An Extended Look at Vancouver’s Defence Pairings

The Canucks have recently found some functional defence pairings beyond Bieksa and Hamhuis.

This season, up until the last ten games or so, the Canucks defence pairings have been inconsistently delineated. There’s a variety of reasons for that, like injuries and the club employing only one top-four defenceman with a right-handed shot; but the fact remains that Alain Vigneault and Rick Bowness (who runs the defence) have tried out a lot of different personnel together. 

Of late they seem to have settled in on a top pairing of Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison, a second pairing of Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler, and a third pairing consiting of whomever is healthy (but preferably Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev). Have they made the right call, or are their other possible combinations that have performed better this season?

Read past the jump for more.

The Current Pairings

Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

We discussed above exactly how the Canucks are currently deploying their blue-line personnel, but let’s restate it for clarities sake: at the moment Vancouver’s most frequently used pairing at even-strength includes two-way ace Dan Hamhuis, skating with Jason Garrison on his right-side. This pairing was first put together by Rick Bowness following the 8-3 debacle in Detroit in late-February, and they’ve skated together for most of the past twenty-one games.

The second pairing at the moment is Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler, a pairing that was used occassionally last season and were a flaming tire-fire together. Since the second period of Vancouver’s 7-4 victory over the Nashville Predators in mid-March, Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler have been a staple pairing in Vancouver’s top-four (or for the entirety of the past thirteen games). They’ve also been a much more reliable duo so far this season then they were a year ago…

The third pairing has been in flux thanks to a variety of injuries to Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev, but all of Cam Barker, Tanev, Ballard and Andrew Alberts have seen action there in different combinations. So that’s how we get to where the Canucks are now with their defenceman.

Vancouver’s reoutfitted personnel has led to a couple of clear changes in how Bowness and Vigneault deploy their defence-corps. Most notably – and unsurprisingly – Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison have quite clearly moved into a more traditional "shutdown" role. Also the third-pairing appears to be starting a few additional shifts in the offensive end of the rink compared to how they were utilized earlier in the season, and Kevin Bieksa’s deployment has been Felix Baumgartner-like (in that he starts more frequently in the o-zone):

Defenceman Ozone Start% Before March 14th Ozone Start% Since
Dan Hamhuis 55.4% 45.2%
Kevin Bieksa 46.9% 54.2%
Keith Ballard 49.7% 55.5%
Jason Garrison 55.8% 48.1%
Chris Tanev 46.9% 48.4%
Cam Barker 59.4% 57.9%
Alex Edler 58.9% 52.3%
Andrew Alberts 39.1% 43.9%

Generally speaking I don’t pay much attention to a offensive zone-start rate between 45 and 55 percent over a large sample. Within that range I just consider it "normal deployment." It seems worth pointing out that Alex Edler hasn’t really been deployed as an "offensive specialist" over the past fourteen games, though Keith Ballard, Kevin Bieksa and Cam Barker have.

Meanwhile Vancouver’s "defensive specialists" at the moment are Dan Hamhuis and Andrew Alberts (Hamhuis has ten additional defensive-zone starts over his most regular partner Jason Garrison since March 14th). Finally Alex Edler, Jason Garrison and Chris Tanev have been parcelled out a more standard, two-way type of usage by the coaching staff…

With that we should ask how Vancouver’s current top-four pairings have performed together over the past three-to-five weeks? Pretty damn well:

Current Pairings EV TOI GF GA CF% CF/60 CA/60 Corsi-On/60
Hamhuis with Garrison 305: 03 14 9 54.4% 55.5 46.4 9.1
Bieksa with Edler 203: 10 6 4 51.5% 55.8 52.6 3.2

Editors Note: This table is broken down in terms of even-strength ice-time (EV TOI), goals for (GF), goals against (GA), Corsi For percentage (CF%) and Corsi Events For per sixty minutes (CF/60), Corsi Events Against per sixty minutes (CA/60) and Corsi-On per sixty minutes (Corsi-On/60) which functions as basically just "shots attempted differential." For the uninitiated or skeptical, Corsi is simply a measurement of all shots attempted both for and against and can be used to produce either a +/- type number or a ratio – in this case I’ve included both. Read more about Corsi here.

Other Top-Four Combinations

Photo Credit: Rich Lam/Getty Images

Let’s now go ahead and demonstrate how often Rick Bowness and Alain Vigneault have tried different pairings this season. Consider that the twenty games that Jason Garrison and Dan Hamhuis have spent skating together over the past five weeks is enough to make them the Canucks’ most frequently used defensive pairing this season.

While there has been a good deal of instability in the way Vancouver deploys their defenceman this season, to the coaching staff’s credit they appear to have settled on something which does legitimately work. Anyway, I’ve put together a table that is exactly like the one described at length in the editor’s note above. The only difference is that this table contains way more information in that it also accounts for every "top-four" pairing that has skated together for more than 50 minutes (or the equivalent of three games) so far this season:

Top Four Pairings EV TOI GF GA CF% CF/60 CA/60 Corsi On/60
Hamhuis with Garrison 305: 03 14 9 54.4% 55.5 46.4 9.1
Bieksa with Edler 203: 10 6 4 51.5% 55.8 52.6 3.2
Hamhuis with Edler 158: 05 6 7 53.5% 52 45.2 6.8
Bieksa with Garrison 150: 45 7 3 51.5% 48.6 45.8 2.8
Tanev with Edler 116: 30 2 5 56.6% 53 40.7 12.3
Hamhuis with Bieksa 114: 24 6 7 49.8% 53.5 54 -0.6
Garrison with Edler 106: 11 7 5 52.4% 55.4 50.3 5.1
Hamhuis with Tanev 54: 36 3 0 61.9% 42.9 26.4 16.5

Let’s include one more qualifier about the above table before we proceed. It’s very difficult to apply advanced metrics to defenceman at the best of times – there’s some very valuable defenders who look awful by the underlying numbers but that’s because they’re buried battling the opposition’s best players on an undermanned club. This particular table doesn’t account for either deployment (zone start percentage) or matchup difficulty, but I still think it’s interesting and instructive…

That Vancouver’s usual ace shutdown pairing (Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis) are the only top-four defence pair in the red by the possession data should come as something of a surprise. I don’t think it’s anything to worry about – I put more stock in their dominance in nearly seventeen-hundred minutes in the recent past, than I do in their struggles over a small handful of games early in a lockout shortened season – but it’s certainly interesting. 

In terms of goal differential, every top-four pairing is in the black save for Hamhuis and Bieksa, Tanev and Edler, and Hamhuis and Edler. The latter pairing isn’t much of a surprise considering that Alex Edler gets walked like the seawall when he plays the right-side, but the former two do surprise me somewhat.

Another thing that’s worth pointing out is that the Jason Garrison and Alex Edler pairing – which we haven’t seen since very early in the season – appears to be the most efficient offensive pairing that the Canucks have tried this season (highest rate of goals for, third in corsi events for per sixty). And that was with Alex Edler playing the right-side…

With Jason Garrison beginning to look very comfortable skating on his off-side (and able to tee-up on d-to-d one-timers like nobodies business), I wonder if we might see that pairing reunited somewhere down the line if the coaching staff decides to prioritize offense. On the other hand, with Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison absolutely crushing it despite a modest defensive orientation and Bieksa and Edler more than holding their own, it’s not like the pairings are in desperate need of tinkering at the moment.

One final interesting thing to notice is that the two best top-four pairings in terms of possession differential (Corsi-On/60) both include a guy known as Chris Tanev, who is sadly out of the lineup indefinitely with a lower body injury. Also though the Canucks have handed it to the opposition in terms of shots attempted with Chris Tanev playing a modified top-four role this season, he’s got an even goal differential in an expanded role overall.

I also suspect that Chris Tanev’s matchups are closely prescribed by the coaching staff even when he’s playing in the top-four. After all, he’s faced the "softest" competition among all Canucks defenders despite playing top-four minutes in roughly ten contests. Finally those underlying numbers when Chris Tanev and Dan Hamhuis are partnered up are absolutely hilarious – those two are so responsible that they just suck all events out of the game…

Third Pairing Combinations

Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick

For good measure, I put together a similar table as the one above, but this time for the variety of third-pairings that the Canucks have used this season:

Third Pairings EV TOI GF GA CF% CF/60 CA/60 Corsi On/60
Ballard with Tanev 259: 26 6 6 54.7% 53.7 44.4 9.3
Tanev with Alberts 88: 49 4 3 46.7% 48 54.7 -6.7
Tanev with Barker 51: 41 2 0 38.5% 40.6 65 -24.4
Ballard with Alberts 42: 17 1 1 56.7% 53.9 41.2 12.7
Ballard with Barker 17: 24 0 0 56.2% 62.1 48.3 13.8
Barker with Alberts 15: 23 0 0 50% 54.6 54.6 0

Note the Cam Barker effect on Chris Tanev… Woof!

Chris Tanev, out of the lineup indefinitely, has factored in on Vancouver’s three most commonly used third pairings. As such it’ll be particularly interesting to see how the team fares without him in the lineup.

Thanks to Keith Ballard’s reemergence as a relatively dependable depth defender – every third-pairing combination that he’s included in is in the black by the possession data – I don’t actually know that the team will suffer all that much as a result. What I mean to say is that Chris Tanev’s injury hurts the team depth-wise more than it’s likely to hurt them from a performance standpoint in the short-term.

For the balance of the season it seems to me that the Canucks should roll with Ballard and Alberts as their primary third pairing – and it looks like that’s the plan at the moment – with Cam Barker only slotting in as a result of injury. In Barker’s defence, while his defensive play often appears indifferent (to put it mildly), the Canucks have yet to be burned for a single goal against with Cam Barker on the ice in a third pairing role during his nine games this season…

Data in this post compiled at, and