Video courtesy CanucksTV
Yesterday we took a glance around the league and looked at how 15 former Canucks forwards were performing. Though there were a few useful pieces scattered between St. Louis and Long Island, and a couple of other quality depth players in Toronto, San Jose and Dallas, overall the team hasn’t lost too much of value upfront over the past few years.
It’s a different story along the blue-line, where the Canucks have seen a steady outflow of talent over the years. We’ll catch up with some former Canucks defenseman after the jump.
For our purposes we’ve identified seven former Canucks defenseman who are meaningful contributors at the NHL level this season. A couple of these players are sure bets to have their names in the Canucks’ ring of honour at somepoint shortly after they hang up their skates, and one of them (Aaron Rome) has a good chance of having his number retired by the franchise.
In all seriousness, one of the names not on this list is Mattias Ohlund who is Vancouver’s all-time leading back-end point producer (he still has a lead of about 100 points over both Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler). Ohlund’s knees have essentially given up on him, and it would be a surprise if he were to continue his playing career in any capacity. Basically the one-time Canucks rearguard is in Chris Pronger territory – retired for all intents and purposes, but not really. Once it’s official I’d expect him to be promptly and appropriately honoured by the team.
Former Canucks Defensemen
Anyway here are the counting stats and average ice-time for seven Canucks defenders who played for the team since the 2008-09 season and are still active in the National Hockey League this season:
|Former Canucks defensemen||Current Team||GP||G||A||Pts||TOI/G||5on5 On-Ice GD|
|Christian Ehrhoff||Buffalo Sabres||40||2||12||14||24:01||-6|
|Willie Mitchell||Los Angeles Kings||37||0||4||4||20:17||+2|
|Sami Salo||Tampa Bay Lightning||34||1||6||7||19:24||+6|
|Kevin Connauton||Dallas Stars||15||1||4||5||16:01||Even|
|Aaron Rome||Dallas Stars||7||0||1||1||14:40||+2|
|Keith Ballard||Minnesota Wild||26||0||5||5||13:43||-6|
|Shane O’Brien||Calgary Flames||36||0||2||2||11:04||-4|
And of course we’ve also put together a Player Usage Chart (courtesy hockeyabstract.com):
(Just a quick note on how to read this chart: the further a player appears to the left on the horizontal axis, the more defense oriented their deployment is in terms of zone-starts. Where a player’s bubble appears on the vertical axis represents the difficulty of the matchups faced by a certain player (in terms of Corsi-Rel QoC). The size of the bubble itself represents average ice-time, and the shading is tuned to display relative-corsi. A blue-r bubble indicates that a player’s on-ice shot attempt differential (relative to their teams) is in the black, a red-er bubble represents a player getting buried by the flow of play relative to their teammates.)
If you look over the usage chart briefly, it’s instantly clear that Vancouver has seen a much steadier outflow of talent from their back-end than their forward group. This is for a variety of reasons but mostly has to do with the team disagreeing on a price point with a small handful of aging, pending unrestricted free-agents.
Willie Mitchell, Aaron Rome, Christian Ehrhoff and Sami Salo all left the club through free-agency, and that’s the majority of the players on this list. This shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider Vancouver’s somewhat strict "internal cap" for top-four defenseman (all of Jason Garrison, Bieksa, and Dan Hamhuis come in at roughly $4.6 million per annum).
Among the depth players: Shane O’Brien and Kevin Connauton were traded, albeit for very different reasons. Meanwhile Keith Ballard was the target of a "compliance buyout" this summer (and he promptly signed with the Minnesota WIld).
In Salo (when healhty), Mitchell (when healthy), and Ehrhoff, the Canucks have lost three players during the Mike Gillis era who remain somewhat credible top-four defenseman in the NHL. Between those three and the likes of Connauton, Rome, Ballard and O’Brien, you could probably cobble together a modestly below average defense-corps in the National Hockey League.
Ehrhoff was a dynamic, durable, productive presence during his two seasons in Vancouver and is very probably a well above average top-pairing NHL defenseman. The Borrusia Dortmunt supporter is not a perfect player: he can be outmuscled in the slot by bigger forwards and often was in the postseason. But he’s a responsible puck-mover and a consumate professional with a sky-high fitness level and high-end offensive skills. Ehrhoff moves the needle possession wise and had a tonne of chemistry with the Sedin twins and Alex Edler. He was fun to watch in Vancouver.
He’s still fun to watch in Buffalo, but his nitrous impact in transition isn’t quite so impressive when he’s using his speed through the neutral zone to set up the likes of Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson, as opposed to Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
Should the Canucks have retained Christian Ehrhoff rather than Kevin Bieksa (who was extended that same summer) or Alex Edler (who was extended two seasons hence)? I’m a bit torn on this subject, which is a favorite point of debate among many hipster Canucks fans.
My quick take: Bieksa is the superior player and his contract is way better (would you rather gamble that Bieksa is useful through the age of 34, or that Ehrhoff is useful through the age of 38?) so that’s not much of a question. But Ehrhoff is far superior to Edler at even-strength, and arguably did more to inflate the twins’ offensive production than Edler ever has.
It’s a tough one, and I can see the argument either way. But I think I’d narrowly rather have a 27-year old Edler for the next six seasons at $5 million per, as opposed to a 31-year-old Christian Ehrhoff for the next seven at $4 million per…
Since leaving the Canucks as a free-agent during the summer of 2010, Willie Mitchell has missed a significant amount of time due to injuries. He’s also continued to be one of the NHL’s best rebounders (that long reach has made many goalies look very good over the years), an excellent possession player, and he’s won a Stanley Cup while playing big minutes with the Los Angeles Kings.
Meanwhile Canucks fans are left to wonder what could’ve been in 2010-11 if the team had simply retained MItchell and not made the Keith Ballard trade. Hard to imagine an Aaron Rome suspension meaning much of anything had Mitchell been around (this wallowing is not to criticize Mike Gillis or the team by the way, I still think they made the right decision at the time).
Anyway, I tend to think that MItchell might be a Ring of Honour candidate once his career is over, partly because he was stellar in Vancouver and partly because of his local connections and the way he’s regarded in the community.
Though at this point in his career Salo’s defensive value is limited and he’s probably best suited to playing a bottom pairing role (at least in the Western Conference), the Finnish veteran has had his best go of it possession-wise in years in Tampa Bay this season. Which is great to see.
He’ll be counted on to log major minutes at the Olympics along a wafer thin Finnish blue-line, and also his Lightning club is poised to be contenders out East once Steven Stamkos returns from injury. Hopefully his injury prone 39-year-old body can withstand the grind.
Salo played nine seasons in Vancouver and recorded over 300 points in a Canucks uniform. He’s beloved by Canucks fans, and is a sure bet to have his name in the Ring of Honour when his playing days are done.
Connauton and a 2nd round pick (that the Stars wasted) was part of the price the Canucks paid for a few weeks of optimism following their acquisition of Derek Roy at the 2013 trade deadline. Roy was a flop in the postseason, while Connauton seemed to find his game with the Texas Stars and earned himself an interesting three-year contract extension this summer (Connauton’s extension morphs into a one-way deal next season)…
This season Connauton has made his NHL debut in Dallas, and he’s managed to contribute five points in 15 games. The Stars blue-line is racked with injuries at the moment, so Connauton has seen his minutes spike over the past month. Connauton has actually played over 16 minutes in five of his past six games and has managed 15 shots on goal and a couple of assists in his past four contests. I should stop now before I talk myself into taking a flier on him in Fantasy Hockey…
Anyway, Connauton is being relied upon at the NHL level by a relatively good team and he’s doing okay for a rookie defenseman. His team is still giving up more than they’re producing with Connauton on the ice, and the former Vancouver Giants defender has taken a lot of minor penalties when he’s been tasked with logging additional minutes over the past few games, in part because his positioning still needs a good deal of work.
That said, if we make a similar list in the future, Connauton is only behind Cory Schneider on the watch list of "former Canucks assets whose trades might look horrendous in retrospect."
Rome doesn’t seem to enjoy the trust of coach Lindy Ruff in Dallas and is paid too much to be attractive waiver fodder for another club. With another year after this season left on his lucrative contract, Rome is in a bit of a tough position in terms of "getting playing time." Maybe when the salary cap rises this summer he could find his way to, I don’t know, New York perhaps in a retained salary transaction?
Despite Rome’s issues getting back into the lineup in Dallas, I still think he’s a solid depth piece for any team to have. Just not at $1.5 million per season.
Ballard has had another in a long line of difficult seasons this year. The affable defenseman has dealt with concussion and other injury issues, which have limited his appearances. His apperances have also been limited, of late, by his coach Mike Yeo’s discretion (sound familiar?).
That Ballard hasn’t been able to hold down his regular spot on Minnesota’s third pairing is a pretty bad sign for the former Canucks defenseman. After all, Minnesota’s blue-line depth doesn’t quite rival Vancouver’s in 2010-11.
O’Brien developed a reputation as an unserious sort in Vancouver, but he’s remained in the league and obviously has matured some (so good for him). He currently plays third-pairing minutes for the Calgary Flames this season and is on a contract that pays him an average of $2 million per season.