There have been plenty of occasions over the years where Kevin Bieksa’s name popped up in trade rumours, and it seemed like a realistic possibility that he could be on his way out of town. One of those times came back in 2010, with the team fresh off of bringing in the likes of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard and Bieksa set to hit the last year of his contract with the Canucks.
Then a crazy thing happened: Bieksa was paired with the newcomer Hamhuis during his first season with the team, and the two made sweet music together. In essence they became the de-facto first pairing, logging heavy minutes against the opposition’s best and making it all look very easy.
It was nothing new for Hamhuis, who has as we now know made a career of propping up his partners with the unique ability to make those around him look just that much better. In this case though, it resurrected Bieksa’s career.
But after the team dipped its toes into the free agent market and signed Jason Garrison in the summer of ’12, Alain Vigneault figured a better allocation of resources was to split the dominant pairing up. Apparently he wasn’t alone, because John Tortorella felt the same way last season.
It’ll be interesting to see how Willie Desjardins approaches the matter, but there’s ample reason to believe that it would behoove both himself, the team, and the two players in question themselves to put the them back together this coming season.
A Bieksa-Hamhuis combination may not necessarily produce the type of offense that is often associated with top-flight defensemen, but what they can do is handle the opposition’s very best and still manage to move the needle in the right direction. A convenient byproduct is that it allows someone like Alex Edler to play softer minutes than he did this past year (when he was tasked with the toughest ones of his career), and potentially flourish on the offensive end.
The two seasons that Bieksa and Hamhuis were predominantly paired up were in ’10-’11 and ’11-’12, and the success was startling. They posted zone-start adjusted possession rates of 54% and 55.3% respectively, and goals for rates of 65.2% and 62.9%.
Diving even deeper into the numbers from that first season together, here’s a look at who they were matched up against most frequently during that time and how they fared against them. In short, they were facing a venerable murderer’s row of opposing forwards.
What you’ll notice here is that Dan Hamhuis was relied upon more heavily than Bieksa that season. After all, it seems rather intuitive that then-coach Alain Vigneault would’ve been slightly more aggressive about matching Hamhuis up against the opposition’s best than he was with Bieksa.
In an effort to set the table for how the pairing of Bieksa and Hamhuis fared against other team’s top defensive pairing, I charted the Corsi For & Against of every team’s top line. What I essentially did was look at who played the highest percentage of even-strength minutes on each team in 2010-11, and looked who they played the majority of their minutes with. It’s not exactly perfect, but it seemed to me like the most effective and readily available way of finding out each team’s top pairing. The results are every bit as good as I had thought they would be when I embarked on this project.
As you can see, only about five pairings came out better than Bieksa and Hamhuis; most of them were from the ever-so-cushy Eastern Conference. The following season they actually went on to play against slightly tougher quality of competition, and still managed to drop their Corsi Against/20 when together from 18.58 to 16.58 (admittedly with a slight dip in their Corsi For/20, as well). In layman’s terms: they were putting in work.
I’ve always felt that the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts with these two, and to some extent the data backs that up. I know chemistry isn’t something you hear about often on this blog, but let me go out on a limb and suggest that there’s something there in this regard.
One almost always knows where the other is and as far as I can remember, their breakouts from 2010-12 – when they were paired together most frequently – were bordering on sublime. From an eye-test perspective, it makes sense; Bieksa is prone to his bone-headed moments, while Hamhuis on the other hand is the personification of reliability. Hamhuis is seemingly always in the right position and this can make up for the sometimes mind-numbing decisions Bieksa is prone to making with the puck.
I’m not blind here. Bieksa needs Hamhuis more than Hamhuis does Bieksa, as we’ve seen over the past two years with Hamhuis propping up both Jason Garrison and Chris Tanev. That said, the fact that a pairing that was so successful together was just casually moved away from has irked me over the past two years. Maybe, just maybe, reuniting them this coming season could open some more doors for others while giving the Canucks a legitimate top pairing that benefits from its symbiotic relationship.