Charts & Graphs - Jan. 8, 2014

Wednesday, 08.01.2014 / 4:44 PM / Features
By Cam Charron
Two weeks ago, in a game against the Winnipeg Jets, Zack Kassian picked up the puck in the offensive zone and took a sharp angled shot on Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.

He was stopped but was able to recover the puck in traffic and threw the puck back to the high slot, right onto the stick of Chris Tanev, who scored the 2-1 goal midway through the third period, which held up as the winner.

It was one of those plays that vindicated the opinions of at least two people. Myself, and Dimitri Filipovic of the blog Canucks Army, both agree that while Kassian is an interesting player, he's probably better suited to a role where he's expected to play more on the perimeter and focus on puck-possession and passing than he should be a grinder and muckracker in the crease.

"Perimeter player" shouldn't be a dirty word in the hockey world. Lots of the great players play away from the crease. A majority of goals are started off plays from the outside, and the puck bouncing onto the blade of the right stick. Just because Kassian is big shouldn't mean he's instantly qualified for a role in front. The other thing to note with Kassian is that he's very skilled and has an odd stickhandling prowess for a player that looks as much of a tough anachronism to the 1970s as he does.

There are a lot of people that want to see Kassian become Milan Lucic, but Lucic has a career shooting percentage of 14.9% over 447 games. He's not only good in the dirty areas, but has a pretty good shot in all areas of the slot. Kassian, meanwhile, has a 13.2% shooting percentage, which is high for a forward, but elevated thanks to an unsustainable 19.5% shooting rate this season. Lucic also shoots about twice as often as Kassian.

But just because Kassian isn't Lucic in one area doesn't mean he can't be similar in other areas. One of the strange things you'll discover about Lucic is that despite being a player who was late joining competitive hockey and has a limited skillset, his Boston Bruins teammates mostly have better Corsi numbers with Lucic than without. Corsi, for the uninitiated, is a simple statistic used to approximate how much time one team spends with the puck when a player is on the ice, by using attempted shots. These have shown to correlate very well with zone time, back during a day the National Hockey League tracked the statistic with a stop watch.

Anyway, between 2011 and 2013 per a tool found at the excellent HockeyAnalysis.com, Milan Lucic's teammates had better Corsi percentages with him than without him. David Krejci (56.4% with, 47.4% without) and Nathan Horton (58.4% with, 53.1% without) and Tyler Seguin (60.3% with, 59.3% without) are good examples. Kassian has shown a similar proficiency to increase the Corsi percentages of the teammates he's on the ice with. Through Sunday, Brad Richardson had a 46.2% Corsi with Kassian and 39.9% without, David Booth was a 51.7% with and 47.2% without, and Tom Sestito was a 47.2% with and 37.3% without. Mike Santorelli, another good example, was 54.1% with and 50.9% without.

It's difficult to form any major conclusions on this data because John Tortorella sends his lines out with different roles, but Kassian doesn't get a lot of favours from the coaching staff in terms of deployment. He starts just 26.3% of his shifts in the offensive zone, which is 13th out of 15 Canuck regulars, and 40.4% of his shifts in the defensive zone, which is 2nd behind just Richardson. Per ExtraSkater.com's Quality of Teammates ranking, Kassian is 7th among 10 qualified Canuck forwards.

Which really leads us to the question… how would the better players on the Canucks do if they were to play with Kassian, rather than Zack being relegated to defensive lines with minimal offensive responsibilities? One year ago, he had some early success with the Sedin twins, mostly thanks to some good early shooting percentages. However Henrik Sedin had a 60.0% Corsi percentage with Kassian, and even though Henrik was 61.2% when he wasn't paired with Kassian, 60.0% is still a very high percentage and is the benchmark for some of the best tandems in the game, like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang (62.7%), Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams (63.6%), Patrice Bergeron and anybody, or Henrik and Daniel Sedin (62.6%).

It's no secret that Kassian is a very interesting player to look at, but it's tough to tell exactly what he succeeds at. Among qualified Canucks forwards, Kassian is 7th out of 10 players with 5.3 shots on goal per 60 minutes, and ahead of only Sestito in passes per 60 minutes, with 3.9. ("Passes" is a statistic created by Rob Vollman of Hockey Prospectus, using on-ice shots and assists statistics to estimate how many times a player set up a shot. Henrik Sedin leads the Canucks with 11.3 per 60. If converted to shots on goal, that would put him among the league leaders.)

Canucks leaders in passes

Passes
Henrik Sedin 132
Mike Santorelli 109
Daniel Sedin 92
Chris Higgins 91
Kevin Bieksa 67

The fact that Kassian is ranked so low in passes is surprising to me, because my eyeballs tell me that he is very adept with the puck in the neutral zone and along the wall in the offensive zone. I think he's a better player when he opts for finesse rather than raw power. His goal against Pittsburgh Tuesday night was a mix of both. While he cut hard to the net and benefit from a good bounce, he also began the rush forward in the defensive zone and despite the Canucks being on a 3-on-3 rush in a very small amount of ice, Kassian opted to dish the puck to Chris Higgins for a controlled zone entry rather than dump the puck in, and exploited the small amount of space Rob Scuderi had to move to prevent a move to the net from Higgins.

It's just those little things that are buried beneath the surface. Kassian is described as "a project" or "toolsy", but he helps the Canucks depth players achieve better results when with him and his recent uptick in ice-time could lead him to playing more offensive minutes. It's odd to see how few assists (3) or how he ranks in the passing estimator based on the things he can accomplish when he has the puck along the wall, but perhaps he just needs to be put with shooters.

After all, Kassian's teammates score on just 5.5% of their shots when he's on the ice (if you remove Kassian's shots) which is unsustainably low. His assists total is probably not indicative of the way he's played. That play against Winnipeg was his lone primary assist on the season, but if he keeps playing the way he has, I don't think it will be his only one.