At the 24 minute mark of last night’s 3-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, with the game beginning to get out of hand, Alain Vigneault juggled the team’s defensive pairings. To start the season Alain Vigneault deployed his defense the way we all expected, but over the last week, the Canucks head-coach changed-up and radically altered his handling of the team’s blueliners. Let’s take a closer look at the likely reasons behind this, how effective these pairings have been, and whether or not we can expect last week’s deployment-pattern to continue.
Thirteen days ago the Canucks were shutout by the Detroit RedWings on the road. It was the last game in which, Alain Vigneault deployed his defense the way most of us expected him too this season. The Canucks most traditional utilization of their defenseman features a top-pairing of Hamhuis, Bieksa who are relied upon to play tough minutes and "shut-down" the oppositions top players. Bieksa and Hamhuis, when they play together, are safe bets to lead the team in ice-time at even-strength. The second pairing would be Edler with Salo, this pairing tends to be deployed constantly with the Sedins, and they get the highest percentage of offensive zone starts. The third pairing consists of some combinations of Ballard, Tanev, Alberts and eventually Rome once he returns. These players play limited minutes and shuffle in and out of the lineup on the third pair.
Following the game in Detroit, however, the Canucks made some critical alterations to their blue-line pairings in order to achieve a couple of "long-term" goals. First of all, they dropped Salo from the teams second pairing and matched him up with Andrew Alberts on the third pair. Ideally this arrangement would cut down on the injury-prone veteran defender’s minutes, and help preserve his health and energy for later in the season (more on this later). Secondly, they switched Alexander Edler to the right side so as to increase the blue-line’s overall depth and versatility.
The changes were first implemented in the October 15th game, a 4-3 Canucks win over the Edmonton Oilers. Though the Canucks top even-strength pairing of Hamhuis and Bieksa still remained intact, this is when the team’s current third pairing of Alberts and Salo were constituted. That left Keith Ballard to play with Alex Edler, so this was also the first game where Alex Edler was tasked with patrolling the right-side point.
The results were somewhat mixed, it was apparent, however, that Edler was going to be something of a liability while going through the usual growing pains one would expect from a defender leaning the intricacies of playing on their opposite side. In that particular game he finished with a negative chance differential according to mc79hockey. The next game, however, saw an even more radical change – the Canucks broke up Hamhuis and Bieksa and went with a top-six that looked like this: Ballard,Bieksa – Hamhuis, Edler – Alberts, Salo. I expect that the reasoning behind breaking up the team’s usual top pairing was to let Edler learn the right side while playing relatively sheltered minutes with the team’s top defensive defenseman.
In that game, the Canucks dominated possession and handily outshot the Rangers, however, Henrik Lundqvist came through and Luongo didn’t. The new pairings were pretty shoddy on two of the Rangers goals that evening, and the result was a four nothing shutout for the white-shirts from New York. The Canucks stuck with those same basic pairings, with a couple of exceptions, up until the second period of last night’s loss to Edmonton. So far for about 10 period of hockey, Vigneault rode these pairings. Let’s examine how he used them:
|Defender||O-zone||N-zone||D-zone||O-zone Start %|
|Dan Hamhuis #2||15||20||12||31%|
|Kevin Bieksa #3||19||12||20||37%|
|Keith Ballard #4||19||13||19||37%|
|Sami Salo #6||11||15||8||32%|
|Alex Edler #23||19||19||12||38%|
|Andrew Alberts #41||6||13||10||20%|
Obviously this isn’t the biggest sample, but it appears as if one radical feature of Vigneault’s more recent blueline deployment is to distribute responsibilities in a balanced manner across the board. This is a massive deviation from the coaches strategy last year of employing "specialized" pairings (Edler and Ehrhoff for example started roughly 60% of the time in the offensive zone last season).
Now, how have they performed? In the 10 periods since Hamhuis and Bieksa were split up, the Canucks have scored 5 goals at even-strength while allowing the same number. (note: I didn’t count the Setoguchi goal scored 2 seconds after a penalty had expired, or the three Edmonton goals last night, if I were to count those goals, however, the total would be 9). In terms of possession, all three pairings have had their Corsi and Fenwick numbers in the black for the most part, the lone exception being Bieksa and Ballard in the team’s 5-1 win over Nashville. In terms of scoring chances, which, is the stat most likely to correspond with the Canucks own method of determining the quality of their player’s defensive play; every Canucks defender has posted a positive differential since the top pairing was separated.
|Defenders||Ev Chances For||Ev Chances Against||Differential|
|Dan Hamhuis #2||14||11||+3|
|Kevin Bieksa #3||16||13||+3|
|Keith Ballard #4||13||11||+2|
|Sami Salo #6||13||5||+8|
|Alex Edler #23||15||13||+2|
|Andrew Alberts #41||9||9||0|
I’ll be honest, that surprised me. To my eyes the Canucks gap control and defensive coverage has been sorely lacking. While that still may be the case, the impressive possession numbers and the positive chance differentials posted by the blueliners since Bieksa and Hamhuis were separated should call into question the idea that they’re struggling. More likely, it seems to me, the answer lies (as it so often does in late October) in the percentages.
Alain Vigneault surely knew that Edler would have issues adjusting to a new side, and that Salo is a better all around defenseman than Keith Ballard. The new pairings, however, were never about "picking up points in October," they were formed in order to help the team achieve long-term goals. Because this deployment is all about how the team will look in February, March and beyond, don’t be surprised to see Vigneault stick with his new pairings despite having gone away from it mid-way through last night’s game. If I had to wager on what the defensive pairings will look like tonight against St. Louis, however, I’d echo Harrison Mooney’s thoughts on the matter, and bet that Bieksa and Hamhuis find themselves reunited this evening.