Rick Bowness Plans on Playing Garrison on the Left Side, So the Right Side of the Canucks’ Defense Remains a Big Question Mark

Jason Garrison stands on Alex Edler’s right side in this photo. But don’t get used to seeing that, says Rick Bowness.

On Tuesday morning, Canucks assistant coach Rick Bowness (who is primarily responsible for handling the team’s defense) appeared with Scott Rintoul and Jason Botchford on the Team 1040. Bowness talked about the NHL lockout, the spectre of a super short training camp should there actually be an NHL season in 2012-13, and also briefly discussed his plans for how to deply newly minted Canucks defenseman Jason Garrison in a hypothetical upcoming season. 

Read past the jump for more.

Here’s the full quote of Bowness’ response to Rintoul who asked, "Do you have a gut feel for who will play with [Jason Garrison]?":

"We’ve talked a lot about that, with losing Sami the right side obviously changes a lot. We’ve got to sort out, if we’re going to move someone over who that is… I know Jason is more comfortable on the left-side, so his teammate will most likely be either Kevin or Alex Edler on the right side. I know he’s more comfortable on the left-side and that’s where we’re planning on playing him."

Now before we wade into the analytical muck, let’s remember that Bowness was asked a philisophical question, and didn’t exactly give a firm answer (though he did reveal that the team has been talking about it a lot). For now Bowness is planning on playing Jason Garrison on the left-side, possibly breaking up Vancouver’s ace shutdown pairing, while potentially moving Alex Edler to his off-side.

I like the sounds of absolutely none of that, but realistically the team hasn’t gone through training camp, and Bowness hasn’t been able to interact with the majority of his blueliners in nearly two months. So we’d do well not to over-react to Bowness’ preliminary quote here.

That said, if the Canucks aren’t even planning on trying Jason Garrison out on the right-side – he played there on the power-play in Florida last season and Mike Gillis hinted that the team considered him a right-side fit this summer – then he really might not fit in with the Canucks’ current lineup.

Consider that the Canucks now have five defenseman signed for 3 million or more, and only one of those well compensated blue-liners is a proven, tough-minutes option who can play the right-side (Kevin Bieksa) in top-four minutes.

Keith Ballard, for example, is so uncomfortable playing the right-side than when he played with Andrew Alberts, who isn’t the most highly skilled defenseman around, last season – Alberts was the guy who switched sides. Dan Hamhuis played some right-side point on the power-play, but he’s most comfortable on the left and philisophically I don’t think it makes a lot of sense for the Canucks to do anything that might neuter the effectiveness of their best defensive defenseman.

That leaves Alex Edler, who is a relatively permissive defender even when playing his natural left-side. Last season he played roughly 170 minutes on the right-side, most of them with Dan Hamhuis but he played about 60 minutes with Keith Ballard as well. Hypothetically, a guy with Edler’s skill level would be the natural candidate to switch sides, but I don’t find the idea tthat he’s capable of making the adjustment full-time to be complelling in the slightest. While 170 minutes isn’t a big sample, the Canucks were outscored to the tune of four-to-ten last season when Edler played the right-side at even-strength…

Luckily, Bowness hasn’t had a chance to really observe any potential pairings at this point. Maybe the Canucks will shelter Edler in an extreme fashion for the first third of a season while he works out the kinks and adjusts to his off-side. But there are draw backs to this approach, and you probably want to challenge Edler to the fullest extent imaginable in his contract year. Best to know exactly what you’ve got before you make a highly-talented but infuriatingly inconsistent player like Alex Edler the highest paid defenseman on the club.

Presumably the Canucks will go through some trial and error with different defensive combinations during a shortened training camp and preseason, and probably into a shortened regular season as well (god willing). So again: we don’t really know anything yet, and it’s still very much possible that Garrison ends up on Edler’s right-side.

But if neither Garrison nor Edler can adjust to playing the right-side point, and based on the stats and my own observations, I’m very bearish about Edler’s prospects as a permanent fit on the right-side; well, then the Canucks blue-line looks like something of a clusterfuck.

Theoretically this could leave the team with four defenseman who play the left-side exclusively and are highly paid, while an undrafted free-agent with 60-ish games of NHL experience (Chris Tanev) would be counted on to slot into the top-four. Tanev is a quality defenseman and a superb defensive player, but I’m not convinced based on what we’ve seen, that he’s ready to play a shutdown role on a conteding team. Better to have him crushing it on the third-pairing, I think.

But beyond Tanev the other ride-side options on the Canucks’ depth chart are Kevin Connauton and Frankie Corrado. I like both players as prospects, but yikes.

Obviously none of this is ideal, and it seems to me that something has got to give (like moving Ballard, who probably has negative trade value at this juncture). Or perhaps a creative sollution could be found, but nonetheless this should be an area of concern for the Canucks and their fans. Top-four defensemen are nearly impossible to affordably acquire in-season, so if neither Garrison nor Edler can figure out how to be effective in relatively tough minutes while playing the right-side in the top-four, then the Canucks’ defense might be appreciably worse than anticipated.

Meanwhile, the Canucks whiffing on Justin Schultz’s services and the departures of Sami Salo and versatile switch hitter Aaron Rome could loom large…

  • elvis15

    I’ve been arguing that the Canucks brought Garrison in to be an Aaron Rome upgrade for awhile. No one will notice because they’ll expect Garrison to get power play time and top 4 minutes and to switch to his off-side often.

    I’d still prefer it of the Canucks went out and got themselves another right handed shot and ditched Keith Ballard,

  • elvis15

    Agreed with Drance on the Rome upgrade idea – you don’t pay someone $4.6M to play on the 3rd pairing on purpose. We already brought in Ballard with the hopes he could play in our top 4 with Edler and he’s now stuck earning $4.2M on our third pairing. I doubt we plan on putting Garrison in his place so he can sit in the press box at that price.

    While it might not be a lineup quite ready for this year, having Tanev and Corrado play increased roles on the right side of Edler and Garrison would certainly spread the workload and look impressive on the scoresheet. It takes us even further away from the idea of a #1 D-man or having our best players log the most minutes.

  • “Agreed with Drance on the Rome upgrade idea – you don’t pay someone $4.6M to play on the 3rd pairing on purpose. ”

    The thing is Rome was never cemented in a the third pairing. He was up all over the place, playing the top 4, the powerplay, the PK, and the bottom 3. Have you forgotten how much Canucks fans raged about Rome being in those situations while Ballard languished?

    The problem was Rome was a bottom pairing guy often put into top 4 situations. Garrison would be able to navigate that grey area much better than either Rome or Ballard could.

    Basically, I expect him to be the Higgins of defense.

    Still think they trade for a righty. Huge drop off in depth in that area. Bieksa to Tanev to Corrado is not acceptable.

  • KleptoKlown

    Am I the only one that thinks Edler may not finish the year as a Canuck?

    Whenever (If ever…) the new CBA is finalized, Edler may end up being a RFA instead of an UFA. This is going to be huge for the Canucks. It’s pretty much guaranteed that the salary cap is going down, and as a UFA, Edler will command top dollar on the open market. The Canucks will simply not be able to afford him, he would easily be the teams top paid D-man, but he is not the teams best D-man.

    Imagine a mega deal involving Lu and Edler ( I’ve been playing too much NHL13 lately) In which that coveted 3-4 right side D-man is acquired, along with a top 6 winger.

  • Interesting stuff. We’ve seen over the past two seasons how dominant the defense was with everyone playing a comfortable role, then what a mess it was at times when guys were out of place.

    There are legitimate issues with both the forwards and D structure right now. If there is in fact a shortened season it’s going to be a mad scramble.