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.
— Rob Williams (@RobTheHockeyGuy) January 23, 2017
— The Canuck Way (@FSTheCanuckWay) November 1, 2016
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.)
Hilarious look at the preposterous season Brent Burns is having himself. pic.twitter.com/weMSqNueD2
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) February 7, 2017
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|
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|
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.