How Will John Tortorella Utilize his Top-4 Defensemen?

Dimitri Filipovic
September 12 2013 09:12AM


Could the Sedins bring Jason Garrison and Alex Edler along for the ride this season?
Image via Canucks.com [Jeff Vinnick].

There has been plenty of speculation this summer regarding what we can expect to see from John Tortorella in terms of player usage, and deployment, once the season gets underway. He has already come out and explictly said that the Sedins will be utilized as penalty killers, in addition to everything else they provide for the Canucks. There has also been a lot of chatter that his preference is to put Burrows and Kesler back together, opening the door for Zack Kassian to try and regain the early season success he had playing next to the twins last January.

But what can we expect from the back-end, which is widely viewed as a position of strength for this team. While coaches certainly change their habits and tactics depending on the assets they have at their disposal, they're still creatures of habit when it comes to the way they like to run things. And thankfully, we have enough of a sample size from John Tortorella as a coach to make an educated guess as to how he'll deploy the team's defensemen this season.

Read on past the jump for more on a potential adjustment Tortorella could make that would pay dividends for the Canucks.

Let me introduce you to a great resource that we now have at our disposal thanks to @muneebalamcu, which was brought to my attention by Corey Sznajder in his work covering the Hurricanes. This will all make more sense in a second, but here's the explanation that will hopefully help you read the charts I've included below:

"A little hint on how to read these charts: The horizontal axis shows the ice time of opposing forwards, so the further to the right a player is means that they got the "tough" forward matchups. The vertical axis shows the ice time of opposing defenders, so the players in the upper part of the graph are the ones who other team's coaches were targeting by putting their best defensemen out against them."

Here's a look at how John Tortorella used his defensemen last season:

..and in 2011-12:

Some more numbers from the past two seasons:

Player Corsi Rel QoC Off Zone Start % PP TOI/Game SH TOI/Game
Dan Girardi ('12) 1.653 44.20% 1:45 3:18
Ryan McDonagh ('12) 1.707 42.80% 0:37 3:03
Michael Del Zotto ('12) 0.211 51.30% 4:11 1:23
Anton Stralman ('12) -0.054 51.60% 1:12 0:36
         
Dan Girardi ('13) 1.079 47.50% 2:08 3:02
Ryan McDonagh ('13) 0.619 46.80% 0:38 2:41
Michael Del Zotto ('13) 0.057 59.70% 2:54 1:34
Anton Stralman ('13) -0.387 57.50% 1:04 0:57

As you may have noticed, Tortorella really rode his top pairing of Girardi and McDonagh in a shutdown role. Thanks to their ability to handle such tough minutes, Torts was able to free up the likes of Michael Del Zotto and Anton Stralman, the team's de facto 2nd pairing, to play much softer, sheltered minutes over the course of the season. Given their skillsets - in particular, their ability to generate offense by moving the puck - this surely allowed them to be far more successful than they would've been otherwise. Remember: a good coach is one that puts his players in a position to succeed.

As a frame of reference, here's the same sort of information for the Canucks (under Alain Vigneault) over the same time. First last season

.. and then in 2011-12:

 

The pairing of Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis was sterling in '11-'12, prompting me to put them amongst the league's elite. They really did it all for the Canucks, as they managed to be possession aces while facing the opposition's very best. Unfortunately for Bieksa, things went off the rails for him last season, with his numbers dipping rather significantly. While the nagging injuries he dealt with all year certainly were a big factor, I'd say that leaving Hamhuis being moved to a pairing with the newly arriving Jason Garrison - after having spent two largely successful seasons paired up with him - was just as much to blame. 

Look at his some of his numbers over the past three seasons:

  Corsi Rel QoC Off Zone Start % Corsi Relative Penalties Taken/60
2011 0.644 46.1 3.3 1.1
2012 0.797 49.2 7.6 0.9
2013 0.566 49.2 -5 1.5

He faced essentially the same sort of competition (slightly easier) as he had in recent years, yet his possession numbers plummeted, and likely as a result, he wound up taking penalties at the highest rate of his career. His play last year was worrisome, no doubt, and for the most part, the heat he has constantly taken from Canucks fans became somewhat justified. 

All the way back in February, Jeff Angus looked at the pros and cons of Kevin Bieksa as a player. He presents an interesting dilemma, because it's the very style of play that makes him so good and effective, that tends to also get him in trouble. When the good moments frequently outnumber the bad moments, the eye-popping miscues tend to be easier to swallow. Last year, though, he didn't have anyone to bail him out when he gambled, and his mistakes were even more glaring as a result. I'd love to see him reunited with Hamhuis this season, whose steady play is a perfect "Ying" to Bieksa's "Yang".

There were a lot of things that you could quibble with in terms of how the Canucks operated last season, but I think the biggest, by far, was the staff's reluctance to utilize Jason Garrison in the most effective manner. In 2011-12, Garrison scored 16 goals (good for 3rd amongst defensemen, behind Erik Karlsson and Shea Weber), with 9 of them coming on the power play (2nd, only behind Weber). Check out this video of his goals. It's almost like there's a recurring theme here; sustain pressure in the offensive zone with puck movement while on the power play, and let the puck naturally find its way to Garrison. Him, and his slapper, will take it from there. Brian Campbell was loving life, I'm sure.

Yet, for some reason completely unbeknownst to me, Garrison was left off of the first unit power play for the majority of the lockout shortened season. It really could've been as simple as this, but it wasn't.

So what's the plan? I'd love to see Tortorella start his tenure as coach of the Canucks by utilizing Hamhuis and Bieksa in the McDonagh/Girardi role, while pairing up Edler and Garrison, and turning them into a rich man's version of the Del Zotto/Stralman duo. If Hamhuis and Bieksa are able to perform the way they did together back in '11-'12, the pairing of Edler and Garrison would conceivably be freed up to run wild in the offensive zone. Canucks fans should be salivating at what they'd be capable of doing were they to be deployed in that manner, with as many shifts next to the Sedin line as possible. 

I'm sure that Alex Edler wouldn't mind. Below is a comparison of how he has performed when on the ice with Henrik Sedin, versus how he has performed when Henrik wasn't out there (over the past 5 seasons). The difference is quite drastic:

  TOI w/Henrik CF% w/Henrik GF/60 w/Henrik
'08-'09 380:11 53.9% 3.32
'09-'10 395:24 54.0% 3.34
'10-'11 354:59 54.8% 3.72
'11-'12 527:58 57.9% 2.84
'12-'13 296:13 62.1% 3.24
  TOI w/o Henrik CF% w/o Henrik GF/60 w/o Henrik
'08-'09 794:14 46.2% 2.04
'09-'10 810:43 49.8% 1.70
'10-'11 511:10 51.3% 2.58
'11-'12 846:47 49.2% 1.91
'12-'13 471:46 45.5% 1.39

(data via Stats [dot] HockeyAnalysis [dot] com.)

On the subject of the Edler and Garrison pairing, here's what Thomas Drance wrote about the pairing all the way back in April:

"Another thing that's worth pointing out is that the Jason Garrison and Alex Edler pairing - which we haven't seen since very early in the season - appears to be the most efficient offensive pairing that the Canucks have tried this season (highest rate of goals for, third in corsi events for per sixty). With Jason Garrison beginning to look very comfortable skating on his off-side (and able to tee-up on d-to-d one-timers like nobodies business), I wonder if we might see that pairing reunited somewhere down the line if the coaching staff decides to prioritize offense."

It's pretty clear that the Canucks will be strapped for goals next year, just like they were this past season, when they finished 19th in the league in goals. Long gone are the years of being in the top-5, I'm afraid. That's to say that every little possible advantage could be huge for the team in the grand scheme of things, and generating some offense from the back-end by exploiting the matchups may be another sneaky way of doing so. Especially since their top-4 defensemen are as good as it gets in the league, with only St.Louis, Chicago (and potentially Winnipeg) being remotely close in my opinion. 

If nothing else, this would mean that we wouldn't be subjected to any more of the Edler/Bieksa pairing from hell, which was at least aesthetically, a disaster. That would be a victory for us all.

How would you like to see John Tortorella utilize his Top-4?

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Dimitri Filipovic writes about hockey on the internet, and is the Managing Editor of Canucks Army. You can follow him on Twitter @DimFilipovic, and email him at dimitri.filipovic@gmail.com.
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#51 JFR
September 13 2013, 08:18PM
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Personally I like the idea of pairing Offensive DMen with good puck possession guys. Bieksa and Hammy are a pair, Edler and Tanev and Garrison and Corrado. Edler played his best with a steady guy like Tanev that covers well and gets the puck out of the zone quickly. Looking at Defense pairings through an offensive prism is short sited. Righty lefty shot pairings of Ed and Tanev and Garrison and Corrado are a plus also. The Canicks struggled last year with all lefty shots. Tanevs offensive game normally would be a minus but the comfort level he brings will allow Edler the freedom to let it loose. The worst thing a Dman can do is hesitate and get caught in between, whether pinching or joking the rush. Torts biggest make over will come from the D corps because it is one of the deepest units in the league and was one of the worst handled by AV. Canucks will become a more defensive team that minimizes mistakes and takes advantages of the other teams mistakes. No more Sedin De Soile and I'm fine without the high risk offense from now on.

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#52 Yaaaaapppp
September 15 2013, 05:13PM
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excellent article. As usual.

I've been blasting this scenario from the rooftops for a long time now. I was absolutely shocked to see what a significant decline Bieksa went through last yr. He was injured for most of it, but boy oh boy. He stank.

Put Hamhuis and Juice back together. That should be a given. But the the next 2 pairings are a bit of a challenge cause we know they won't last long. This team always has injuries.

If they think Corrado is ready, try him with Edler. They looked exceptional together last season in limited games. Give them heavy o-zone starts and sheltered mins. Then give Garrison-Tanev they heavier minutes (Tanev is def ready IMO). Corrado is really good at moving the puck from d-zone and can get his shot through in the o-zone. He's obviously not ready to be playing against tough opponents yet, and Edler had his best season playing 'easier' mins. It's a win/win IMO.

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