June 14 2012 09:21AM
In February, the Canucks made a deadline deal and acquired defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani from the Buffalo Sabres. He was technically traded for Alexander Sulzer in a one-for-one deal, but the trade was tied closely to the Cody Hodgson for Zack Kassian swap that was made official only minutes earlier on deadline day.
The Sabres were more than happy to move the young puck moving defenseman, as erratic play had landed him in Lindy Ruff’s doghouse. After leading the team in scoring during their 2011 first round match up against the Flyers (seven points in seven games), Gragnani struggled to hold down a regular roster spot for much of 2011-12.
His offensive dominance at the AHL has been impressive. In four seasons with Rochester and Portland, Gragnani has broken the 50-point mark three times, including a 12-goal, 60-point performance in 2010-11. Gragnani was equally as effective in the QMJHL with Alain Vigneault's former club the PEI Rocket, recording 22 goals and 68 points in his best campaign there (2006-07).
However, the transition to the NHL has been difficult (outside of his impressive playoff series last year). In 73 career regular season games, Gragnani has scored only three goals. He has decent size (although he isn’t physical), and he is very mobile and great at moving the puck.
Why has he struggled?
In Buffalo, Gragnani’s ice time declined primarily because of poor even-strength play. Ruff and the coaching staff gave him a sheltered role (his 63.1% offensive zone starts in 2011-12 was almost 6% more than any other Sabre's regular), and even then his performance wasn’t where it needed to be. He was eventually banished to the press box, much to the delight of the Buffalo fan base.
It didn’t take long for Vancouver fans to see why Gragnani had garnered so much criticism from the fans in Buffalo. For a defenseman, his defensive fundamentals, gap control and decision making on zone-exits was not NHL calibre. Gragnani's forays into the offensive zone were exciting to watch (for fans of both teams), and it became quite clear that he was a work in progress.
In 14 games with the Canucks, Gragnani played over 18 minutes only twice. In Buffalo, his ice time fluctuated greatly. On some nights, he saw less than 14 minutes, on others he saw close to 25. Buffalo brought on Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr last offseason, and Andrej Sekera saw an increased defensive role. Tyler Myers struggled for much of the season too and Ryan Miller’s indifferent play only compounded the inconsistencies of the Buffalo defense.
In an interesting twist of fate, the offensive minutes that Gragnani was slated to receive in Buffalo were given to free agent signing Christian Ehrhoff. Now in Vancouver, the Canucks hope that Gragnani will replace some of the offense they lost with Ehrhoff’s departure.
With all of that being said, how can the team maximize Gragnani’s chances at success in 2012- 13 and beyond?
Find him a steady partner
In the first round series against the Flyers in 2011, Gragnani played almost half (45%) of his shifts with Jordan Leopold. During the 2011-12 season, however, the defensive pairings in Buffalo were switched up with much greater frequency:
Not only did Gragnani's partners fluctuate, but he was moved between playing the left and right-side frequently (Leopold and Mike Weber plays the left side, Ehrhoff and Sekera play the right side). We saw the same basic thing happen during the 14 games Gragnani played in Vancouver. Gragnani's most frequently defensive partner was Alex Edler (39% of the time) so for that time, Gragnani would play the right-side. But the offensively gifted blueliner spent the majority of his ice-time manning left point while paired with the likes of Aaron Rome, Sami Salo and Chris Tanev.
Edler could be a long term fit alongside Gragnani, depending on how the rest of Vancouver’s back end shapes up. But it's worth remembering that familiarity breeds success for young defensemen. Look at the effect Willie Mitchell has had on Drew Doughty (last season) and Slava Voynov (this season) in Los Angeles, for example.
Maximize His Strengths
Alain Vigneault, perhaps more than any other coach in hockey, strives to maximize the strengths of each player. Gragnani is an offensive defenseman, and the Canucks need to place him in a role that suits his abilities – lots of power play time and sheltered even strength minutes (with the Sedin twins, whenever possible).
In 2011-12 Edler played close to 3:30 per game on the power play. Salo was around 2:45 per game, while Hamhuis and Bieksa were at 1:51 and 1:43, respectively. Even if Salo is brought back, the bulk of the minutes from those three defensemen could be given to Gragnani (provided he earns them).
There are similarities between Ehrhoff and Gragnani. Both were cast aside by the teams that drafted and developed them (Ehrhoff with the San Jose Sharks), in part because they were thought to be "defensive liabilities." Ehrhoff was dubbed "Error-Hoff" by Sharks fans, but he was a steady top-four presence during his time in Vancouver. Could Gragnani morph into the same type of player?
Unlike Gragnani, Ehrhoff had experienced some sustained offensive success with the Sharks, including a 42-point season in 2008-09 before the trade. In Vancouver, Ehrhoff’s production skyrocketed. His mobility and ability to pass the puck up the ice fit in quite nicely with the system the Canucks were implementing. In fact Ehrhoff’s emergence as an elite puck-moving defenseman allowed the Canucks to play a more vertical, attacking brand of hockey.
Ehrhoff averaged 3:00 and 3:33 of power play time in his two seasons with the Canucks. His minutes were situationally sheltered and he operated as something of a "Sedin caddy."
In 2009-10, Ehrhoff’s Corsi Relative Quality of Competition (QoC) was fifth on the Canucks, behind Mitchell, Bieksa, Salo, and Edler. He was matched up against the opposition’s second and third lines. He also led the defensive group in offensive zone starts at 53.5%.
In 2010-11, Vigneault’s zone start strategy was employed more consistently. Ehrhoff’s Corsi Relative QoC was again fifth among Canucks defensemen, and his offensive zone starts shot up to 61.5% (Edler was the only other defenseman who started over 50% of his shifts in the offensive zone).
The Canucks did a fantastic job of playing Ehrhoff in situations where his strengths (skating, shooting, puck moving) were maximized while his weaknesses (defensive positioning, physical play) were minimized.
The Canucks back end is wide open right now. The only locks to be on the team for next season are Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler, and Chris Tanev. Andrew Alberts is under contract for 2012-13, but I wouldn’t ever consider him a lock for the NHL roster. Sami Salo and Aaron Rome are free agents, and Keith Ballard is likely trade bait (unless the team wants to continue paying over $4 million for a depth defenseman). Kevin Connauton may be Gragnani’s long term competition for a roster spot, but he isn’t as ready for NHL action yet whereas Gragnani has proven with his AHL production and brief NHL postseason success that he can excel at the professional level.
If Gragnani has a strong training camp and is able to find a regular spot in Vancouver’s top six, things may work out for the talented young defenseman.