Canucks Team Needs: A Top Four Defenseman

Thomas Drance
May 28 2012 12:56PM

 
Beyond Bieksa and Hamhuis: the Canucks defense-corps is a big question mark going into this offseason.

As the ink dries on Alain Vigneault's long-awaited (and controversial) contract extension, and with the brush fires Vigneault started with comments regarding Kesler's injury and Luongo's trade request more or less extinguished by Mike Gillis - we're probably in for a slow week (or two) of Canucks news. To help pass the time we'll be running a series this week that looks at what didn't quite work for the Canucks this past season. We'll diagnose some issues, poke at some holes in the roster and discuss some possible offseason remedies for what ails Vancouver's hockey club. We're calling it our "Canucks Team Needs" series, and it starts today with a look at the blue-line.

Read past the jump for more.

The Diagnosis

Going into this postseason, Alain Vigneault and his assistant Rick Bowness (who nominally "runs the defense") caught a lot of flack from Canucks fans for splitting up the vaunted Canucks "shutdown pairing" of Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa. In the 2010-11 regular season and playoffs, Bieksa and Hamhuis handled the brunt of the tough minutes burden for the Canucks, and were spectacular at driving play in the right direction while playing against some of the world's top players.

The two-way proficiency of Hamhuis and Bieksa allowed Vancouver's club to deploy an offensively minded duo of Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Edler in a specialized, Sedin-caddy offensive role. It was wildly successful for the most part, and it's not a coincidence that when Dan Hamhuis was injured in game one of the Stanley Cup Final while throwing a hip-check at Milan Lucic - the defense unravelled.

Despite their dominance in 2010-11, Hamhuis and Bieksa were split up for games one and two of the Canucks ill-fated first round series against the Kings. Bieksa skated with Alex Edler, while Hamhuis was paired with Chris Tanev. As any Canucks fan can tell you: these new pairings didn't work. 

The results were ugly - Edler drove play for the most part, but made several unforced errors that made him something of a "goat" in the series. His turnover late in game one led directly to Dustin Penner's game-winning goal, and he had a ghastly giveaway on Dustin Brown's first short-handed tally in game two. Chris Tanev and Dan Hamhuis were tasked with playing a "shut down" role of sorts, and Tanev for all his brilliance, proved to be unready to handle the tough-minutes burden at this point in his career. Hamhuis and Bieksa were reunited for game three, and while the Canucks stopped some of the bleeding, they were unable to halt the Kings tsunami, as the team dropped two of the final three games by a single goal.

Splitting up Hamhuis and Bieksa was a failure, but when you look at what the Canucks thought they had going into the postseason: it's at least a defensible tactical choice. Yes, splitting up the most reliable blue-line unit was a risky maneuver from the coaching staff, but looking at the regular season data, it's not a surprise that they were desperately searching for answers.

A few quick notes on the table below. I've broken down each defenseman's "zone-start Adjusted Fenwick" number on a per-game basis and included their Corsi relative Quality of Competition number as well as their average even-strength ice-time (also on a per-game basis). I compiled the stats from behindthenet.ca, timeonice.com and NHL.com. Fenwick isn't a perfect all encompassing number by any means, but it's a good measure of possession and defensive skill, and most importantly, we believe it most closely corresponds with the in-house scoring chance data that the Canucks have mentioned they track in-house.

Defenseman Adj. Fen Corsi QoC Avg. EV TOI
Chris Tanev 2.9 0.378 15: 44
Dan Hamhuis 1.81 0.815 18: 38
Kevin Bieksa 1.79 0.797 19: 19
Aaron Rome 1.03 -0.392 14: 00
Marc-Andre Gragnani 0.96 -0.342* 13: 50
Keith Ballard 0.45 -0.472 14: 22
Sami Salo -0.15 0.597 15: 22
Andrew Alberts -0.85 -0.29 13: 04
Alex Edler -1 0.597 18: 09

So what was the issue in particular? Quite simply: the Canucks do not, at the moment, have four top four defenseman. In terms of minutes played they have three: Bieksa, Hamhuis and Alex Edler. 

Sami Salo's age began to show through over the course of this season (accelerated, I'd argue by Marchand's cheap shot on him in January). As Salo's effectiveness dropped, so too did his minutes. It's widely assumed that Salo will not return to the Canucks next season. 

Chris Tanev was given the lions share of Salo's minutes, and played a top-four role down the stretch. Tanev is a possession dynamo when he's deployed primarily on the bottom-pairing, but at this stage of his NHL career: he's just not really an effective top-four defenseman. Gragnani also played top-four minutes on Edler's right side in several games down the stretch, and while he flashed some potential and at times looked like "the poor man's Christian Ehrhoff" - his defensive lapses were too frequent, and he couldn't get into a game in the postseason.

Keith Ballard, Aaron Rome and Andrew Alberts were never used in a top-four role for more than a game here or there. They're the teams bottom pairing defenseman, they play limited minutes and soft competition, and most often start against opponents third or fourth lines in the defensive zone.

Now to the big issue: while the team has three "top-four" defenseman, they only have two reliable "tough minutes" options. Those two are Hamhuis and Bieksa. Frankly, Alex Edler hasn't proven himself capable of doing the heavy lifting, and coming out ahead possession wise in tough minutes. Skating with Ehrhoff last season, Edler was successful at pushing the play forward while being deployed as an offensive specialist against secondary competition. This season he was deployed more conventionally, and spent time with Hamhuis, Bieksa, Rome, Salo, Sulzer and Gragnani. Simply put, the Canucks never found a good fit. 

I'd suggest that the Canucks coaches split up the Hamhuis-Bieksa pairing going into the postseason in an (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to mask a fundamental flaw - the team's lack of a fourth top-four defenseman. In effect the coaching staff tried to balance out their defensive pairings: so Bieksa played with Edler because, in theory, he has the offensive tools to replace Ehrhoff (he was second among all NHL defenseman in even-strength points this season) and is a good enough two-way defender to compensate for some of Edler's defensive shortcomings. It just didn't work. Chris Tanev got the nod in a shutdown role with Dan Hamhuis because, from a possession stand-point: those are the Canucks two best defenseman. It was a nice theory, but it was a band-aid solution to a significant structural problem, and in practice it fell flat.

Possible In-house Solutions

If the Canucks are looking to get back to being an elite team capable of making a deep playoff run - then they're going to require another reliable tough-minutes defenseman to play in their top-four. There are several potential "answers" to this issue in-house, so let's take a quick look at them.

Marc-Andre Gragnani

Marc-Andre Gragnani caught a fair bit of criticism from Canucks fans and the Vancouver media during his short stint with the team, mostly for his defensive lapses and his penchant for ugly turnovers. For the most part, however, Gragnani is what we expected: a high-event defenseman. Generally speaking, when Gragnani is on the ice the Canucks will get more chances to score than they would otherwise, but they'll give up more chances to their opponents as well. 

Gragnani is a solid puck mover, and has produced offense with occasionally outrageous efficiency in his professional career. He spent three games in the top-four towards the end of the season, and while he had several ugly giveaways, he also scored a goal and the Canucks controlled 59% of scoring chances in those three games (against the Flames, Ducks and Stars from March 31st to April 5th). Yey, small samples!

Gragnani isn't likely to transform into a capable tough minutes option next season (or possibly ever), but he's a guy who can drive possession and produce offense in a tailored top-four role. Luckily for Gragnani, the Canucks coaching staff specializes in utilizing players with specific skill sets in a non-traditional way that emphasizes their talents and hides their weaknesses. 

If Gragnani plays 25 or so games in the top-four next season, starts close to 60% of his shifts in the offensive end, and is protected from top-competition alongside Alex Edler - he could be enormously effective. If the team goes into the postseason in 2013 relying on Gragnani to play 17+ even-strength minutes a night, however, that's not going to be ideal.

Chris Tanev

Chris Tanev played fairly well in top-four minutes towards the end of the season (he was in the top-four in even-strength ice-time among Canucks defenders in most of the final ten games of the season). Tanev is a good possession player, and a responsible defensive defenseman but he wasn't the possession dynamo playing top-four minutes that he is operating out of a more limited role on the bottom pairing. 

Tanev is something of a "cooler," and kind of the opposite of Marc-Andre Gragnani. Gragnani is so good at offense, and so generous with the puck, that he makes both teams better at scoring. Tanev is so responsible, and frankly, so limited as an offensive player that he improves Vancouver's defense and goaltending, and has the same impact on the opposition as well.

Until Chris Tanev improves the velocity and accuracy of his shot, I'd suggest that he takes too much offense off of the table to play permanently in the top-four, on a contending team. Because he plays "low event" or safe hockey, has good wheels and makes slick tape to tape passes look easy - he's an ideal fit in the Canucks system on the bottom-pairing. In time, as he adds muscle mass, and improves his offensive game, I remain convinced that he'll become a difference maker in the top-four. There's a slight chance that Tanev could make the leap next season (likely to be his first full season in the NHL), but if the club opens training camp with Tanev pencilled into a top-four role, I'd call that a sizable risk.

Keith Ballard

Before Keith Ballard moved to Vancouver and promptly began to be bad at hockey, he was a consistently reliable top-four defenseman. In Florida and Phoenix he managed to do what Hamhuis and Bieksa do - turn play around against the opposition's top-players. He also used to suppress opponent shooting%, a rare trait, and one the Canucks appear to value. He's never meshed with Alain Vigneault in Vancouver, and he's been relegated to the bottom-pairing partly because of his inability to play the right side (an unfortunate trait he shares with both Alex Edler and Dan Hamhuis) and partly because he just hasn't played all that well.

Keith Ballard is paid like a top-four defenseman, he has several years experience playing good hockey as a top-four defenseman and yet, for whatever reason, no one believes that he'll ever be a top-four defenseman in Vancouver. Paying him 4.5 million against the cap to play 14 minutes a night is an inexcusably inefficient allocation of resources, and in all likelihood the Canucks will try to move him this offseason for cents on the dollar. 

I still think Ballard is a capable top-four NHL defenseman: on another team, playing for a different coach. Hopefully for him he gets a fresh start, because as a Canuck he's been a Joan Harris sized bust.

The Open Market

Top-four defenseman are always overvalued on the open market, but there are several intriguing options available this summer. For sea to sky regionalists, Justin Schultz (who we've profiled at length) and Jason Garrison (who we've also written about) are the available names that stimulate the biggest maple boners.

Garrison is especially intriguing because of his versatility, but he's coming off of a career year and is quite clearly an over-valued asset at this point in his career: he's not a 40 point defenseman, and probably never will be, but he's about to get paid like one. Schultz on the other hand has the potential of a top-10 draft pick, and is more NHL ready than an 18 year old, but asking a rookie to step into an NHL top-four right off the bat is a tall order. 

Also headed for Unrestricted Free-Agency this summer are guys like Ryan Suter, Dennis Wideman, Matt Carle, Flip Kuba, Barrett Jackman, Adrian Aucoin, Sheldon Souray, Brad Stuart and Pavel Kubina. All of those guys played top-four or modified top-four minutes this season. Wideman, Carle, Aucoin, Kubina, Garrison and Schultz are all players who can play the right side (Vancouver doesn't really need another left sided defenseman), so they'd seem to be the best fits should Gillis try to address this area of need in free-agency.

All of those guys are going to get paid this summer and it's possible that the numbers won't make sense for the Canucks. I'd argue, however, that a top-four defenseman is the team's biggest single "area of need" this offseason - and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Canucks commit a fair bit of cap-space and term to a UFA defenseman this summer.

The Trade Market

The trade market is volatile, and impossible to predict. I'd speculate that the Canucks could get a defenseman in return for Roberto Luongo who everyone expects the team to move. There are also a few high-end puck movers, guys like Mike Green or Mark Streit, who could feasibly be moved this summer. Both Streit and Green would fit well in Vancouver's top-four, they both play the right-side, and they'd bring added punch to the Canucks power-play.

Conclusion

There is probably no bigger hole on the Canucks current roster than on the right-side of their top-four. This is a glaring area of need, and looking at the data and the way the team deployed their blue-liners down the stretch (clearly searching for answers): the club knows it. Mike Gillis hasn't been shy about trading futures for a potential top-four defenseman in the past (see: Ballard, Keith) and has opened up the vault in free-agency to acquire quality defensemen as well (see: Hamhuis, Dan), so expect the Canucks to leave no stone unturned in an effort to fill this particular void this summer.

We can be confident that the Canucks will bolster their top-four somehow this summer, but I'll be curious to see what approach Gillis takes this summer. Obviously should the Canucks win the bidding for Justin Schultz, that will change the calculus. But I wouldn't be surprised to see the Canucks over-pay for the likes of Jason Garrison, or at least ink a veteran blueliner such as Aucoin and let him compete with the likes of Gragnani and Tanev for top-four minutes. 

(Last paragraph updated at 8 PM PST)

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Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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#1 Canucks
May 28 2012, 05:41PM
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Awesome, love your articles.

Before last season started, I remember stating that a lack of partner for Edler would be their undoing. Couldn't believe they were planning to go into season, let alone playoffs, with Salo playing top 4 mins. It was mindblowing.

In UFA, I think Garrisons the best fit. His underlying numbers are the best (other than Suter). Best corsi on team, best GA/60 (for 2 straight yrs), and he's only 28. And the best part, he's versatile. Guys who can play left and right side effectively are bound to be AV favorites (ie Rome). He can be a shut down guy (has been for last 2 yrs) - playing against toughest competition, but he can drive play up ice as well. Agreed that he's not likely to put up 16 goals again, but he'll be deployed with Sedins - so you never know.

The issue is pay. I say no more than $3.5M cap hit per yr. Seems to be the next step in pay range when you're coming off a good yr making below $1M (see Giradi, Edler, Letang, Coburn etc). He'll be offered more no doubt, hopefully he'll be the next BC boy to take a slight home town discount :)

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#2 puck-bandit
May 28 2012, 10:12PM
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Good read, get cranky if I don't get something hockey. Few thoughts, and opinions, as I have many. Aside from the many misgivings on line pairings and the challenges the coaching staff had, it is my hope that they learned something from the early exit. As a true die-hard Nuck fan, my wish list would be; not to sign Salo again, not for any price, you could really see the wear on him. Sitting 5 feet away he looked beat in the remaining half of the season. Really like the guy, but I want a cup, not a tired player. If I had my way; Grags and Tanev would go down to Chicago for a season. Tanev needs strength, and some bulk. Grags needs to work on puck strength and consistency, too many give away's. I was thinking that Romer could be traded to the Jet's, he started well then disappeared for the season, to include Albert's. My biggest resentment is Ballard; 4.2 mil and a healthy scratch? If everything that MG said comes to fruition and they stick to the UFA market, and trades, my fingers are crossed that we can bolster that blue-line. We are so weak there right now, well; we know the outcome. One interesting question? Wonder if the coaching staff will change to a defensive system?

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#3 Nat
May 28 2012, 10:32PM
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Great post Drance. Lots of interesting info.

I'm really looking forward to the draft and free agency this summer. I think Gillis is going to be quite active. Schultz is a tantalizing prospect....given his potential and the small cap hit, I'm excited to see where he goes. I would love to see him in blue and green.

On another note entirely, I wonder what the chances are that Jensen makes the jump to the big club. I bet it's highly unlikely given how this org likes to bring on players slowly, but I wonder...

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#4 Graphic Comments
May 29 2012, 11:05AM
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IMO, Schultz is not a near-term option to fill the hole. No matter how talented, you can't expect a D to walk onto an NHL team out of college and play top four minutes. Defensemen typically take 3-5 years to mature into that type of role.

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#5 Nat
May 29 2012, 11:35AM
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Very true, but I'm not interested in being realistic right now : P

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#7 BrudnySeaby
May 29 2012, 04:05PM
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Hey Nat, agree that the club is generally very careful in readying players for the big club. But, depending on the new cap space, the goalie they end up moving, and other player movements, they might be "forced" to play Jensen as he has a reasonable cap hit.

Still wonder about the Hodgson trade; would Tyler Myers not have been a better trade option? He plays right side and is big...

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#8 Graphic Comments
May 29 2012, 05:48PM
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@BrudnySeaby

I can't imagine Myers was available.

@ThomasDrance

Fair enough on his age, still not sure he could walk right into a top four job. Anybody else done that besides Leetch?

I could lean toward Garrison, but as you point out, whoever lands him is buying high.

Despite my misgivings about Schultz being ready, I would be ok if they signed him and brought him along slowly with Tanev, i.e. don't expect him to fill that role just yet. Hmm. Maybe if they ditch Ballard's $4.5m, they can grab both Garrison and Schultz!

LOL. Now I'm starting to sound like one of those ludicrous trade proposals...

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