it’s in Austria. He’s a 6’2, 30-year-old left-winger, or right-winger, or maybe just winger, and to most he’s been impressive since joining the Canadiens. He’s lit the lamp four times and added two helpers; three of those ginos came against the Avalanche in a game where all three of Montreal’s 4th liners buried – I’m still in awe of Moen’s goal. I can’t help but think that game would have played out completely differently had Parros been dressed. I’m still struggling to see the dividends to that acquisition, but that’s a topic for another time – or not at all, because it’s pretty obvious Bergevin dropped the ball on that one.

I like Vanek’s overall game. You can tell he’s creative and always looking to make something unrealistic a reality. His ability to protect the puck reminds me of a Jaromir Jagr. Obviously no one is quite as good at it as he is and obviously Jagr is a guy not worth signing in the offseason because maybe he’s too old or something, but that’s a topic for another time – or not all, because it’s pretty obvious Bergevin dropped the ball on that one.

The one thing about Vanek that baffles me most is his similarity to Alex Kovalev. Yes, I know, that’s like sacrilege or something. He isn’t remotely close to as bad as Kovalev, but I’ve seen it too often from Vanek during games. Without the puck, he has a tendency to ‘float’ sometimes. I’ll go as far as saying he acts somewhat lazy (and an Islanders’ blogger saw the same thing). With the puck, he makes things happen, there’s no disputing that. But there’s times when he makes head-scratching decisions. I’m talking very confusing passes that make you wonder whether or not he truly knows which team he’s playing for. Frankly, I don’t blame him. He’s been tossed around as often as much-worse-than-Carey-Price goaltender Jaroslav Halak. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. A writer of “A Criminally Vulgar Blog” wrote a piece about Vanek back in 2010:

“When he is good, he is really good. Like, top five player in the NHL good. There have been countless times when he has hoisted the Sabres on his back much like his TGR nickname, Atlas.

And then there are the other times. Shots don’t go in, he passes when he should normally shoot, and people start questioning his contract.”

The bolded part is the most important – I’ve seen that happen a lot. His half-slapper is devastating, though. And I believe his passing game is slightly underrated (when he’s aware of which team he’s actually playing for).

The Canadiens have a 6-4 record since the acquisition. Let’s take an in-depth look at how Montreal’s fared with Vanek in the lineup while keeping in mind that it does take some time for a player to adapt to a new “system” (if that’s what Therrien’s calling it) and new linemates.

The Habs have managed to score 17 even strength goals over the 10-game span which is a rate of, obviously, 1.7 ESG/game. This is a slight dip from the 1.97 ESG/game the Canadiens were averaging prior to Vanek’s arrival. They’ve lit the lamp on the powerplay in 6 of those 10 games, going 7 for 43 during that span. That’s a 16.3% success rate. This is also down from the 18.8% the Canadiens currently hold, and would actually place them 23rd in the NHL. The Habs had a PP CF/60 (Montreal’s shot attempts on the powerplay per 60 minutes) of 96.8 prior to the acquisition, and have been clicking at 94.9 since he arrived. The Canadiens have hummed along at a 5v5 Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts) of 51.09% in close game situations since acquiring Thomas Vanek, which is up from the 48.3% without him. Hey, a good sign! That type of possession would sit them 10th in the entire NHL, a far cry from their current standing in 21st. I was curious what the Canadiens’ Fenwick Close (FenClose) was against the same teams earlier in the season before Vanek burst on the scene.

I used the most recent meetings. Interesting to note that Montreal fared better possession-wise against the Bruins before Vanek came aboard, which is strange because he usually makes Boston his female dog, if ya know what I mean.

Montreal limited their opponent to far fewer unblocked shots against, but didn’t generate quite as much either. Overall a definite improvement, though.

The one thing that sort of raises doubt is in half the Canadiens’ wins since the trade for Vanek they’ve required a shooting percentage above 10% – that’s something that cannot continue.

All in all, things are looking up in the standings, but down in the numbers. While not absolutely significant drops, they are declines nonetheless.

Something that’s been bothering me since Vanek’s been a Hab has been his use on a line with Pacioretty and Desharnais in place of a guy who’s smaller than me but could drop me in seconds, Brendan Gallagher. I took it upon myself to put together some numbers for fun, just as a little comparison.

First, I pulled numbers from the 7 games where Vanek-Desharnais-Pacioretty played seemingly exclusively together. I did the same for the Pacioretty-Desharnais-Gallagher line in 7 games from earlier in the season against the same teams. Bourque played on the line against Columbus from earlier in the year due to a Gallagher injury, so I used that line’s numbers instead – not a huge deal. I combined the numbers from each trio for the following data sets.

VanekLinesFF

There’s a drastic contrast. These are strictly 5v5 unblocked shot attempt percentages (Fenwick).

Vanek with the former Bulldog duo has generated essentially 43% of the shot attempts over the past 7 games, while the trio that included Gallagher managed an astounding 58% of the 5v5 shot attempts against the same teams earlier in the year. While this is a small sample, it certainly speaks volumes. The closest 67-51-11 came to being out-possessed was against Colorado where they were dead even. Vanek’s trio has only topped 50% twice – once against the worst the East has to offer, and then again against Buffalo (see what I did there? The Leafs suck).

I was thinking maybe the freakishly low possession numbers were due to increased defensive responsibility for the newly formed trio, so I gathered their zone starts for the games.

Vanek’s trio has begun far more shifts in the offensive zone than the former (perfectly effective) trio. The defensive zone starts are crazily in favour of Vanek as well – the new line that includes Vanek has started around 25% of their shifts in the DZ, while the one with Gallagher was at 31%. Actually, Vanek has the absolute highest OZst% among all Canadiens players, even more than the defensive mess himself – Douglas Murray. Then what gives? Why the awful possession numbers? Maybe we should ask P.J. Stock because he always has knowledgeable outlooks on the NHL such as this gem from last season. Though, it wasn’t as if Vanek was a superstar play-driver on Buffalo this season, and the same can be said about his time spent on the Island.

Below is each line’s production in the 7 games we’ve been focusing on.

Relatively similar all around, though the amount of even strength points the new trio has accumulated is impressive (and much needed on the Canadiens).

It really makes you wonder. I, for one, would much rather a line that out-possesses its opponents on a nightly basis because the production is bound to follow. In the 3 games Vanek played alongside Plekanec and Gionta, they generated 46.38% of the unblocked shot attempts – and they absolutely pummelled the Bruins. Sure, not great, but their opponents (Boston, Phoenix, San Jose) were much more difficult than the following seven, and they had a better FF%. I’m still convinced that the line would have gotten better and better, and eventually the production would have caught up with the opportunities. In those same 3 games, Pacioretty-Desharnais-Gallagher were steady at a 53% FF%, as they’ve been all season.

Just for kicks, here’s Vanek’s WOWYs (with or without you) since joining the Canadiens:

Seems he’s Pacioretty and Desharnais’s anchor, while boosting Plekanec and Gionta. He’s had virtually no affect on Max and David’s shot attempts per 20 minutes, but drastically affected their shot attempts against per 20 minutes in a negative way.

It’s hard to argue with the results, and the Habs have won 3 straight and 6 of its last 7. I just can’t help but think that Therrien could get even more from this lineup and optimize this roster by making a few tweaks – one obvious tweak would be giving Murray one suit per day for the rest of the NHL season in exchange for his services in the press box. Then again, it seems like we’ve been praying for a few changes this entire season. Despite those tweaks we’ve all been hoping for, somehow, some way, Therrien’s Montreal Canadiens are getting it done.

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Curtis Kinden (16 Posts)

Born in 1988. Grew up a die hard Habs fan and Jays fan. Outstanding shortstop and a great breakfast cook. Sarcasm comes naturally. Follow me on Twitter @CurtisAATH


6 Responses to Curious Case of Thomas Vanek

  1. michael hilldangles

    i hate the habs but I love this author — cant get enough

  2. I literally thought that Vanek’s new line was playing spectacular hockey. Maybe I was just caught up in all the hoopla. These numbers are crazy different from what I thought I was seeing.

    Maybe the fact that Vanek has a hattrick is sort of clouding my memory. I actually thought Vanek with Plekanec was useless, but now I remember them playing really well against Boston.

    This reminds me of everything I’m hearing about the Leafs and that can’t be a good thing! Great piece.

  3. I had a feeling this trio wasn’t playing as well as everyone was saying they were. The powerplay numbers really surprise me though – how did you calculate those? Where exactly did you get your numbers from? I’m not disputing them, I just thought the Habs’ PP was more effective with Vanek.

    I guess this is a situation of taking the good with the bad. Or maybe Vanek just hasn’t adapted fully yet. The top line is more exciting with him though.

  4. chris walkitoff

    I agree with that other guy, something is fishy about these maths (what kind of math credentials does this author have anyways?)

    P.S. For such a talented writer, this guys author bio f’ing sucks.

  5. @Alan
    In terms of production, the line is playing really well. It’s the fact that they’re not generating nearly as much as they’re allowing, and suddenly the line is being out-possessed badly most games. Pacioretty is the Canadiens’ best play-driver, and he’s below average now after being superior prior to the Vanek-Desharnais-Pacioretty creation. You’re right that it’s similar to the Leafs’ situation. It’s difficult to deal with Montreal faltering in a few analytics that have proven to be good predictors of success.

    @Jamie
    The numbers were pulled from extraskater.com. I added their shot attempts for on the powerplay and converted it to a rate of shot attempts per 60 minutes of PP time. So generally speaking the Habs aren’t generating as many opportunities on the powerplay as they were pre-Vanek (same with their even strength numbers), nor is their success rate better. The line’s been living off of an unsustainable sh% while enjoying an incredibly solid even strength SV% (Vanek’s on-ice SV% is .950).

    Overall, the production is there but the opportunities are not. That’s where my worry lies. If the Habs’ crazy good sh% doesn’t continue (which it likely won’t considering it’s a whole 2% better with Vanek) things could crash in a similar way to the Leafs’ 8-game skid. Perhaps not quite as bad, but it’s entirely possible.

  6. I follow you closely on Twitter and read your stuff all the time.

    Let me begin by saying you’re awesome at creating buzz around controversial topics. It seems like you purposely choose to talk about things that the majority is against and somehow manage to flip the script and make it seem like the minority is correct. You definitely have a way to manipulate words and numbers in favour of whatever side you’re taking.

    This article is the simplest one you’ve written in my opinion in terms of the statistics. I actually fully understand this one as oppossed to your others where I needed a little help with the “advanced” stat acronyms and such. It was to the point and concise and I really liekd it.

    The one thing about your work is that you make what generally seems like the right thing, wrong. What I mean is that I saw everywhere on social media that this new line was playing fantastically, yet you manage to put a lengthy piece together summarizing the exact opposite. I don’t know if you hav a knack for this type of thing, but you make me change my mind about things a lot. I love this line together but have a tendency to side with statistical analysis, so now I don’t know where I stand. Well done. GO HABS GO

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