Year End De-Brief – Part 1: Defense

Vancouver Canucks v Anaheim Ducks

With the Canucks bowing out early from the playoffs yet again, it’s once again another opportunity for Canucks fans to question the constitution of their favourite team. We at Canucks Army are quite happy to mercilessly rip apart the team and pretend to play General Manager. If we were in control, the defense, the offense, the goaltending, and the coaching staff would all see changes, to varying degrees. But three second-round exists in four years is no longer acceptable to long-suffering Canucks fans, especially given the high-end talent and price tags associated with the team.

In part 1 of our Year End De-Brief, Canucks Army will examine the Defense.

For the second year in a row, the Chicago Blackhawks exposed some major flaws in the Canucks defense. Last year, the lack of speed and puck movement from the blueline were touted as the main reasons why Vancouver lost. So the Canucks went and addressed that, mainly with the acquisition of Christian Ehrhoff and the emergence of Alexander Edler.

This year, the main flaw was the toughness of the defense, especially around their own net. The Canucks lost a litany of battles in front of Luongo, resulting in a huge number of goalmouth-scramble goals. The Canucks seemed both unwilling and unable to get between the Blackhawks forwards and their own goalie and net. As well, the Canucks didn’t really address their overall need for puck movement from the blueline. While the addition of Ehrhoff helped, it only took care of that need for one of the 6 defense in the lineup.

It goes as no surprise that the season-ending loss of Willie Mitchell had a significant impact on the defense, both in terms of his shut-down role as well as his leadership on an off the ice. Now that he is moving toward unrestricted free agency, it appears as though the "Pride of Port McNeill" has played his last game as a Canuck.

The most frustrating part of the defense is the apparent lack of an overall system. In looking at the current remaining teams in the playoffs today (Montreal, Philadelphia, San Jose, Chicago), they all have a system. They all move the puck out of their own zone in two or less passes. They all run a particular pattern when defending. They all have a gameplan. The Canucks do not appear to have a gameplan on any given night. So is the problem the players? Or is it the coaching?

I suggest that it’s both, and I’ll the coaching in Part 3, but today, let’s look at what needs to change with the defense.

1. Trade Kevin Bieksa. Bieksa shows flashes of greatness. But that’s just it. He only shows it in flashes. The rest of the time, Bieksa appears lazy and disinterested. More specifically, he shows no urgency. For a team that needs quick movement out of their own zone, Bieksa defeats that purpose. Trade Bieksa for draft picks and/or prospects, as the Canucks can use his salary cap on free agent acquisitions.

2. Let Shane O’Brien walk. I like Shane O’Brien, but the problem is his salary and his improvement. It sounds weird to say that it’s a problem that he’s improved but it is, because he’s due a raise and will likely command about $2m per year, and that’s a lot for a sixth defenseman. Also, he’s simply not good enough yet to move up the depth chart in order to justify the Canucks paying him more. There are cheaper options on the upcoming free agent list that would help that need.

3. Let Willie Mitchell walk… unless… the Canucks can sign Mitchell for $2.5m or less. Right now, Mitchell is damaged goods and he’s aged quickly. Before the Malkin hit that left him with a concussion and sidelined for the remainder of the season, Mitchell was having a solid year. So the thought here is that if the Canucks can sign him at a reduced salary, and likely for only one year (a la Kyle Wellwood) he’d be worth the risk. But if he is still asking for $3m or more, the Canucks would be well advised to spend that money elsewhere in free agency.

4. Re-sign Aaron Rome… as a reserve defenseman. I was a huge hater of Aaron Rome when he first started with the Canucks. Admittedly, he rounded into form as the season progressed. He would be a good hold to round out the depth on defense, along with Andrew Alberts, who signed through next season.

5. Trade Sami Salo… if you can get an acceptable return. I really like Sami Salo. And he has been as dutiful a soldier that the Canucks could have ever asked for. But he’s old and broken. He’ll be 36 when the 2010-2011 season starts, and he’s missed games on 38 separate occasions due to injury while with the Canucks. If the Canucks can trade Salo for prospects and/or picks, it may be worth the risk of bringing back Mitchell. Mitchell is three years younger, and has had only one-third the injuries that Salo has had. Right now, the Canucks need to look at keeping one or the other. To me, a decent return would be a defensive prospect or a 3rd round pick in an upcoming draft.

6.. Free Agent Acquisitions. Assuming for now that the Canucks trade Bieksa, and let O’Brien and Mitchell go to free agency, the Canucks have 3 of their 6 roster spots to fill. That’s a massive changing of the guard. But let’s face it – it’s about time.

Here is my list of free agent acquisition targets to fill the potential holes:

1. Dan Hamhuis
2. Dennis Seidenberg
3. Jordan Leopold
4. Johnny Boychuk (as a 6th D)
5. Anton Volchenkov
6. Kurtis Foster (as 6th D)
7. Zbynek Michalek
8. Milan Jurcina
9. Shaone Morrisonn
10. Freddy Meyer (as 6th D)

So if the Canucks were able to address their concerns as outlined above, their defense next season would look something like this:

Ehrhoff / Hamhuis
Salo / Edler
Seidenberg / Boychuk

Salary cap wise, this should come in around $1m-$1.5m higher than what the Canucks have committed now on defense. That’s a small price to pay for a significant upgrade to the entire defensive roster.

I haven’t even addressed the coaching staff that would oversee the defensemen. Believe me, that needs changing too. We’ll address coaching and goaltending in Part 3.

Part 2 goes Friday, as Canucks Army looks at the offense and what we would do to the forward lines.