On Edler’s Early Growing Pains Adjusting to the Right Side

Edler checks rookie forward Nail Yakupov in Vancouver’s January 20th loss against the Oilers.
Photo credit: Jeff Vinnick via NHL.com.

How’s this for a spot of "hard-hitting analysis": Alex Edler is going to struggle occassionally while adjusting to playing the right-side point full-time. Of course, I could’ve told you that before the season started (actually, I did), but Edler’s recent six-year extension and his spotty defensive play in the team’s first two games of the season have added some urgency to the issue.

Read on past the jump.

There are two primary reasons that Edler’s six year contract extension comes with a moderate degree of risk for the Canucks, despite being a very team-friendly deal for a player of Edler’s age, potential and quality. The first is that Edler hasn’t proven himself to be all that good a possession player when you adjust for usage, and the second is that Edler is a natural left-side defenseman on a team with three other exclusively left-defenseman signed long or medium term (Keith Ballard, Jason Garrison, Dan Hamhuis). You might mention Edler’s back ailment as a third reason, but the Canucks and their doctors know more about his issues than you or I do and they weren’t too concerned to offer him a lengthy extension so…

Anyway, let’s bring it back to Edler’s performance on the right-side. The Canucks experimented with Edler playing the right-side in 2011-12 and the results weren’t promising. Per myself at the PlayNowSports blog:

Edler spent about 15% of his even-strength ice-time in the 2011-12 season playing with defenders who are exclusively “left-side” guys (Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis and Andrew Alberts), and the balance of his ice-time playing with right-side defenders like Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Sulzer, Chris Tanev and Aaron Rome. In his left-side ice-time, the Canucks controlled 52.7% of Corsi events with Alex Edler on the ice and were outscored by 5 goals in well over 1250 minutes of ice-time. With Edler playing the right-side, and this needs to be qualified with your standard small sample size disclaimer, the Canucks controlled 47% of Corsi events and were outscored by 8 in 225:09 of even-strength ice-time. While the small-sample adds an element of uncertainty to our analysis, I feel comfortable telling you that the early returns on Alex Edler playing the right-side point are ugly and don’t inspire me with confidence.

So far this season, Edler is carrying an "even" rating and has only been on the ice for two even-strength goals against. But on both goals, Edler’s lack of familiarity and defensive effectiveness playing the right-side led directly to the opposition’s tallies. We’ll start with Anaheim’s first goal, a Daniel Winnick tip-in, from Saturday night’s opener (bear with the 15 second Fallsview Casino advertisement):

The breakdown that leads to the goal begins in the offensive zone, as Jason Garrison passes the puck to the open point on the right-side. Garrison’s pass isn’t very crisp and it splits Henrik Sedin (who had cycled up to the point for whatever reason) and Alex Edler (who was creeping down the half wall, presumably to adjust for Henrik setting up along the blueline) and neither player manages to effectively play, or even contest possession of the puck. It was a costly spot of miscommunication between Edler, Sedin and their new teammate Jason Garrison, and Andrew Cogliano does well to pounce on the giveaway and start the rush going the other way.

Now I’m not sure if we should caption this goal as resulting from "Edler’s lack of familiarity playing the right-side" or from the fact that "the Canucks had a five day training camp and are way out of sync." So let’s split the baby like Solomon and say it’s probably a little bit of column A and a bit of column B too. Either way, this is the sort of breakdown that I expect the Canucks to fix over the next couple of weeks as Edler becomes more comfortable on the right-side, and as the team becomes more familiar with Jason Garrison (and vice versa)…

Anyway, on defense, Henrik Sedin falls down while swiping at the puck in the neutral zone as Alex Edler rushes to get back into the play (he’s caught a bit flat-footed). Jason Garrison does well to get back, and ends up on the right-side checking Saku Koivu. Considering that he had to skate the length of the ice to cut off an odd-man rush, Garrison isn’t too far out of position on this play, and I’d describe his gap-control on Koivu here as competent. Koivu makes a nice play to direct the puck on net, however.

Which is where Alex Edler has completely lost his battle with Daniel Winnik. If you watch the second replay in the embedded video above, you’ll see that Winnik basically comes to a halt, gets low, pivots and in doing so uses his wide body to box Edler out completely. Winnik wins the battle cleanly, and is basically alone in the slot between Koivu and Cory Schneider as Koivu sends a low shot on net. Winnik does well to get his stick on the puck and deflect it home.

On this play we see that Edler looked a bit tentative in the offensive end, finding himself out of position when his long-time teammate Henrik Sedin cycled out to the blueline. He does poorly to contest the puck as Cogliano skates out of the defensive zone, and then takes off and uses his speed to get back and check Daniel Winnik. He completely loses Winnik right in front of the net however, and Anaheim manages to score their first of seven goals on the evening.

The second goal we’ll look at is Jordan Eberle’s late second period stunner from Sunday night’s game. Here’s the clip:

So there’s a breakdown in the Canucks end and the opposition counter-attacks, a Sedin falls to the ice in an attempt to swipe the puck away from the opposition in the neutral zone, meanwhile Alex Edler completely misjudges his angle defensively and cleanly loses an on-ice battle leading directly to the goal. Sounds pretty similar to Winnik’s goal, except one was a thing of beauty and the other was a goal scored by Daniel Winnik.

Basically Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle isolate Edler on the right-side with a nifty drop pass immediately after they enter the zone. Hall drops the puck off and charges the slot and whether or not Edler gets caught flat footed trying to defend a possible feed to Hall, or because he just misjudges Eberle’s angle and speed, this hapless defensive sequence doesn’t flatter him…

I think we’ll keep pretty close tabs on Alex Edler’s adjustment to the right-side over the course of this season. In part this is because I find it fascinating but it’s also because with Jason Garrison and Dan Hamhuis signed in Vancouver long-term, Edler is presumably going to spend the majority of his even-strength ice-time playing on the right-side over the next seven seasons.

There are going to be some growing pains as Edler makes the adjustment, obviously. How well Edler can manage that shift will have a decisive impact on the team’s chances this season, and will have long-term ramifications for the club as well.

While Edler was victimized on both of the goals we’ve featured in this post, overall I think he’s done better on the right-side than I’d have anticipated (he only had to clear a low bar on this one). We should mention, for example, that he was playing the right-side short-handed when he forced a turnover, skated end to end and ripped a shot past Dubnyk to open the scoring on Sunday. On offense, at least, Edler seems to have little issue playing the puck off the wall on his back-hand and I tend to think his shot is at least somewhat more dangerous when he skates into the high-slot from the right-side and releases. The former is an especially good sign.

We don’t have a big sample to judge Edler’s performance this season yet, but based on the early returns I’d suggest that Alex Edler isn’t much different on the right-side than he is on the left-side. On either side Edler remains a capable offensive defenseman who plays high-event hockey and gives back as much as he creates on offense at the other end of the rink. As the club’s highest paid defenseman he’s going to need to be better than that going forward, of course, but as he transitions to playing on his offhand full-time I think we can and should cut him some slack.

  • KleptoKlown

    “As the club’s highest paid defenseman he’s going to need to be better than that going forward, of course, but as he transitions to playing on his offhand full-time I think we can and should cut him some slack.”

    And that’s pretty much it. He’s not going to be flawless immediately after making the switch. He should at least get a big chunk of the season to get comfortable on his offside before we label it a total failure (as long as his defensive play doesn’t completely deteriorate). He’s an intelligent player, I’d like to think he’ll be able to make the switch.

    Has anyone done research on defencemen switching to their offsides midway through their careers and how they fare upon doing so?

  • @Klepto No doubt. But he needs to give less back for this to really work. #jms

    @Mack I haven’t, but I’d like to. It’s tough to know when it happens (since the NHL doesn’t really keep data for RD v. LD. I’ll look into it further this week.

    • JCDavies

      Do you get the sense that one of the Canuck’s top four defensemen becomes a cap casualty after the season?

      If someone gets traded Edler could spend to whole season learning the right side only to be switched back to the left next year. There is no way they would try this experiment and then trade him, right? This type of thing doesn’t exactly improve his trade value.

    • JCDavies

      Sorry about my poorly written previous comment. I didn’t intend to suggest that I thought Edler would be traded. I don’t think he will. Not because of his no trade clause, which I don’t think kicks in until July, but because of his age and the “team friendly” contract terms you mentioned. I also don’t think Gillis is the type of GM that signs players to long-term deals and then trades them away a couple of months later. Who would be willing to sign with us if he did that?

      What I was trying to do was indirectly, and I guess rather poorly, question the prudence of experimenting with the position of a young key player when there is a reasonable possibility that he could be moved back to the left side next season anyways.

      Even after the Luongo and Ballard cap savings, I am on the fence on whether or not I think the Canucks can sign or replace all of their FA forwards and still keep Bieksa, Hamhuis, Garrison and Edler on the roster. Since Edler is someone the Canucks will likely keep, it might be beneficial if he concentrates on the side he is likely to be playing on in the future. Especially while recovering from major off-season surgery.