Addressing the Vancouver Canucks Defense

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One thing Vancouver Canucks General Manager Jim Benning has not been shy of is making moves in a proactive attempt to rebuild his roster as quickly as possible. After all, he’s acquired the moniker “Trader Jim” for a reason. Over the last two seasons, Benning has brought in a bevy of young forwards, including Linden Vey, Sven Baertschi, and most recently Emerson Etem in an attempt to jump-start his club’s rebuild.

While bringing a number of once highly-touted “project” forwards in their early 20’s into the organization to augment a future core which includes Bo Horvat, Jared McCann, Hunter Shinkaruk and Jake Virtanen up front is both admirable and wise, this team isn’t going anywhere unless it can get its defense corps together.

Addressing the Vancouver Canucks Defense

The Top-Four

As it stands now, Vancouver’s blueline group is essentially Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, and everybody else. The top pairing is a dynamic one, with Edler playing the role of offensive puck mover and Tanev playing the role of defensive stalwart. Both are on the right side of 30 (though Edler will pass that threshold in April) and signed to relatively cap-friendly contracts (Edler at $5 million until 2018-19 and Tanev at $4.45 million until 2019-20). Those two should be able to maintain their status as a top pairing for the foreseeable future, and it’s a good thing too, as Benning has a mess on his hands when it comes to how to remake the rest of a porous group which has allowed 118 goals against so far this season, 23rd in the NHL.

Next on the depth chart are Dan Hamhuis and Ben Hutton, two players going in completely opposite directions. Hamhuis is a 32-year-old UFA-to-be who seems to have lost a step defensively over the last two seasons and is currently injured. Conversely, Hutton has emerged seemingly out of nowhere to become one of the club’s best puck-moving defenders at age 21. Hutton’s position as a core piece of Vancouver’s blueline of the future is secure, while Hamhuis at this point looks like trade bait.

Disappointing Depth

Luca Sbisa, maligned by many in his first season in Vancouver, has done little to endear himself to Canucks fans in his second year with the club. Before getting injured, some had seen improvement in Sbisa, but the numbers simply don’t bear that out. Albeit in limited minutes, Sbisa’s seen his Corsi numbers fall from 46.2% to 43.2%, and his Corsi relative numbers take a big hit, falling from -4.0 to -7.2. Yes, he was appearing somewhat more often on the scoresheet, but he hasn’t shown himself capable of top-four minutes, nor has he been the player many hoped he could become as a part of the Ryan Kesler deal. At this point, the reclamation project for the soon-to-be 26-year-old is stalled.

New acquisition Matt Bartkowski, a player Benning is very familiar with who was thought could benefit from a change of scenery, has been underwhelming to say the least in his first season in green and blue. Yes, he’s shown something offensively, finally scoring his first NHL goal after 137 games (he’s now up to two goals and 10 points on the year), but his underwhelming defensive game, which had been largely sheltered by a stout Boston Bruins defense corps previously, has been exposed this season. At 27 years old, he may be in the same boat as Sbisa, as a player who likely isn’t going to ever be much more than what he already is, and what he is isn’t good enough for this team moving forward. Bartkowski is on an expiring contract, and unless he shows something spectacular in the second half, isn’t long for this organization.

Which brings us to perhaps the most disappointing player on the Canucks roster this year, Yannick Weber. Touted as the team’s most dangerous offensive threat from the backend and a power play ace, Weber lead Vancouver’s blueliners in goals last season with 11. This year? He’s currently sitting on a goose egg in the goals column, and if Weber isn’t scoring for you, he’s not really doing anything, as his defensive game is suspect at best. Like Bartkowski, Weber is on an expiring contract and doesn’t seem likely to return.

Questions in the Pipeline

Let’s start with Alex Biega, who is a tweener at 27 years old finally getting a real chance in the NHL this season (largely due to injuries on the big club), and looking decent while doing it. He’s been a negative Corsi player this season, while posting a positive Corsi relative, though the sample is very small. By all accounts he looks like he could be a steady NHL player for a few years, but he certainly is never going to be more than a bottom-pairing fill-in.

There is however some excitement and anticipation waiting in the wings in the form of Nikita Tryamkin and Andrey Pedan, “The Two Towers” as they have been dubbed by some. Tryamkin is a 6’7″ Russian who was chosen 66th overall by the Canucks in the 2014 draft and looks to be taking some strides in the KHL this season, playing more minutes and finally breaking through offensively.

Pedan, acquired by trade from the New York Islanders last season, is the more “diminutive” of the the two at 6’4″, but the Lithuanian plays a big game and has shown flashes of the defenseman he could become in three games with the Canucks this season. Tryamkin is 21 and Pedan is 22, so there’s hope these two could evolve into the huge shut-down pairing the club is going to need in the future. However, questions remain over their ceiling as NHLers, as well as whether Tryamkin will come over from Russia and be able to adjust to both the North American ice and culture.

Guillaume Brisebois, acquired with the third-round pick coming back in the now infamous Eddie Lack trade over the summer, projects to be a solid, intelligent, two-way defender who could find his way into an NHL team’s top-four, though he has yet to suit up professionally, instead staying on as captain of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan in the QMJHL, where he has seen a modest increase in his offensive numbers this season as an 18-year-old . The jury will remain out on Brisebois until we see how he adjusts to the pro game.

Finally, there’s the curious case of Jordan Subban, easily the most offensively gifted defenseman in the organization (and apparently in the Subban family, according to older brother P.K.). After putting up big numbers with the Belleville Bulls in the OHL, Subban hasn’t lost much making the transition to the AHL, posting five goals and 19 points through his first 29 pro games to sit tied for second in scoring on the Utica Comets. But at just 5’9″ (and that’s being generous), can he ultimately make an impact at the NHL level? By all accounts he’s a solid 185 pounds, but handling the bigger centers of the Western Conference might be too much of an ask.

A Major Upgrade Needed

So, given all this, where do the Canucks stand and where can they go? They have a legitimate top pairing that is young enough to continue in that role for a number of years, a younger player on the roster who looks like he can play a top-four role, a number of veterans who look like they’re on their way out of the organization, and a handful of hopeful youngsters who’s impact at the NHL is a complete crapshoot at this point.

First and foremost, other than Hutton there are no clear-cut top-four defensemen heading down the pipeline and this must be addressed immediately. Should the club falter down the stretch (and with the team looking moribund on both sides of the puck, that scenario seems likely), it’s obvious Benning should look to sell off assets, and he should be targeting young defensemen with known top-four potential.

Benning needs to land a player like Seth Jones at any cost, whether that be one or two of the team’s forward prospects (with only Horvat being untouchable), any draft pick save their first rounder this season (which could very well be the club’s first top-five pick since the Sedins were drafted two-three in 1999), or one of their veterans such as Radim Vrbata, Alex Burrows, Brandon Prust or Chris Higgins (who looks as though he could be traded in short order), who would be valuable pickups for a contender. Perhaps even a package consisting of all this and more.

Yes, that’s a steep price to pay, but all the work Benning has put into remaking the franchise’s forward group will be for naught if he can’t bring in that stud defenseman. With Hamhuis, Weber, and Bartkowski all potentially out of the picture next season, it’s imperative for Benning to make his move and set the Canucks future path on the blueline now.

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