Just in case hockey hasn’t been your entire life over the past two months – and possibly if it has – there’s news! You may have missed/forgotten just how much the Vancouver Canucks defence has changed in this off-season. An all-time veteran walked. An old friend returned. A free agent was signed in the traditional “It’s Good! It’s Bad!” shibboleth that seems to take place here every year.
And an absolutely terrifying gamble with massive, long-term repercussions was made. Just to, you know, keep things interesting. Let’s dig in.
The Vancouver Canucks Defence Has Changed
For better or worse – and for how long – remains to be seen. Which isn’t what you want to hear about a unit that has had this much upheaval. We’ll quickly run through the losses.
Alexander Edler is the big one, obviously. It’s good to see he found a new home, bad that it’s in the same division. There’s that creeping feeling among fans that he will finally score his 100th goal… and it will be in Vancouver. They’ll cheer him for it anyway, of course, because Edler is one of the best players the Canucks have ever had. One more year with the Canucks and he could have been the fourth one to reach 1000 games with the team.
Or, of course, he could have been injured for eight games, keeping him one short of the mark. And not scored a single goal, just to cap it.
Picking up Nate Schmidt for a third-round pick was an absolute steal by Canucks general manager Jim Benning. Trading him off for the same was a pleasant surprise. Schmidt is a very good defenceman but just didn’t get his wheels under him in Vancouver. To be fair, it was a brutally hard year for someone who is coming to the team but can’t socialize with them. That’s what gets him rolling, and this year was a clunker.
Too good for the AHL, never quite trusted by coach Travis Green. With every game meaning far more than usual in a condensed season, Brogan Rafferty rarely got off the Taxi Squad, playing just one game. Now the Anaheim Ducks will see if they can tap into his scoring potential.
After three seasons in Utica, Jalen Chatfield finally got his shot with the big club. He played his first 18 NHL games last season with Vancouver and is now gone to the Carolina Hurricanes. Okay while it lasted?
Now we’re cookin’! Between wanting Abbotsford to succeed and improving depth generally, the Vancouver Canucks defence has a LOT of potential additions – but hopefully, few of them will be seen there. Realistically, though, injuries are a way of life for the well-travelled teams, so opportunities are never far away. And that’s just with names we could see in the bottom pair.
Looking over his history, the undrafted Brad Hunt is the definition of a “tweener”. He’s been in the league eight years for five different teams and worked his way to 191 NHL games. He hasn’t played in the AHL since 2016-17, but only got a full season – or close to it – in 2019-20. That year, Hunt got into 59 games with a very respectable eight goals and 19 points. Since his permanent move to the NHL, his Corsi has never even been at risk to drop below 50%.
He’s not a favourite to win that last left-side spot, but Olli Juolevi and Jack Rathbone are coming to camp with some work to do. In the meantime, the 33-year old Hunt could be named Abbotsford’s first captain. That shouldn’t hurt too much for the Maple Ridge native, especially as he makes the same amount with either team.
Adding a bit more depth to the right side is never a bad move. If he played for your team before and wants to come back so much the better. And if he happens to be bringing a Stanley Cup ring or two? Yeah, all right!
It’s been a bit overplayed, but the “A Cup Champion is Returning!” is a fun angle for a player who only played 18 games with Vancouver. Luke Schenn did bring Viktor Persson with him (sort of) which was very polite of him. He’s going to play the same role here that he did with the Tampa Bay Lightning – available if they need him.
Madison Bowey and Brady Keeper are both right-side veterans we could see in Vancouver this year, but if so it will be because of injuries. Bowey has far more NHL experience so may have the earlier call-up. Like with Hunt, that these two are being paid the same in either league gives a hint where expectations lie.
I heard the #Canucks did a bit of business that some might describe as arranged neatly and in order.
— Daniel Wagner (@passittobulis) August 15, 2021
(Never mind. Inside joke. Continuing…)
The signing was initially viewed with alarm. A four-year deal for what should be the team’s third-pair defenceman? And at $2.5 million? And he’s 28 years old!?! But the team just got rid of etc. Much of which is perfectly reasonable: he doesn’t score. That’s not being metaphorical, either, as last season Poolman had one assist in 39 games playing 18 minutes a night. He was mostly paired up with Josh Morrissey, but his usage was as “the safe one” of the attacker/defender pair. It didn’t work particularly well, unfortunately. He did miss eleven games with COVID-19, but even with that considered, there’s not a lot to look at that might justify either the term or the money.
If you want to be optimistic, his absent offence could change in joining the Canucks. Vancouver isn’t much for the whole “defence” half of pairings, preferring either to get involved in the attack when the opportunity arises. And Poolman does have a history of reasonable production at the College and AHL levels. It’s a real question about who he does pair with. In the running are the aforementioned Brad Hunt or one of two youngsters with radically different styles. If the left side is finished with Olli Juolevi, then the pair will be more about shutting down opponents than scoring. If it’s the gleeful maniac Jack Rathbone then the opposite will hold true. And it would be no surprise if Poolman spends time with both in 2021-22.
Oh, you heard this happened? The joy of making a super-high-risk deal like bringing in Oliver Ekman-Larsson is that the measure of “success” is instantly skewed. Fans who expect an unmitigated disaster can be appeased by a modest improvement to Ekman-Larsson’s defence. There are no fans who are predicting what the notoriously optimistic general manager does – that he’ll be the number one defenceman – so there aren’t really any high expectations to manage. Even the most devout Canuckleheads heard that and said “Dude. Come on.”
The real hope for his improvement with the Vancouver Canucks defence is twofold. The first is that he’ll be playing in a more offence-focussed system. The second is much more fingers-crossed: that the veteran will be re-energized with the new team. It’s no secret that the Canucks’ reputation among Swedish players is high and increasing with the new management additions. With the Arizona Coyotes going through a total to-the-bone rebuild, the 11-year veteran can join a team already on the rise. Ekman-Larsson has been to the playoffs twice in his 11 years: once in the Bubble in Edmonton and once eight years ago.
A lot has been made of his defensive failings, but some of that is mental. Losing physicality, letting opponents get to the front, slower return from the attacking end. These are mistakes players are more prone to when they are at the end of the year and playoffs are out of sight. Playing out the string encourages veterans to play with one eye on next year and get out of this one uninjured. Those weren’t happening to Ekman-Larsson four or five years ago. The move from Arizona’s disfunction, the change of playing styles, joining a young and improving team… All of this could combine to revitalize the 30-year old and get some of his younger play back.
Can that happen for six more seasons? The Vancouver Canucks defence – and their fans – sure hope so.
TORONTO, ON – FEBRUARY 11: Oliver Ekman-Larsson #23 of the Arizona Coyotes skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on February 11, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Coyotes 3-2 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)