NHL: Is Defense Really A Strength Of The Canucks?

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Alex Edler will likely be the key to the Canucks’ defensive unit living up to its potential

BY THOMAS DRANCE

With all of the questions marks facing the Canucks headed into a shortened season – from the advancing age of the team’s core, to Kesler’s injury status and Luongo’s much scrutinized trade status – many analysts, including TSN’s Bob McKenzie, have identified the team’s defense-corps as a particular area strength. In terms of quality on the backend the Canucks boast a wealth of it, including two of the best and most consistent shutdown defenders in the NHL over the past couple of seasons in Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis, a fifty point scorer and All-Star in Alex Edler and a versatile newcomer in Jason Garrison, who has been successful as a shutdown guy in the past, and last season was second in the entire NHL in power-play goals by defenseman.

Beyond the supposed top-four, is former tough-minutes workhorse Keith Ballard, a mystifying disappointment throughout his Vancouver tenure, advanced stats darling Chris Tanev and steady bottom pairing guy Andrew Alberts. On paper, they’re arguably a top-five defensive group in the league, but in practice there’s some question marks about this group headed into this season. Let’s look a bit deeper…

WHO PLAYS THE RIGHT SIDE IN THE SECOND DEFENSIVE UNIT?
Between Jason Garrison, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler, the Canucks have four defenseman who no sane person would describe as anything but a “top-four NHL defenseman”. But it’s not that simple, really. As it has been for several seasons now, the Canucks actually have a disturbing lack of depth along the right-side of the blue-line, and it extends into their top-four.

Kevin Bieksa is a right-handed shot, and a steady performer on the right-side; but Jason Garrison, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler are all leftie shooters who are most comfortable and effective on the left-side of the ice. The Canucks experimented here and there with Alex Edler on the right-side last season and the results were mixed to the say the least.

Edler spent about 15% of his even-strength ice-time in the 2011-12 season playing with defenders who are exclusively “left-side” guys (Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis and Andrew Alberts), and the balance of his ice-time playing with right-side defenders like Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Sulzer, Chris Tanev and Aaron Rome. In his left-side ice-time, the Canucks controlled 52.7% of Corsi events with Alex Edler on the ice and were outscored by 5 goals in well over 1250 minutes of ice-time. With Edler playing the right-side, and this needs to be qualified with your standard small sample size disclaimer, the Canucks controlled 47% of Corsi events and were outscored by 8 in 225:09 of even-strength ice-time. While the small-sample adds an element of uncertainty to our analysis, I feel comfortable telling you that the early returns on Alex Edler playing the right-side point are ugly and don’t inspire me with confidence.

For Dan Hamhuis it’s a similar story, he spent roughly 42:11 playing with primary left-side defenseman in Andrew Alberts and Keith Ballard last season. While Dan Hamhuis is one of Vancouver’s best possession players, the Canucks controlled a ghastly 37% of Corsi events in those 42 minutes and were outscored by three goals.

Jason Garrison played the right-side on the power-play for Florida, which allowed him to pull one-timers and resulted in many of his 9 power-play markers. But he’s played the left-side with right-side defenseman in Mike Weaver and Brian Campbell at even-strength over the past two seasons, and according to Rick Bowness is far more comfortable on the left-side.

So how will the Canucks top-four deploy? Basically the Canucks have four top-four defenseman but whether or not those four players will fit naturally onto two pairings is anyone’s guess. Based on his skill level and defensive reliability, I tend to think Jason Garrison is the Canucks best bet for Edler’s right-side (especially because Alain Vigneault could shelter the line while Garrison adjusts) but that’s a bit of a band-aid frankly and certainly not an ideal situation.

Luckily for the Canucks, Chris Tanev might be ready to assume a permanent place on the right-side of the top-four, but that would displace one of Garrison or Edler and place them onto the third pairing. I really don’t envy the task Rick Bowness has ahead of him trying to make sense of Vancouver’s blueliner mismatch this season. Let’s hope he has a plan, because for all of the backend talent on the Canucks roster, I really can’t figure out how it all fits together.

(Stats in this section come from hockeyanalysis.com)

ALEX EDLER IS IN A CONTRACT YEAR
In terms of his puck skills, passing ability, physical size and skating speed, Alex Edler is an immense talent. In terms of his defensive awareness and decision making, however, he simply wasn’t good enough last season. In fact, the Canucks were outscored when Edler was on the ice last season (despite somewhat cushy deployment), and while some of that can be forgiven considering Edler’s slightly sub-100 PDO (99.7), the Canucks were also outshot with Alex Edler on the ice…

Alex Edler is such an offensive threat that he really doesn’t need to be a shutdown guy necessarily to provide the Canucks value on the backend. He does need to be better than he was last season however, especially if he’s looking to be paid in 5-6 million dollar range come the 2013-14 season. In particular, if Edler is the guy pegged to adjust to the right-side, he’s going to face a steep learning curve defensively, and he’ll have little margin for error in that slot in a shortened 48 game regular season.

On paper, Alex Edler is an all-star, however, from my perspective he’s as big a question mark as the Canucks have headed into the 2013 season…

DEFENSIVE DEPTH
Over the past week the Canucks have reportedly kicked the tires on sub-replacement level defenseman Jim Vandermeer and Cam Barker, and it was announced today that they’ll invite Frank Corrado to training camp. Those are the three guys that, along with Chicago Wolves defenseman Kevin Connauton who has appeared to take a step back this season, will compete to be Vancouver’s 8th defenseman. To put it simply, at the moment it appears that the Canucks might have a defensive depth issue.

Yeah, yeah, it seems weird to get worked up about the quality of the team’s eighth defenseman. But consider that the last time the Canucks only used eight defenseman over the course of a full season was 2008-09. They used nine last season, thirteen the season before that and eleven in 2009-10. So this may not seem like any cause for concern in January, but if the Canucks are counting on Cam Barker to play 12 minutes a game in April, well that’s a different story.

SUMMARY
Looking over Vancouver’s defensive personnel, I see a few question marks (and we didn’t even get into whether or not Tanev can handle tough minutes yet, or whether Ballard can emerge as a useful player, finally). I’d even describe some of the team’s blue-line issues as meaningful, especially their lack of a clear candidate to play the right-side in the top-4. Talent wise, there’s no question that the Canucks possess one of the best groups of blue-liners in the NHL (only the Sharks, Kings, Rangers and Blackhawks are better, in my view) but in practice I’m not so sure…


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