Absences in the Vancouver Canucks Defence Creating Opportunity

Vancouver Canucks Defence

The long-running joke around the Vancouver Canucks Alexander Edler is that he takes penalties so he can hopefully rest for two straight minutes. Now that he is injured, there exist many opportunities for the Vancouver Canucks Defence to test some new combinations. What had been locked-in pairings is getting a shake-up.

Absences in the Vancouver Canucks Defence Allowing New Chances

One Player, Everything Changes

Hughes On First

In previous years, the Vancouver Canucks defence has lacked a dynamic, offensive defenceman. They’ve had good defencemen, but those were usually of the solid, all-around player variety. Game changers are hard to draft – and even harder to trade for. Two years ago they had one fall into their laps and are now reaping the benefits.

Quinn Hughes has been everything that Vancouver has been missing. He might be the best offensive defenceman the team has ever had. It sounds ridiculous to say about a first-year player, but 35 games into his professional career he has yet to prove the statement false.

But it’s not just the Detroit Red Wings‘ nightmare coming through for the team (sorry, guys). Vancouver changed their past philosophy of trying to kick-start a player who might give the team some offence.

No More Maybes

Since 2014, GM Jim Benning has traded for:

Derrick Pouliot, Erik Gudbranson, Philip Larsen, Adam Clendening, Andrey Pedan, and Luca Sbisa.

Outside of Pouliot, it’s not a great list of potential point-getters. And fair enough – for the most part, they were added to “fill roles” (ie. hit people) or play bottom-pair. Clendening, Larsen, and Pouliot were all trades for with high hopes rather than deep plans. Most importantly, they were relatively cheap enough for a rebuilding team to take a chance on.

If there is anything good to say about the Gudbranson trade, it would be that he brought back Tanner Pearson. Another good thing is that the team seemed to have learned their lesson when he crashed out.

Benning also signed free agents Matt Bartkowski, Yannick Weber, and Michael Del Zotto. Again cheap, fingers-crossed signings done in hopes they can add scoring to a blue line that desperately needed it.

This time, instead of rooting through other teams for high-scoring juniors, the team targeted Tyler Myers. Some fans saw his size and mistook him for a shut-down defender, but Jamie Benn was signed for that role. Even their seventh defenceman was upgraded when they targeted Oscar Fantenberg.

That approach has paid ongoing dividends.

The Best Defence Features Alexander Edler

So far this season, the defence has a combined 66 points in 31 games. That’s halfway to last year’s 135 over a full season – which handily beat the previous season’s 122. Edler himself led the team on defence both seasons with 34 points. It’s a number he’s likely to reach again this year – if he can regain his health. Fortunately for Vancouver, they aren’t relying on him to be the top points-producer this time.

Hughes has been excellent, which in addition to the improved forward corps, had led to far higher scoring this season. With less play in their own end, they’re a top-ten offence for the first time in years. And with Edler out, the Canucks’ defensive opportunities are there for whole new looks.

While it’s never great to be missing your most frequently played defender (fully two minutes more than Myers) finding out how the rest of the team reacts to his absence is better early in the year than crunch time in March.

What Works? Alexander Edler?

So far, the pairs have been what was expected coming out of training camp. Edler and Myers up top, Hughes and the reliable Chris Tanev next, and Benn and Troy Stecher as the third pair. All three pairings have played over 250 minutes this season, and all have been controlling play reasonably well. Even the third pair of Benn and Stecher have a positive Corsi rating: 50.6% in 30 games together.

Likewise, the top pair of Edler and Myers have tilted the ice: the Canucks control 53.9% of the shots with them skating. They rely on getting chances more than being able to prevent them, but again that’s somewhat expected when they are facing the best lines in the NHL every night.

But the best result has been Hughes pairing up with Tanev. As a second pairing, they control 53.6% of scoring chances. That’s sixth-best in the league for pairings that have played more than 250 minutes, two places back of Edler-Myers.

So why change anything?

Always Be Closing

Why be satisfied with “good” when you can have great?

Edler has yet to play in December, so the Canucks’ defensive opportunities have been from necessity. Even so, it’s going to be very hard to ignore the play of Hughes and Myers together as top pair.

In 140 minutes together, they’ve faced a drop of TEN shots per 60 minutes from Edler-Myers. That’s from 57.5 shots against per 60 minutes down to just over 47 per. The team has fired two more shots with the new duo than the old as well, going from 67 to nearly 70 shots.

For reference, that’s fifth-best in the league for any pair that’s played over 100 minutes.

The Benn-Tanev pairing hasn’t been so lucky, dropping them well down to just over 40% Corsi in 110 minutes. Keeping Benn with Stecher seems like the best option there, with Edler and Tanev to reprise their old duo act from last season. It didn’t work out too well as a top pairing last year (just a 43% Corsi) but they also faced the hardest competition.

Make Edler (whenever he gets back) and Tanev the second pairing. Put out Hughes and Myers as the first pair, and we might see something unique in 50 years:

Opposing coaches line-matching to stop the Canucks’ defensive opportunities.

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