Luca Sbisa, the affable Vancouver Canucks defenceman, had spent most of his hockey career in Anaheim, where the game receives fractional attention, before he arrived here last summer as part of the Ryan Kesler trade.
Sbisa, a 25-year-old who grew up in Switzerland, had readied himself for life in a madhouse Canadian market. He avoids reading about himself. He doesn't turn on TSN. But an occasional public opinion cannot be dodged. Early in the season, Sbisa was waiting for a table at breakfast at a restaurant, having put his name, Luca down, on the list.
The host a few minutes later called out for the next table, "Luca," and not recognizing Sbisa, the host observed of the name Luca: "That's the same name as the crappy new defenceman on the Canucks."
Sbisa, along with his defence partner, 33-year-old Canucks stalwart Kevin Bieksa, has been a lightning rod for fan-and-media criticism all season long and into the playoffs the against Calgary Flames. They are Vancouver's third defence pairing and, by various on-paper measures and easily observed on the ice, have struggled, in the season and against the Flames.
Their performance, while not the crucial element of whether Vancouver's season ends Saturday night in Game 6 or this series goes to Game 7 on Monday, will be important. The Canucks rallied at home to avoid an embarrassing ouster in five games – but the upstart Flames do not want to return to Vancouver to settle the series.
The Canucks, most players and the team as a whole, have had their stretches of struggle against Calgary but Sbisa and Bieksa have been at times obviously weak – vulnerable, for instance, to Calgary's pulsing fore-check. Of Calgary's seven even-strength goals in the series, Sbisa and Bieksa have both been on for four of them.
For Sbisa, in particular, it extends a theme that was fixed in place even before Vancouver's season began. In the final preseason game, in the second period against the Edmonton Oilers, Sbisa carried the puck behind his net and whipped a risky outlet pass to the point through the slot. Nail Yakupov intercepted, and scored. "That's what you call, in the hockey business, a pizza," Sbisa said afterward.
A local meme was born: pizza delivery. Sbisa, this season playing the most ice time of his career, delivered his fair share of pizzas, miscues that stoked upset among demanding fans and were also gleefully mocked online. The facts bare it out: in the season's first three months, Sbisa was on the ice for three goals against for every two for, at even-strength. Not good. Never mind that it was the result, in part, of terrible luck, as measured by the advanced statistic PDO.
From Jan. 1 onwards, Sbisa's luck rebounded and was average through the season's end. His goals-for percentage jumped to 46 per cent, from 40. Still, in 2014-15, of defenceman who played at least 1,000 minutes of even-strength ice time, Sbisa had been on the ice for the second-most goals against per 60 minutes in the league. Only Edmonton's 21-year-old Oscar Klefbom was worse.
And so the whipsaw recoil among Vancouver fanatics was no surprise when the team announced in early April a three-year new contract for Sbisa, at an average of $3.6-million (U.S.) a season. Sbisa is in the final season of a four-year deal that paid him about $2.2-million annually.
Many observers were not impressed. "Dumbfounded" and "wasteful" were two of the more restrained Twitter comments. "Kill me," one Canucks blogger tweeted. Even TSN's Bob McKenzie sounded critical in a measured way: "It's a little bit higher than what some people would say is acceptable."
The Canucks may not have had much choice. With the likes of Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis well past 30, Sbisa in his mid-20s was not a defenceman the Canucks could afford to lose, said team president Trevor Linden in an interview with The Globe and Mail before the playoffs. The contract, too, includes two of Sbisa's years of unrestricted free agency.
"He's in that age group we really need," Linden said. The Canucks see potential and progress. "We want to work with him. He brings a heaviness. He's going to be a big part of our defence."
There's also the idea of team, commitment and trust. "We like him as a person," Linden said. "You want to show trust in your people."
And Linden knows Vancouver well, how it can get mean, perhaps unduly or overly critical. A piling on. "In this market, there's always someone people want to pick on, and I think Luca's maybe been that guy."
Ryan Miller, the Canucks starting goaltender who was injured Feb. 22 and returned as starter to win Game 5 and will start Game 6, cites the physical presence of Bieksa, and the less-obvious-but-forceful Sbisa, who is 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds. It's physical play, said Miller, that's "brave as a person and as a player."
"You appreciate those guys," Miller said on Friday.
Bieksa cited Sbisa's light-hearted nature: "Loves coming to the rink, loves playing hockey. Just a good, genuine kid."
For all the criticism during the Calgary series, and the goals against, Sbisa's play, measured by puck possession, is the average of his team. While the Canucks control puck possession on average against the Flames, it is solely because of the Sedins's dominance. When the Sedins are off the ice, the Flames slightly lead in puck possession, which is the situation when Sbisa is on the ice.
Sbisa draws lessons from Bieksa, about pushing forward. Don't dwell on the inevitable pizzas.
"Mistakes happen all the time," Sbisa said on Friday. "If you make a mistake, you bounce back. Kevin bounces back. He wants the puck, he wants the responsibility."