Catching Up With Old Friends: Former Canucks Defensemen

Thomas Drance
January 03 2014 12:02PM


Video courtesy CanucksTV

Yesterday we took a glance around the league and looked at how 15 former Canucks forwards were performing. Though there were a few useful pieces scattered between St. Louis and Long Island, and a couple of other quality depth players in Toronto, San Jose and Dallas, overall the team hasn't lost too much of value upfront over the past few years.

It's a different story along the blue-line, where the Canucks have seen a steady outflow of talent over the years. We'll catch up with some former Canucks defenseman after the jump.

For our purposes we've identified seven former Canucks defenseman who are meaningful contributors at the NHL level this season. A couple of these players are sure bets to have their names in the Canucks' ring of honour at somepoint shortly after they hang up their skates, and one of them (Aaron Rome) has a good chance of having his number retired by the franchise.

In all seriousness, one of the names not on this list is Mattias Ohlund who is Vancouver's all-time leading back-end point producer (he still has a lead of about 100 points over both Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler). Ohlund's knees have essentially given up on him, and it would be a surprise if he were to continue his playing career in any capacity. Basically the one-time Canucks rearguard is in Chris Pronger territory - retired for all intents and purposes, but not really. Once it's official I'd expect him to be promptly and appropriately honoured by the team.

Former Canucks Defensemen

Anyway here are the counting stats and average ice-time for seven Canucks defenders who played for the team since the 2008-09 season and are still active in the National Hockey League this season:

Former Canucks defensemen Current Team GP G A Pts TOI/G 5on5 On-Ice GD
Christian Ehrhoff Buffalo Sabres 40 2 12 14 24:01 -6
Willie Mitchell Los Angeles Kings 37 0 4 4 20:17 +2
Sami Salo Tampa Bay Lightning 34 1 6 7 19:24 +6
Kevin Connauton Dallas Stars 15 1 4 5 16:01 Even
Aaron Rome Dallas Stars 7 0 1 1 14:40 +2
Keith Ballard Minnesota Wild 26 0 5 5 13:43 -6
Shane O'Brien Calgary Flames 36 0 2 2 11:04 -4

And of course we've also put together a Player Usage Chart (courtesy hockeyabstract.com):

(Just a quick note on how to read this chart: the further a player appears to the left on the horizontal axis, the more defense oriented their deployment is in terms of zone-starts. Where a player's bubble appears on the vertical axis represents the difficulty of the matchups faced by a certain player (in terms of Corsi-Rel QoC). The size of the bubble itself represents average ice-time, and the shading is tuned to display relative-corsi. A blue-r bubble indicates that a player's on-ice shot attempt differential (relative to their teams) is in the black, a red-er bubble represents a player getting buried by the flow of play relative to their teammates.)

Analysis

If you look over the usage chart briefly, it's instantly clear that Vancouver has seen a much steadier outflow of talent from their back-end than their forward group. This is for a variety of reasons but mostly has to do with the team disagreeing on a price point with a small handful of aging, pending unrestricted free-agents.

Willie Mitchell, Aaron Rome, Christian Ehrhoff and Sami Salo all left the club through free-agency, and that's the majority of the players on this list. This shouldn't be too surprising when you consider Vancouver's somewhat strict "internal cap" for top-four defenseman (all of Jason Garrison, Bieksa, and Dan Hamhuis come in at roughly $4.6 million per annum).

Among the depth players: Shane O'Brien and Kevin Connauton were traded, albeit for very different reasons. Meanwhile Keith Ballard was the target of a "compliance buyout" this summer (and he promptly signed with the Minnesota WIld).

In Salo (when healhty), Mitchell (when healthy), and Ehrhoff, the Canucks have lost three players during the Mike Gillis era who remain somewhat credible top-four defenseman in the NHL. Between those three and the likes of Connauton, Rome, Ballard and O'Brien, you could probably cobble together a modestly below average defense-corps in the National Hockey League.

Christian Ehrhoff

Ehrhoff was a dynamic, durable, productive presence during his two seasons in Vancouver and is very probably a well above average top-pairing NHL defenseman. The Borrusia Dortmunt supporter is not a perfect player: he can be outmuscled in the slot by bigger forwards and often was in the postseason. But he's a responsible puck-mover and a consumate professional with a sky-high fitness level and high-end offensive skills. Ehrhoff moves the needle possession wise and had a tonne of chemistry with the Sedin twins and Alex Edler. He was fun to watch in Vancouver.

He's still fun to watch in Buffalo, but his nitrous impact in transition isn't quite so impressive when he's using his speed through the neutral zone to set up the likes of Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson, as opposed to Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

Should the Canucks have retained Christian Ehrhoff rather than Kevin Bieksa (who was extended that same summer) or Alex Edler (who was extended two seasons hence)? I'm a bit torn on this subject, which is a favorite point of debate among many hipster Canucks fans.

My quick take: Bieksa is the superior player and his contract is way better (would you rather gamble that Bieksa is useful through the age of 34, or that Ehrhoff is useful through the age of 38?) so that's not much of a question. But Ehrhoff is far superior to Edler at even-strength, and arguably did more to inflate the twins' offensive production than Edler ever has.

It's a tough one, and I can see the argument either way. But I think I'd narrowly rather have a 27-year old Edler for the next six seasons at $5 million per, as opposed to a 31-year-old Christian Ehrhoff for the next seven at $4 million per...

Willie Mitchell

Since leaving the Canucks as a free-agent during the summer of 2010, Willie Mitchell has missed a significant amount of time due to injuries. He's also continued to be one of the NHL's best rebounders (that long reach has made many goalies look very good over the years), an excellent possession player, and he's won a Stanley Cup while playing big minutes with the Los Angeles Kings.

Meanwhile Canucks fans are left to wonder what could've been in 2010-11 if the team had simply retained MItchell and not made the Keith Ballard trade. Hard to imagine an Aaron Rome suspension meaning much of anything had Mitchell been around (this wallowing is not to criticize Mike Gillis or the team by the way, I still think they made the right decision at the time).

Anyway, I tend to think that MItchell might be a Ring of Honour candidate once his career is over, partly because he was stellar in Vancouver and partly because of his local connections and the way he's regarded in the community.

Sami Salo

Though at this point in his career Salo's defensive value is limited and he's probably best suited to playing a bottom pairing role (at least in the Western Conference), the Finnish veteran has had his best go of it possession-wise in years in Tampa Bay this season. Which is great to see.

He'll be counted on to log major minutes at the Olympics along a wafer thin Finnish blue-line, and also his Lightning club is poised to be contenders out East once Steven Stamkos returns from injury. Hopefully his injury prone 39-year-old body can withstand the grind.

Salo played nine seasons in Vancouver and recorded over 300 points in a Canucks uniform. He's beloved by Canucks fans, and is a sure bet to have his name in the Ring of Honour when his playing days are done.

Kevin Connauton

Connauton and a 2nd round pick (that the Stars wasted) was part of the price the Canucks paid for a few weeks of optimism following their acquisition of Derek Roy at the 2013 trade deadline. Roy was a flop in the postseason, while Connauton seemed to find his game with the Texas Stars and earned himself an interesting three-year contract extension this summer (Connauton's extension morphs into a one-way deal next season)...

This season Connauton has made his NHL debut in Dallas, and he's managed to contribute five points in 15 games. The Stars blue-line is racked with injuries at the moment, so Connauton has seen his minutes spike over the past month. Connauton has actually played over 16 minutes in five of his past six games and has managed 15 shots on goal and a couple of assists in his past four contests. I should stop now before I talk myself into taking a flier on him in Fantasy Hockey...

Anyway, Connauton is being relied upon at the NHL level by a relatively good team and he's doing okay for a rookie defenseman. His team is still giving up more than they're producing with Connauton on the ice, and the former Vancouver Giants defender has taken a lot of minor penalties when he's been tasked with logging additional minutes over the past few games, in part because his positioning still needs a good deal of work.

That said, if we make a similar list in the future, Connauton is only behind Cory Schneider on the watch list of "former Canucks assets whose trades might look horrendous in retrospect."

Aaron Rome

Rome doesn't seem to enjoy the trust of coach Lindy Ruff in Dallas and is paid too much to be attractive waiver fodder for another club. With another year after this season left on his lucrative contract, Rome is in a bit of a tough position in terms of "getting playing time." Maybe when the salary cap rises this summer he could find his way to, I don't know, New York perhaps in a retained salary transaction?

Despite Rome's issues getting back into the lineup in Dallas, I still think he's a solid depth piece for any team to have. Just not at $1.5 million per season.

Keith Ballard

Ballard has had another in a long line of difficult seasons this year. The affable defenseman has dealt with concussion and other injury issues, which have limited his appearances. His apperances have also been limited, of late, by his coach Mike Yeo's discretion (sound familiar?).

That Ballard hasn't been able to hold down his regular spot on Minnesota's third pairing is a pretty bad sign for the former Canucks defenseman. After all, Minnesota's blue-line depth doesn't quite rival Vancouver's in 2010-11.

Shane O'Brien

O'Brien developed a reputation as an unserious sort in Vancouver, but he's remained in the league and obviously has matured some (so good for him). He currently plays third-pairing minutes for the Calgary Flames this season and is on a contract that pays him an average of $2 million per season.

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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 NM00
January 03 2014, 01:00PM
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"Should the Canucks have retained Christian Ehrhoff rather than Kevin Bieksa (who was extended that same summer) or Alex Edler (who was extended two seasons hence)?"

Actually, if the Canucks were cap wizards, the correct moves would have been accepting Mitchell & Hamhuis's gifts to the province of British Columbia and not giving up assets to take on Ballard's contract (dump).

Then the money would have been available to make a competitive offer to Ehrhoff and Grabner could have been the lone drafted and developed in the salary cap era regular on the Canucks...

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#3 Ryan B
January 03 2014, 01:48PM
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NM00 wrote:

"Should the Canucks have retained Christian Ehrhoff rather than Kevin Bieksa (who was extended that same summer) or Alex Edler (who was extended two seasons hence)?"

Actually, if the Canucks were cap wizards, the correct moves would have been accepting Mitchell & Hamhuis's gifts to the province of British Columbia and not giving up assets to take on Ballard's contract (dump).

Then the money would have been available to make a competitive offer to Ehrhoff and Grabner could have been the lone drafted and developed in the salary cap era regular on the Canucks...

Hindsight is a beautiful thing eh Blake Price, er NM00?

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#4 NM00
January 03 2014, 02:10PM
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@Thomas Drance

"I don't get why local dmen like Hamhuis and Garrison signing good deals w the Canucks is a knock against MG and co.."

I don't get why you are rushing to MG's defense here.

Where have I criticized MG for accepting these gifts?

I simply don't consider them homeruns as it has been suggested.

By the way, the contracts to Parise & Suter are fine. If Minnesota ever felt like unburdening themselves of either contract, there would be a line of teams offering meaningful assets.

"Anyway, worth remembering that Mitchell had significant durability questions post-concussion in the summer of 2010. And also that Ballard was acquired before the team had Hamhuis in hand. Deal made sense at the time, but each, the result of it sucked."

The fact that Mitchell had a concussion and was amenable to a short term deal was a gift management chose to let slip away.

There is no such thing as a bad one year deal and there's every reason to believe was willing to sign one in Vancouver.

As for Ballard & Hamhuis, what exactly was Gillis' endgame?

He pretty much boxed himself into a corner where he could only afford one of Bieksa or Ehrhoff.

It never made sense to have BOTH Ballard & Hamhuis on the team.

There is no hindsight here. It was poor planning from the outset.

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#5 PB
January 03 2014, 02:10PM
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I love Mitchell but at that time it seemed a bigger gamble to re-sign him with those significant injury issues (especially after that cheap shot by Malkin that kept him out for so long). And I think Ehrhoff while enjoyable to watch was good only if he was a 4/5 defenseman and definitely not at the price he was going to get since he wasn't about to take the internal cap which is certainly his prerogative but it's unrealistic to think the Canucks should have used savings from hometown discounts to pay a lesser defenseman more -- not exactly good for the locker room I'd think. And there's no reason to think that the Canucks didn't/wouldn't make a "competitive" offer -- just not a crazy one. There's a reason that SJ fans tended to call him "Error-hoff" -- a lot of that was unfair but he still made his fair share of mistakes. I think he and Edler were a good pairing but I'd argue that it was the latter who made him look better not the other way around.

As much as I love Salo and Ohlund and like Ehrhoff, not one of them was worth what other teams paid for them. Ehrhoff's comparables are guys like Fowler, Voynov, Staal and Hedman (also a bunch of other old and deteriorating players). We'd be screaming bloody murder if Gillis and co let the salary range escalate in such a way.

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#6 PB
January 03 2014, 02:16PM
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@NM00

It's hindsight to know now that Ballard would be a) a far worse player than in much of his previous career in Phoenix and Florida, b) that he'd have significant injury issues, and c) that AV would choose not to utilize him or utilize him poorly while here (though I suppose with what's happened with him in Minnesota perhaps the fault wasn't as much with AV as is sometimes assumed).

The endgame at the time -- I would assume -- was to strengthen Vancouver's defense by adding two top-four d-men who had reputations as puck-moving and somewhat offensively minded to replace at least one defensive stalwart with serious injury issues. Aren't you always going on about adding better pieces? This was a calculation that clearly didn't pay off. The Ballard trade I thought was suspect at the time mainly because of the extra first rounder thrown in (though I think Howden is debatable as much more than a third liner at this point); I thought the salary dump (Bernier) and the prospect (Grabner) were enough. That'll happen sometimes, like trading a young and unfinished power forward plus a first round draft pick for a proven 100-point player...

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#7 NM00
January 03 2014, 02:41PM
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@PB

This has little to do with Ballard falling apart the moment he was introduced to the Canucks' middle manager.

The Canucks gave up two good assets while paying Ballard pretty close to market value.

That in itself was an overpayment and poor management.

Then the Canucks chose to make Ballard redundant by signing Hamhuis.

Considering the salary cap was only $59.4 million at the time, how exactly did they plan on affording five core 4 defenseman the following year?

The correct move, and none of this is hindsight, would have been maintaining the flexibility that came with accepting Mitchell's gift and acquiring one of Ballard & Hamhuis.

And for those suggesting Gillis didn't know he could land Hamhuis when he overpayed for Ballard, what was stopping Gillis from trading Ballard AFTER signing Hamhuis?

If the Ballard trade was "fine at the time", Gillis should have had no problem recouping assets similar to those he gave up in the first place.

It was poor cap management that made Bieksa and Ehrhoff an either/or proposition...

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#8 PB
January 03 2014, 03:06PM
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@NM00

But I am assuming the calculus was keeping puck moving defenseman like Ballard and hope that he regained his form rather than overpay for Ehrhoff (who going by his production here versus SJ or Buffalo seems as much a beneficiary of playing with the twins and Edler as the reverse)? I actually think that's a bad bet anyway but I don't think the choice was between Bieksa and Ehrhoff in terms of the type of d-man they were. If they'd kept Ehrhoff they'd have a surplus of that kind of player.

In any event the entire Ballard situation is clearly not a "win" for Gillis (though not really for Florida either except as a salary dump). I don't think that he could have unloaded him after the fact but more because of salary than anything. Could he have regained a late first-rounder, a decent prospect and a depth player? Maybe, but it's not like Ballard had done much in the first season to justify that price. The point is that at the time it would have been hard to know all of this or even to have predicted it quite so accurately. Hence the hindsight comment.

In hindsight this is one of Gillis top five worst moves. I'd just leave it at that -- and it's a lot of criticism, from overpaying in a trade to poor use of the player to wasting money in a buyout -- without having to also bash him for not having these predictive powers. It was a bad move by Gillis. It didn't make us miss the playoffs and it didn't completely hamstring us for the next decade. Move on.

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#9 Ryan B
January 03 2014, 03:53PM
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NM00 wrote:

"I don't get why local dmen like Hamhuis and Garrison signing good deals w the Canucks is a knock against MG and co.."

I don't get why you are rushing to MG's defense here.

Where have I criticized MG for accepting these gifts?

I simply don't consider them homeruns as it has been suggested.

By the way, the contracts to Parise & Suter are fine. If Minnesota ever felt like unburdening themselves of either contract, there would be a line of teams offering meaningful assets.

"Anyway, worth remembering that Mitchell had significant durability questions post-concussion in the summer of 2010. And also that Ballard was acquired before the team had Hamhuis in hand. Deal made sense at the time, but each, the result of it sucked."

The fact that Mitchell had a concussion and was amenable to a short term deal was a gift management chose to let slip away.

There is no such thing as a bad one year deal and there's every reason to believe was willing to sign one in Vancouver.

As for Ballard & Hamhuis, what exactly was Gillis' endgame?

He pretty much boxed himself into a corner where he could only afford one of Bieksa or Ehrhoff.

It never made sense to have BOTH Ballard & Hamhuis on the team.

There is no hindsight here. It was poor planning from the outset.

Where to start...

IIRC, Gillis offered Mitchell a 2yr/$4M deal, a chance for Willie to a) show that he was healthy and b) fit into our cap structure. LA blew us out of the water with the 2yr/7M offer, easy decision for the Mitchell camp.

Re: acquiring both Ballard and Hamhuis. Remember those playoffs, like every year for the past 5-6 years, when one or two of our top d-men would inevitably get dinged up and force depth d-men to punch above their weight class? Solution: stockpile top 4 d-men, make sure our lack of overall depth would no longer be an issue. Hammer the sound defensive guy, Ballard the puck moving offensive guy. That AV went meathead and continually squared pegged KB into a round hole (as a safe cautious 5-6 depth guy) was a curve that nobody could have predicted.

$100M each for Parise/Suter is not fine, it is exactly the reason that led to the most recent lockout. The owners were crying wolf/poverty when they were the ones that okayed those stupid contracts in the first place. Luongo gets crapped on for his long contract, at least he had the resume to warrant it. How is Minny doing BTW?

I'm glad we chose Bieksa over Erhoff, at least Kevin wants to be here. Also, he brings intangible assets to the team that Christian doesn't: toughness and leadership to be precise.

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#11 NM00
January 03 2014, 05:03PM
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@Thomas Drance

Even the contract Mitchell signed in LA would have been better than taking on TWO long term contracts in Hammer & Ballard.

Putting aside the respective performances of Hammer & Ballard since the beginning of 2010-2011, the strategy should have been to accept Mitchell's gift and acquire ONE core defenseman/contract.

Ballard became redundant the moment Hammer was acquired.

And letting Mitchell walk for nothing is as Moneypuck as selling low on Grabner, buying high on Raymond and then letting Raymond walk for nothing...

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#12 NM00
January 03 2014, 05:08PM
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@Ryan B

"$100M each for Parise/Suter is not fine, it is exactly the reason that led to the most recent lockout."

Uh no. The lockout was largely based on a revenue distribution problem.

Individual contracts do not matter when worker costs were fixed 57 cents of every dollar.

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#13 Matt
January 03 2014, 06:50PM
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@NM00

The fact that you don't consider the Hamhuis deal a home run says pretty much everything anyone ever needs to know about you.

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#14 pheenster
January 04 2014, 12:38AM
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@NM00

How "fine" will those contracts look 5 years from now? If their names are on the Cup at that point, the contracts will look just dandy. If not, not so much.

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#15 Rusty
January 04 2014, 05:04AM
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@ NM00. #NM00forGMwillwinusaCUP...NOT #hindsightalways20/20

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#16 NM00
January 04 2014, 07:10AM
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@Matt

The fact that you think accepting a gift that Hammer offered to Vancouver (but not to Nashville, Pittsburgh & Philadelphia at minimum) qualifies as a home run pretty much speaks to your limited ability to turn on your brain.

But nice try!

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#17 PB
January 04 2014, 03:12PM
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@NM00

So in your understanding all local products are just waiting to give "gifts" to their home teams? So all GMs for local teams have to do is accept them? No making a pitch for them? No trying to make a case as to why they should stay? No hand for the management team in bringing local products home? So no need to worry about replenishing our ranks then since Lucic, the Reinharts, and Nugent-Hopkins are on their way. Strange how Justin Schultz seemed to miss the memo. But thanks for enlightening us on how management plays no role in players choosing where they will go as free agents.

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#18 NM00
January 04 2014, 04:36PM
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@PB

Thanks for pretending to understand the discussion just before missing the point entirely and rambling on about your misconception.

Free agency is player-centred.

Hamhuis chose Vancouver. He didn't choose Gillis.

There's little reason to believe Gillis did a better job of selling Vancouver than Poile with Nashville, Shero with Pittsburgh & Holmgren with Philly at minimum.

For how long was Hamhuis an unrestricted free agent? 4-8 hours?

Wow that Gillis must have been an amazing negotiator considering Poile had nearly a year and Shero/Homer had a few days to convince Hammer to sign with them.

Or was it simply a cap wizardry magic trick?

Keep trying for that "gotchya!" moment, though. It is quite adorable to watch the attempts...

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#19 Ryan B
January 04 2014, 07:17PM
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PB wrote:

So in your understanding all local products are just waiting to give "gifts" to their home teams? So all GMs for local teams have to do is accept them? No making a pitch for them? No trying to make a case as to why they should stay? No hand for the management team in bringing local products home? So no need to worry about replenishing our ranks then since Lucic, the Reinharts, and Nugent-Hopkins are on their way. Strange how Justin Schultz seemed to miss the memo. But thanks for enlightening us on how management plays no role in players choosing where they will go as free agents.

So did Joe Sakic and Paul Kariya, apparently...

NM, your Gillis hatred is blinding you.

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#20 PB
January 04 2014, 08:37PM
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@NM00

I think it's adorable to see that you share a sense of paranoia as well as a poor grasp of logic and knowledge of hockey with Sarah Palin. It's cute to see your sense of self-importance if you think people on a blog are trying ta getcha...

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#21 JCDavies
January 05 2014, 02:31AM
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@PB

I think Ehrhoff is a better player than you are giving him credit for. He's probably not worth that contract but the Canucks could really use his offense right now.

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#22 JCDavies
January 05 2014, 02:39AM
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@NM00

"There is no such thing as a bad one year deal..."

False. But if the Canucks tried that and it blew up in their faces, they could always send a mid-level prospect and a draft pick to Dallas to try to patch the hole it would leave in the lineup.

Also, I don't really get the Hamhuis/Ballard redundancy argument. They aren't similar players at all.

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#23 PB
January 05 2014, 08:16AM
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@JCDavies

Yes, I agree Ehrhoff isn't a bad player. But he isn't worth that contract and he wasn't going to fit in under the informal internal cap here so the solution was unlikely to be taking savings from Hamhuis or possibly Mitchell and applying it to him, which was what NM00 was suggesting.

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