It’s Time To Stop Calling The Canucks Defence A “Strength”


Photo Credit: Matt Kartozian – USA TODAY Sports

A few months ago, The Guardian published a story on the “ugly friend effect”: the phenomenon wherein a person’s attractive features are augmented when in close proximity to people who aren’t considered traditionally attractive. It’s superficial, callous and unkind, but it’s real, at least according to a recent study. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Canucks’ 2016-17 defence corps. It’s not pretty, but it looks better by comparison. You can thank Matt Bartkowski, and the relatively uninspiring play of the Canucks’ forwards this season.

After limping to the finish line last season with one of the worst back-ends in reason memory, the Canucks finally seem to have some legitimately promising young defencemen on their roster. So much so, in fact, that we’re starting to see the team’s ostensible depth on defence get described as an organizational strength. 

It’s a narrative that’s persisted since the summer, as the Canucks added Olli Juolevi, Erik Gudbranson, Philip Larsen and Troy Stecher — no to mention a full year of Nikita Tryamkin. When Canucks fans’ actually got a look at some of these players, the strength of this idea grew further, to the point that some of us even suggested the Canucks can afford to off-load a big-ticket defender for some offensive help.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves here. It’s time to pump the brakes. 

At first glance, things appear pretty rosy if we look solely at the defence. The Canucks are just outside the top ten teams at suppressing shot-attempts at even strength. That’s where the good news ends. When we account solely for missed shots and shots on net, that number jumps all the way down to 18th. When it comes to preventing simple shots on net, their numbers fall even further, down to 20th overall.

They’re equally inept at preventing scoring chances, conceding eight for every sixty minutes of even-strength play. In other words, the Canucks defence has been pedestrian at the one thing they’ve been tasked with doing: preventing plays that have a high probability of resulting in a goal against. 

So, the Canucks’ defending has been nothing to write home about at even-strength. But what about on the penalty kill? Perhaps that’s where the Canucks’ D core is making their presence known. 

Nope. Wrong again. The Canucks are in the bottom three of just about every conceivable metric designed to evaluate defensive play on the penalty kill, including shots, scoring chances, and expected goals. 

So, we’ve established the Canucks haven’t been particularly adept at defending, which should, at least theoretically, be the area in which defencemen contribute the most. However, that’s a facile method of evaluation, as it ignores the total sum of what the Canucks’ defence has contributed. With that in mind, it’s only fair to look at offensive metrics as well. Since it’s difficult to gauge just how much the defence is contributing offensively, we’ll take a look at individual statistics this time.

Some of you may already be ahead of me on this one, but let’s review: 


When your team’s biggest offensive contributors at even-strength on the back end are Luca Sbisa and small samples of Larsen and Gudbranson, you may have a problem. With the exception of, hilariously, Sbisa, the Canucks largest minute-munchers on the back end rank among the league’s worst at producing offence. The Canucks have no less than five defenders that appear in the bottom 50 in even-strength point production. The team’s back end has also combined for just 13 goals, good for 28th in the NHL. (For context, Brent Burns has 22 all on his own.) 

When you take a look at the Canucks’ shot metrics, it doesn’t appear as though the defence is doing a particularly good job of moving the needle with or without the puck. In a vacuum, it’s entirely acceptable that a player might concede a high number of shots against, or struggle to produce offence. If you take a look at the league’s worst point producers at even strength, or at the league’s worst shot suppressors, you’ll often find a number of good players in that mix. The issue for the Canucks’ defence is that they aren’t good enough in any one area to make up for their significant flaws. 

The Canucks haven’t carried a single defender on their roster with an expected goal-differential above 49%, and only Sbisa and Chris Tanev are in the black by scoring chances. This differs significantly from a team like the Kings, for example, who struggle at times to produce offence but hang in there by stifling their opponents’ ability to produce high-percentage plays. 

In other words, the defence is a strength for this Canucks’ team in precisely the same way that trunk space is a strength for a car that won’t start. 

At least they’ve got some promising young defenders, right? 

Well, yes and no. 

Ben Hutton, Stecher and Tryamkin are all legitimate NHL players — of that there is no debate. But the lack of legitimate young defensive talent in this city over the past half a decade or so has given fans an inflated sense of where those players rank among others in their age group.

Yes, it’s great to see those players logging minutes with the big club as opposed to toiling in the AHL, but anyone who tells you the Canucks have a plethora of future top-four defenders in their system is selling some serious snake oil. As heartening as it’s been to see these players keeping up in the pro ranks, they’ve still got a lot of catching up to do with other 22-year-old defenders:

Player ES P/60 PP P/60 FA/60 RelTm
Brady Skjei 1.43 2.81 -0.83
Jacob Trouba 1.34 0.96 2.87
Colton Parayko 1.19 4.61 -0.31
Adam Pelech 1.1 N/A -2.11
Morgan Rielly 1.0 1.86 2.12
Damon Severson 0.92 3.96 -3.35
Matt Dumba 0.92 3.48 2.34
Matthew Benning 0.9 N/A -4.10
Jaccob Slavin 0.86 3.98 -4.71
Josh Morrissey 0.69 N/A -3.61
Slater Koekkoek 0.68 N/A 1.58
Brett Pesce 0.67 1.15 -7.72
Ryan Murray 0.58 N/A 3.98
Nikita Tryamkin 0.57 N/A -0.46
Rasmus Ristolainen 0.53 5.39 9.9
Connor Carrick 0.51 N/A -2.75
Troy Stecher 0.49 1.95 0.91
Darnell Nurse 0.47 N/A 3.65
Olli Maatta 0.47 N/A 3.3
Shayne Gostisbehere 0.43 4.36 2.67
Esa Lindell 0.4 N/A 1.76
Hampus Lindholm 0.35 2.16 -6.84
Ben Hutton 0.33 4.52 -1.17

While the strides Stecher, Tryamkin, and Hutton have taken since joining the organization are encouraging, they aren’t really excelling in any one area relative to other defenders in their age group, (although I do think the world of Stecher). The purpose of this exercise isn’t to put these youngsters on blast, but just to remind people to temper their expectations. It would be unfair to expect any of these three to suddenly take a massive leap in their development and become elite defenders. For the most part, those guys actually make their presence known very early on. 

To put it another way, I think Chris Tanev and Alex Edler are the unsung heroes of the Canucks’ lineup, but they still aren’t enough to drag this team into respectability, and I also remain unconvinced that the Canucks have a defender on their roster that projects to be better than those two are. 

Oh well. At least the reinforcements are coming, right? 

Here are the Canucks D prospects ranked by adjusted success percentage by the prospect Graduation Probabilities System:

Player pGPS exp. succes% pGPS exp. P/82 GP
Jordan Subban 60.4% 37.9
Olli Juolevi 39.3% 26.1
Evan McEneny 18.3% 18.3
Tate Olson 7.4% 14.6
Ashton Sautner 5.2% 16.5
Andrey Pedan 4.9% 15.4
Guillaume Brisebois 3.2% 22.4
Cole Candella 2.3% 22.8
Carl Neill 0 0

Again, I’m not trying to overly scrutinize these prospects, but it’s not a great sign when the prospect with the highest chance of success is also the one you’ve desperately been trying to trade for the better part of the last 18 months. Not one of the Canucks prospects on defence — not even Juolevi — is a sure thing. There are a number of inherent issues with using pGPS as the sole tool for prospect evaluation, but it still serves to underline the fact that the Canucks’ prospect cupboard is still lacking in high-end talent. Juolevi, as strong of a prospect as he is, hasn’t really taken the step forward you’d expect from a top-5 pick.  

This should be enough to give pause to anyone who’s giddy about how great the Canucks defence is now. It should send anyone calling for the Canucks to trade Tanev or Edler running for the hills, especially if they’re on board with the team’s stated goal of competing for the playoffs year-in and year-out. 

For the time being, it’s still very much Tanev & friends on the Canucks’ blue line. The team has made important strides to improve it’s back end, but still have neither the depth nor quality in their system for it to be considered a strength in any more than an extremely relative sense. 

The Canucks defence isn’t anything to write home about. It’s just surrounded by uglier friends.

  • JuiceBox

    Thank You! Ive only been saying this for months. This group is a sorry lot. Not one of them are having a decent season, and only one or two of them are adequate. No bona-fide “top 2”, a couple of legit “top 4” a handful of “top 6” and then Gudbranson Hutton and Larsen, none of whom should even be in the NHL. I’m willing to cut a few of them some slack given their age and experience but it’s crystal clear this team is going nowhere until this defense drastically improves.

    • Braindead Benning

      Thank you as well!!!

      Couldn’t have said it better myself, besides Edler & Tanev i can’t think of any that truly stand out besides that disaster in Gudbranson…god what an idiotic senseless trade…

      • Bud Poile

        Speaking of which,can you tell us what your qualifications are on defense? I mean you call people idiots and worse so you must be light years ahead of a Benning in experience and player evaluation.

        I’ll wait for your qualifications … a loooong time.

        Two points stand out in this article for me and that is qualifying Hutton as a legitimate NHL d man and Olli is not a sure thing. Sure, Hutton is an NHL’er but he is a fifth/sixth that logged top-four minutes early on this season.He has dragged down every partner he’s played with and should be a sixth.

        As for cutting down Olli and suggesting he has not improved this season,I take a strong position against such a stance.

        Olli is only 18 years of age and the Knights just lost Marner,Tkachuk and Dvorak upfront and Domi the year before that.

        Still,he is sporting an .81 PPG average this season while last year his average was .74 PPG.
        So his outstanding defensive game is being supported with stronger offensive numbers on a far less offensively talented team.

        Olli can and will stabilize the Canucks defense for generations to come and will man the top PP unit.

        For the rocket scientists cutting down Gudbranson it’s worth noting he played through injury and was saddled with Hutton.You are likely the same folks that cut down Sbisa and Benning for two years until your obvious ignorance shut you up.

        The Canucks need an offensive PP quarterback in the worst way.Olli should become that player but that is years from now. The problem is,as is stated here above,is that the team’s offense keeps declining with the Sedin’s aging and all the Canucks D are not offensively gifted.

        Subban has to be given a shot at some point in time and if his stature and defensive skills lack at the NHL level then the team remains in the market for an offensively-gifted D man or a true PP QB.

        • mathonwy

          >>For the rocket scientists cutting down Gudbranson it’s worth noting he played through injury and was saddled with Hutton.You are likely the same folks that cut down Sbisa and Benning for two years until your obvious ignorance shut you up.


          So did Gudbranson start the season injured? Because his play was subpar right from the get go. The Gud-Hutton pairing was an absolute crap show. Gud handling the puck like a grenade and not being able to make a good breakout pass to save his life and Hutton getting out-everything’ed by everyone. Yep Gud got injured… at the end of November when his CF% absolutely plummeted and his subpar play turned into catastrophically bad play.

          And then you rip on people for bagging on Pizza Sbisa??? Or ol 26 point stealth tank commander Jimbo????

          You were doing pretty good until you lost the plot something bigly with this paragraph.

          Better luck next time.

          • Bud Poile

            Guddy was 24 years old a couple of weeks ago.

            220 lb.,6’5″ d men don’t grow on trees.

            The jokes were fast and furious regarding Sbisa for the last three years.

            Now at the age 27 of age he has matured into a dependable top-4 asset that can be utilized in trade.

            It’s about the Canucks sourcing assets at this stage,not personal preferences.

            FYI ,he was taken off the roster in mid-December and the team stated he had already been through continuous treatment and rehabilitation. Throw in Hutton as your partner performing second line duties and you have your answer.

          • mathonwy

            What does Gud’s age have to do with how bad he was playing considering how much Jimbo paid for him? (McCann, 2nd, 6th for Gud and 5th)

            Jimbo made this transaction and sold Gud to the fans as a top 4 d-man. What we saw was anything but. Gud played like a 3rd pairing d-man (think Andrew Alberts with a very low panic threshold) and when tasked with 2nd pairing minutes because of injuries to Tanev and Edler, he showed us that he is VERY far from being a top 4 d-man with both Tryamkin and Stecher showing to be much closer than Gud.

            The jokes were fast and furious regarding Sbisa because he sucked. He was terribad in his first season with us and then Jimbo in his infinite wisdom decided to give him a raise and luckily for Sbisa, he got injured the following season and Bart took over as #1 tank lieutenant.

            And finally, this season when he doesn’t suck (as much) and you deem it necessary to throw it in everyone’s faces… Sorry, did the last two seasons not happen in your mind? 🙂

            FYI. I’m not sure what you’re talking about in your FYI.

          • mathonwy

            Oh… so it was Bieksa who was baking all those pizzas. It makes perfect sense now. That’s why they were referring to Kev as pizza.

            No wait, Kevin’s nickname was juice.

            Who was pizza again?

          • DJ_44

            Gudbranson was tied to the boat anchor that is currently Hutton…..for Jackson to even think Hutton is an NHL defenseman…….questions the validity of his analysis.

  • kagee

    Kind of unfair to compare 22 year olds who have much more experience than basically first year pro’s in Stecher and Tryamkin.

    Especially considering dmen in a nutshell take years to develop to reach their full potential.

    Those two really give a lot of hope to the future of the franchise.

    Juolevi is one to watch this september if he’s ready or not, however I’d be more than happy if he spends another year in junior, as his type – a tall, lanky euro dman would take more time to adjust to the rigors of North American hockey…I mean look how long Hedman, Larsson etc took to be effective.

  • Steamer

    Revealing data – only caveat is to remind that defense, like offense, is a reflection of all the players on the ice; inconsistent attention to defensive responsibilities ( what Marc Crawford refers to as “attention to detail” ) by forwards will invariably result in goals against. Can’t really isolate the defensive players apart from the forwards on the ice, thus more complicated. Really have to evaluate 5-man units, compare D-pairings vis-a-vis the various forward combos.

    • crofton

      That’s very true, but I suspect the numbers team by team would still be very similar, with some irregularities, such as from a team like Winnipeg that scores its way out of trouble. Your proposals would certainly give a more accurate evaluation, because in essence, you’re saying…what would Hutton’s numbers look like if you swapped him with Seabrooke? Or anyone, for that matter, because Vancouver forwards are among the lowest scorers in the league.

      • Steamer

        Thanks for the reply! Yeah, pretty much as you said – can’t really isolate Sbisa or Edler or whoever without taking into account who the forwards are on the shift. It makes a difference if it’s Chaput vs. Horvat, etc. Not putting Chaput – or Horvat -down, just saying the forwards on the ice impact the D & vice versa, so a more revealing analytic would be to evaluate the 5-man units. If you’re a D & Gretzky is your forward, chances are the other team won’t have much in the way of puck-possession, thus your numbers will look better. Conversely, perhaps such a high-risk
        offensively-minded player may result in more chances against?

  • ikillchicken

    I guess it depends just how much of a “strength” you think our defence is.

    On the one hand, I think the data is potentially a bit misleading. Right now our greatest asset at the position is a collection of dynamic young players with the ability to generate offense. It’s pretty tough to actually put up points though as a defenceman without forwards who can convert on the chances you generate. It’s not at all unreasonable to suggest that we will see a sharp uptick in production from the likes of Hutton and Stetcher if we actually improve our forward group. (And what Subban has done with the godawful Utica group is nothing short of amazing.) Also, while Juolevi hasn’t had a great year, there are a few mitigating factors there (as CA’s own midseason profile pointed out) and he’s still a blue chip prospect very early in his development. It’s obviously going to depend a lot on how he pans out but add in Tryamkin who is a real wild card I don’t think it’s implausible to say we could easily get 3 above average top 4 D men out of this group. That’s not too shabby.

    All that said, yeah, this really only makes our defence a strength in strictly relative terms. Like, I think given the above projection this could be a workable defence going forward. It doesn’t project as an elite group though by any stretch and we’re in no position to be talking about giving up a major piece. Especially if that piece is Tanev. I think, and maybe this is where you and I agree, Tanev is still the Canucks best D man and may well be for the foreseeable future. He’s an elite shot suppressor and a dynamite transitional player and he’s young enough that he can still be a part of this team a few years down the road. Him, plus Juolevi, Hutton, Stetcher, and maybe Tryamkin or Subban could plausibly be a very respectable group. Take out Tanev (or even Hutton) and that starts to look extremely dubious though.

    So yeah, once again I think it depends what you mean. It’s a strength in that it’s not a big hole we need to plug (although I think spending later picks on defensive depth is always wise). It’s not to the extent that we can go ahead and start trading pieces away though for sure. (Well, not actual good pieces anyway. Sbisa and Gudbranson are obviously the exception).

  • wojohowitz

    Nowhere do I see the words Willie or structure. Only late in the game and down a goal do the defencemen jump into the rush. Is Willie under utilizing his roster? Would the defencemen like to jump into the rush more often but have been told not to?

    Maybe Benning was right to downplay the trade deadline. They all looked jittery like someone has to go but who? Could they all play better in March after the deadline? The lack of points from the D jumps right out. Does Brent Burns have more points than the entire Canuck defensive group?

  • Smyl and Snepsts

    A couple of quick thoughts. ” No doubt Hutton is an NHL player”?????? I like the kid but he badly needs time in the AHL to learn to defend and think the game.
    Think how much better our Defense men’s stats would look if the forwards were pinning the other team in their end more of the game. I still like the group and their potential.

    • mathonwy

      Hutton needs to approach his off-season conditioning like a professional.

      His skills are still there but opposing players aren’t giving him the space that he enjoyed as a rookie.

      I really do like Hutton a lot. He reminds me of Eddie Lack in terms of his attitude and friendliness.

      But if he doesn’t smarten up, he will be passed by dmen that DO take their off-season training seriously and that’ll be a shame.

    • Dirty30

      When he came off injury he could have been sent to Utica for conditioning — I don’t know how long the rules allow him to stay down on a conditioning stint but it would have kept Gaunce up and given Hutton time to get his mojo back.

      Same could have been done with Larsen coming off an injury.

      This is a legitimate criticism of poor asset management and deployment by this team.

      It’s not like they didn’t have enough guys on D or that Hutton and Larsen are top four players right now and the team is in a playoff situation.

      Poor play by these guys is doing more harm than good to the team and the players themselves.

      Give players the opportunity to succeed and they might just succeed.

  • mathonwy

    A tad on the negative side I think.

    While I have no qualms with the data you present, the article as a whole would have been better had you balanced the negative with positive.

    Positivity, humour, quirkiness, whatever.

    Life already sucks something harshly being a Canuck fan. Is it really necessary to kick us in the nuts when we’re already in the gutter? 🙂

  • TD

    Our defence core is a strength. They are young and should improve going forward It takes d men longer to develop and get into the NHL, always has. Are they a good defence group right now? No, they are okay but not great. That leads to games where they will struggle and look really bad. Will they improve and is there enough potential there that they could be a strong group in 3-5 years? I think the potential is there. Not everyone of them will make it, but will some of Stecher, Hutton, Tryamkin, Juolevi, Subban etc continue to develop and become good legitimate top 4 d men in the next 3-5 years? I’ll bet some of them do while others flame out. They are young and developing with good potential. If and when some of them falter, other prospects like Brisebois, Pedan, McEneny, Neill, Olson and Candella will get a chance. They aren’t great now but there is more young potential than the Canucks have had for years.

    The d core stats are also directly related to the forwards. The best way to prevent shots is to have the puck in the other end shooting on the opposing goal. The defence would have more points if the forwards were better. They would get more assists with better forwards and with more o zone time its not much of a stretch to think the d would get more shots which would lead to more goals.

    There realistic hope on the back end with enough young players and prospects to think some will develop to fill some or all of the 6 spots. There is not the same level of skill and prospects up front. Gaudette and Boeser look good, the writers tell us that statistically one of them will become an NHLer. Who else are you counting on? Maybe Virtanen, anyone else look like a legitimate player, let alone a top 6 player on a competitive team? Our back end is a strength for the future because of what some of them will develop into.

  • Bud Poile

    @ Braindead

    What (CA) won’t accept:

    •Personal attacks on readers or staff members
    •Generally hateful remarks
    •Contrarian posts created to start arguments
    •Engagement of the above types of posts

  • Dinsdale

    Right now, it appears Sbisa’s no. 3.
    On that scale, I’d say there’s lots of room for improvement for the youngsters.
    (I love the potential they represent, but…)

  • Burnabybob

    It’s true. The Canucks prospect pool is lackluster. The only real consistent bright spots among their young players have been Horvat, Granlund and Baertschi.

    Benning is touted for his drafting, but he hasn’t done great so far. Virtanen is heading dangerously towards bust territory and Juolevi isn’t really becoming the player they had hoped. Tkachuk would have been a better pick.

  • I am Ted

    Yeah, I think I’ll agree to disagree with the premise of this article. I will call the Canucks depth on D a strength. They have an exciting pool of prospects and young players. Actually, they’re all quite young and the only exception is Edler and he isn’t really old at 30.

    I think the CA crew knows what many of us think of analytics: it’s 1 tool out of many. Despite this, CA bloggers will go to bat and debate a player’s future based almost solely on analytics. It’s a foolish move but…well…bloggers and their toys.

    Canucks don’t have a lot of great forwards and that also impacts the D. Duh. The Sedins are older. Horvat, Sven, Granlund are all younger. Sutter is decent and there are some solid vets in the mix too. You put it all together and you come up with a team that struggles to score. That will be tough on the D.

    Most of the Canuck D are learning and might be something quite good in the near future. That’s what a prospect is – an unknown and a maybe.

  • tyhee

    I don’t think there are many who claim that the Canucks’ defence is a current strength. There is a difference, though, between saying the defence is good and the depth on defensive is a relative strength in comparison to other areas of the team.

    The Canucks have a few young defenders who have shown they can play at the NHL level, plus the likelihood of at least one of the prospects becoming an NHL defender. We’ll have to wait until future seasons to see if they get good or not, but meanwhile it looks like the Canucks will at least have a number of young defenders who can play at the NHL level.

    There are enough young defenders to add to the veteran core players (a core which isn’t all that all old) that some decisions on moving or keeping players may have to be made. Only the coming expansion draft makes decisions about keeping enough of the current Canuck forwards an issue.

  • Pat Quinn Way

    More cheese with your ‘WHINE’ mate? The truth is, nothing will ever be right and everyone will always be moaning until the Canucks win a Stanley Cup – unfortunately under this regime that’s just not going to happen.

    I wonder if St Louis, Buffalo, Ottawa (Senators) and Washington fans are so desperately miserable at never winning a Stanley Cup in franchise history.


    #17 Pat Quinn Way
    February 08 2017, 11:38AM

    The entire 9 man D corp who’ve suited up this season has chipped in with 13 goals total (Burns has 22 on his own, Shattenkirk has 11!)

    Jackson McDonald

    The team’s back end has also combined for just 13 goals, good for 28th in the NHL. (For context, Brent Burns has 22 all on his own.)

    Thanks for reading CA lol

  • Locust

    Missing the point ‘mate’ …..

    Unlike other Nation sites, Canucks Army is just a troll site.

    Winning has nothing to do with it. Would probably make them even worse.

  • Dirk22

    What would you like them to talk about? You want them to pretend the Canucks are good? that they’re not a bottom 5 team? pretend they’re on the right path to compete for the cup? Fluff pieces on Chaput’s ascension to the NHL? I don’t know any media source that’s going to provide that for you.

  • Locust

    Look at the other Nation sites if you can’t “comprende” what I am saying.

    There is a difference, a huge difference, in being objectively critical and being just a douche and putting anything Canuck down.

    Stockholm syndrome … ???