You’d be hard-pressed to find an unrestricted free agent who has provided his club with more value during the salary cap era than Smithers native and good local boy Dan Hamhuis, 31, has brought to Vancouver since signing here in 2010. An oft-criticized second pairing guy in Nashville (his regular pairing with Kevin Klein was never very good for some reason), Hamhuis has spent his late-20s with the Canucks, where he’s blossomed into a bona fide top pairing defender, and one of the league’s best hybrid-type shutdown types.
While Hamhuis remains a credible top-pairing guy, even a fringe “1A defenseman”, and isn’t quite at the age where we might reasonably expect the Canucks to begin to incur some significant diminishing returns on their investment, he had something of an off year last season (though he can take solace in the Olympic Gold Medal he won as a depth defender with the Canadian men’s ice hockey team). Was it the so-called ‘Torts effect’ or has Hamhuis lost a bit of his fastball in his early 30’s? We’ll answer that question and more on the other side of the jump.
Hamhuis had an off-year offensively and defensively during the 2013-14 campaign, but it’s worth noting that, in saying this, we have pretty high expectations for his two-way performance. Vancouver’s ace shutdown defender got off to a bumpy start in October, and seemed to have more trouble than most of his colleagues in adjusting to Tortorella’s system. His game evened out in late November and he was borderline dominant through the month of December on a pairing with fellow fancystats darling Chris Tanev.
Obviously Vancouver’s wheels fell off in a major way thereafter, but it probably wasn’t Hamhuis’ performance that sunk the team. Even in the darkest days of last Spring, the club was still able to set the table and control play – and that’s really what you employ Hamhuis to help you do. The Canucks just couldn’t score, their stars were totally gassed (and injured), and the club bled odd-man rushes against due to an overly aggressive forecheck and poorly timed pinches. You know the story.
Overall Hamhuis led all Canucks defenders in on-ice goal differential last season while also soaking up the most even-strength ice-time per game, battling top-pair competition, and logging the most minutes of any Vancouver blue-line while short-handed. He also managed the second best relative shot attempt differential, behind only Ryan Stanton who mostly played on the third-pair.
That’s all well and good, but it’s kind of par for the course for Hamhuis at this point, and as previously stated: obviously we have high expectations for his performance. Though his results were fine, his “with or without you numbers” weren’t nearly as impressive as they’ve been in years past and he had his worst offensive season as a Canuck. Hamhuis, who was on pace for 40 points during the lockout abbreviated 2013 season, managed just 22 points this past season and unlike the majority of his teammates – cruel bounces and bad luck wasn’t the main issue – he had a healthy 8.8 on-ice shooting percentage.
So while Hamhuis remained a credible top-pairing guy during the 2013-14 season, his year was “off” enough that we’re left to simply pose a question: did John Tortorella’s system – be it the constipated breakouts, or his refusal to allow defenders to carry the puck over the opposing blue – simply not suit Hamhuis? Or was the 31-year-old workhorse, who will turn 32 in December, beginning to show his age?
*Need help understanding these fancy stats, click here.
To answer the question posted in the graph above: I tend to suspect the majority of Hamhuis’ issues last season were systems based, and not age related. Looking over the real-time data that @shutdownline compiled last season, Hamhuis was Vancouver’s best defenseman in pretty much every phase of the game. On zone exits he recorded the most touches of any regular Canucks defender and had the highest success rate and the lowest turnover rate when it came to clearing the zone.
On entries, the Canucks managed an outrageous 1.04 shots per entry when Hamhuis gained the blue-line with control of the puck. Hint to Willie Desjardins: let him do that a bit more.
Finally when it came to denying the blue to his opponents, Hamhuis had the lowest carry-in percentage and the best breakup rate among all regular Vancouver defensemen. Basically Hamhuis just angles his opponents into the corner as quietly and intelligently as possible, suffocating their offensive options before they even realize what’s occurred. He still had that last season, and I think he’s a good bet to have it again this year.
One thing I’ll be particularly curious to see is who Hamhuis partners with most regularly at even-strength this upcoming season. Obviously he’s shown some excellent chemistry with Kevin Bieksa in the recent past, but Bieksa is getting a bit long in the tooth and Hamhuis was pretty excellent on a pairing with Tanev last season.
As much potential as Hamhuis and Tanev have together, ultimately I think you play him with Bieksa, in part because Alexander Edler and Bieksa are a smoldering garbage fire when paired together and that combination allows the Canucks to keep their four best defenders in their top-four. What Desjardins will ultimately decide to do though, remains opaque, particularly because we haven’t really seen Vancouver’s core group of defenders play together in the preseason yet.