Canucks 2013-14 Season Preview: Defencemen

Our forward preview went up a little earlier Monday, as we struggle as bloggers to get a sense of what the team is doing, with who, and why. It will take about three or four games for us to really get a sense of the kind of systems and means of lineup deployment that the Vancouver Canucks are running with, but we can provide moderately educated guesses.

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Below lies an exhaustive look at the defence and potential combinations, the top six being a holdover from the previous season, you wouldn’t expect much to change, but then the Canucks went out and brought in the coach with the most radical defensive deployment in the National Hockey League.


During the 2013 season, the Vancouver Canucks remained a strong defensive group if not elite. 14th in the league in goals against at even strength and 14th in the league in shots against at even strength aren’t exactly statistics that draw out a lot of confidence, but the real strength of the Canucks blueliners is that they all have the ability to play two-way… at least the ones in the top 4.

The unit stays relatively the same, for the first time in a while. For four consecutive summers, the Canucks lost a top four piece, from Mattias Ohlund to Willie Mitchell to Christian Ehrhoff to Sami Salo, but the top 4 from 2013 to 2014 should be identical thanks to long-term contracts and no-trade clauses handed out like Tootsie Rolls on Halloween.

So the Big 4 remain Jason Garrison, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa and Alexander Edler, cycled appropriately in your order of preference. My preference just now? Hometown proximity to Vancouver. Those four will continue to soak up the big minutes, both offensively and defensively and will probably have an expanded role in John Tortorella’s system.

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In the last three seasons, Torts ran a defenceman out for 28 or more minutes 70 times. Alain Vigneault only did it 21 times. Dan Girardi saw 37 such games, Marc Staal had 16 and Ryan McDonagh had 14. For Vancouver, the leader was Edler with just eight. Part of this can be attributed to a top-heavy roster in New York, but a similar trend has become obvious in Vancouver. Beyond the top 4, there is Chris Tanev and then there are some replacement-level players.

It will be interesting to see. Everybody made a big stink of Ryan Kesler playing 26 minutes in his first preseason game, with Torts offering this quote:

“I’m not a big believer in, ‘Holy crap, he played 26 minutes, does he have anything left for Wednesday?’ I don’t buy it. … I want to win that game. I want to win Game 2, I’m not looking to Game 5. So if Sedin or Kes needs to be on the ice in those situations, in that third period and play 12 minutes of that third period, they will play the 12 minutes of that third period to try to win that game.”

He was talking about the forwards there, but it will be interesting to see just how much of the lineup gets a boost in the early going. Vigneault, as we’re learning, clashed with the sleep doctors, while Tortorella seems a little more open to Mike Gillis’ magic tricks. Like Torts, I’m not too sold on the idea that players aren’t conditioned enough to play in excess of 26 or 27 minutes every night. Maybe if they were up to 30 every game they’d be out of it after a long season, but I’m willing to side with modern conditioning methods. The travel schedule should affect the way Torts’ d-men are deployed compared to New York.

Yannick Weber, Ryan Stanton and Andrew Alberts are the extras. Despite Torts being clear that he wouldn’t carry eight defencemen, the Canucks made a waiver pickup to stretch them to eight. Torts barely used his sixth guy, so eight seems excessive.

Weber, like Tanev, shoots right. Weber, unlike Tanev, can actually shoot the puck. He doesn’t do much else, so he should be used in a specialty role. I’d expect Andrew Alberts to get the bulk of the 6th defenceman role. He’s going to look much better out there playing for just $600K instead of for $1.2M. He’s also going to look better playing in 13:30 of ice time instead of of 15:11.

Defensive pairing plausibilities

Dan Hamhuis with Kevin Bieksa

This is a unit that Torts rolled out in the final preseason game and, really, should keep together and play them like McDonagh-Girardi. Hamhuis and McDonagh have some similarities as far as good positional play without being too physical, plus are excellent at making first passes.

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Results speak for themselves, too:

  GF GA G Rate CF CA C Rate
2 with 3 3.31 2.01 62.2% 59.6 48.8 55.0%
2 apart 2.51 1.88 57.2% 58.4 47.3 55.3%
3 apart 2.12 2.38 47.1% 57.0 54.1 51.3%

(GF = Team Goals For per 60 minutes. GA = Team Goals Against per 60 minutes. G Rate = Rate of Canuck goals when on-ice. CF = Team Shot Attempts For per 60 minutes. CA = Team Shot Attempts Against per 60 minutes. C Rate = Rate of Canuck shot attempts when on ice.)

I think it’s obvious that Hamhuis pulls up Bieksa’s socks a bit, but Bieksa doesn’t really get to play with other quality partners. Him and Edler are a bit of a tire fire since they both take a lot of risks (they’re a rare pairing that gets out-scored when on the ice) and Bieksa’s third most common partner over the last three years is Andrew Alberts.

This should be the group. This is “the pairing” that the Canucks relied on to take them to the Stanley Cup Finals. These guys should be together for 14-15 minutes a night at evens. Unlike Girardi and McDonagh, they wouldn’t have to play exclusively against toughs because the other pairings offer a lot of depth.

Jason Garrison with Kevin Bieksa

A couple of offensive threats. Both players have pretty good shots, both are good puck-movers and they saw some time together in the preseason. I’d prefer Bieksa to be paired with Hamhuis, since you’re putting a redundancy with a slightly better redundancy in this situation. I’ve generally thought that defencemen that move the puck as well as Garrison should line up on the other side of the ice, or rather, they’re the ones that benefit the most from the switch. It’s not just about one-timers, but I figure a good passer has more options on the neutral zone if he’s playing on his non-natural side.

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Stylistically, I just don’t think this pairing works. I like Garrison’s left shot on the right side—he doesn’t have to go across his body to fire a cross-ice pass in the neutral zone.

There’s no way without a painstaking manual process to see how much Bieksa played with either partner in the preseason, but you could have some real 1A-1B pairings with this top four. The real issue is that Garrison didn’t play with Edler in the preseason at all. I thought in the summer that could be a similar unit to Michael Del Zotto and Anton Stralman, a group that played exclusively with the Rangers’ top line.

Dan Hamhuis with Jason Garrison

Not used during the preseason because Garrison didn’t play the last two games, but Hamhuis was Garrison’s most common partner last season, on the ice for 421 of Garrison’s 754 even strength minutes. The two did very well with a 54.2% Corsi rate, but that should be expected when you put the best two two-way defencemen on the ice together. If the issue with the Canucks D is that they’re top heavy, making them even more top heavy probably isn’t solving any problems. The worry is what happens when these two are apart because of, again, the Edler-Bieksa tire fire that results.

I feel that Bieksa has a physical edge over Garrison and he’d be preferable to use with Hamhuis in the situations when defending a lead. Garrison didn’t see any time with Hamhuis during the preseason so I think these guys could be split for good.

Alex Edler with Chris Tanev

Towards the end of the preseason, Torts exclusively had Edler skating with a right-shooting defenceman. There are lots of options available there but ultimately I figure this will act as a somewhat of a third pairing for the group. The unit only played 172 minutes together in the last three years, but they were a high 56.6% Corsi last year in the short time they were together.

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I think this can work as the team’s “third” pairing, if you’re rotating Garrison, Bieksa and Hamhuis around towards the end of the game to maximize offence (with Garrison and Bieksa together) and defence (with Hamhuis and Bieksa together). This could be a big year for Tanev and he could rotate to see a few looks in the top 4 with the team coming off a powerplay.

Dan Hamhuis with Chris Tanev

This is the other pairing that the Canucks rolled with during the preseason, and it has some interesting possibilities. For one, I think that Hamhuis will play more minutes than Bieksa, and he needs to fill those minutes with somebody.

In the 225 minutes these players have played with each other, the Canucks have out-scored the opposition 14-1 and out-shot them (all attempts, not just shots on goal) 206-148. That’s a hilariously small sample, but stylistically and physically, this is a good shutdown unit. These are the only two players on the Canucks defence wherein you mustn’t flinch when they attempt a pass, and I think they could be put together when the Canucks load up the top pairing with offence when trailing late.

Andrew Alberts with Chris Tanev

The default position for Alberts, although I can see him getting the occasional shift with Bieksa. During the preseason he played almost exclusively with depth right shooting players, and if we’re to assume that Alberts is the sixth man in the lineup he’ll play with the lowest RHS on the depth chart, whether that be Tanev, or Yannick Weber of Frankie Corrado if Corrado is called up.

What Alberts did in the preseason was consistent with what Steve Eminger did last year as Torts’ sixth guy. Twist for Torts is that Eminger was a right shot, and thus closer to the Ranger bench in the 1st and 3rd periods.*

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* – filed under “things that really don’t matter”

Who else?

Yannick Weber

Out of 203 defencemen with 90 or more games since the start of the 2010-2011 season, Weber is 90th in points per game at 0.29. He’s well-behind all of the big 4 on the Canucks, but this gives the Canucks some reasonable offence at the bottom of the lineup. I fail to envision a scenario when Weber slots into the lineup ahead of the six healthy guys on the ice.

Somewhat encouraging is that Weber was a plus Relative Corsi player before the 2011-2012 season. Not encouraging is that he’s had a history of lower body problems in the last two years, providing a reasonable explanation for his dip. He’s been flattened by easy comps in the last two seasons. Not a lot of games of action, mind you.

Ryan Stanton

The new guy. Ryan Stanton is big at 6’2″, but a very lean 192. Nobody really knows much about him. He has just one game at the NHL-level so it’s impossible to tell if he’s effective at all. That one game also happened to be a mock game played by Chicago as their last game of the regular season. He’s young but has never been a legit prospect. He gets lots of penalty minutes at the AHL level but he doesn’t fight. It seems he’s a guy that could slot in over Alberts, depending on how good his skating is, but I’d be curious as to why the Canucks decided to roll with eight defencemen this week.

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Frankie Corrado

The likely first call-up, and should really drop the “-ie” from his name. Had the first year of his entry-level deal burned last year after his playoff appearance. Looked good, but is too valuable a prospect to have sit in the press box every night. That’s a job for Yannick Weber. Good defensive zone instincts, another right shot defenceman with an excellent shot and should get a great look in Utica with a coach Travis Green that has recent experience coaching good major junior players.

Other Components of the Season Preview:

  • loudogYYC

    “Vigneault, as we’re learning, clashed with the sleep doctors, while Tortorella seems a little more open to Mike Gillis’ magic tricks”

    Or perhaps Tortorella is simply open to meaningful employment in the NHL…

  • loudogYYC

    They need a a scary f’er back there like Adam Mcquaid. I like Bieska but he sulks too much.

    No one in that top five is really going to be a deterrent for a forward taking a chop at Lou.

  • loudogYYC

    Not to play into the hands of the negative Nancys (though I totally am right now), but Luongo was run way too much in the preseason, and no one on the team seemed to do anything. I really hope this changes in the regular season.

  • loudogYYC

    “He gets lots of penalty minutes at the AHL level but he doesn’t fight.”

    He actually does fight quite a bit and is a very tough customer. He is a hard nosed D man who delivers some big hits. I watched him play a bit back in Moose Jaw for the Warriors.

    He is in my opinion an upgrade over Alberts and fills the same roll.

  • loudogYYC

    Oh man, I absolutely loved the Hamhuis-Tanev pairing. I remember they were paired together at a time the Canucks team was in absolute shambles. There were a ton of injuries (as per usual) and this pairing absolutely stole the Presidents Trophy (well them and the goaltenders). They really were something else to watch.

    But as you’ve outlined, Bieksa-Hamhuis needs to work out. I’m curious how Garrison-Tanev would work, don’t think I’ve ever seen them paired together. Guessing the results would be similar to Hamhuis-Tanev.

    But they could have

    Weber- Suter
    Doughty- Karlsson

    on their back end. They still couldn’t help the pitiful bottom 6 this team is icing this year. Lol.