As the Canucks forwards continue to drop like flies, one after another making return trips to Vancouver and the infirmary, their blue line has been surprisingly durable.
Their only regular contributor that’s not available to them at this moment is Erik Gudbranson. Based on the initial timeline of his injury and his return to practices, though, it’s fair to wonder how much longer that’s going to last.
When he does return, it’s going to force a tough decision on the Canucks. Who sits, and what are the optimal lineups when they’ve figured that out? With a wealth of readily available shot and goal-based metrics at my fingertips and some I’ve tracked myself to fill in the gaps, I’ve come up with the optimal defence pairs for the Canucks when everyone is healthy!
Ben Hutton and Chris Tanev
Ben Hutton and Chris Tanev are without a doubt the best option for Canucks head coach Travis Green as the minute-munching shutdown pair. For starters, they share the best Corsi for percentage on the team for a combo that has played over 150 minutes at 52.07%. However, when we step outside the team and start comparing some of their metrics while combined to others combos around the league, we’ll quickly realize that playing them together is a no-brainer.
xGA/60 (expected goals against per 60) – 1.72/60, good for third in the NHL out of 68 pairings who have played over 150 minutes together. The Tanev and Hutton pairing doesn’t allow quality scoring chances against while they’re playing together.
CA/60 (Corsi Against per 60) – 46.69, good for fifth in the NHL for pairings who have played over 150 minutes together. These two deliver elite shot suppression results together, keeping opposition attempts to a minimum.
Micro: Green has the luxury of having six defencemen who can move the puck out of the zone. For reference, the league average for controlled zone exits last year was 38.8% which was manually tracked by the OG of Tracking himself, Cory Sznajder. If you’re not already following him, find him on twitter @ShutDownLine. As of today, the six defencemen in the Canucks lineup are all above league average. Only Gudbranson (32.32%) and Biega (33.45%) are below, bringing the team average down to 41.02%.
Hutton ranks sixth on the Canucks with a controlled zone exit rate of 41.45%
Tanev ranks third on the Canucks with a controlled zone exit rate of 44.02%
In a perfect world, you could argue that ideally, it would be logical to have at least one of the top two puck moving move defencemen on your top pairing. It’s a fair point, but when your top six can all move the puck at an above-average rate, you can afford to be flexible in this area.
The art of preventing controlled zone entries. This is the primary strength of the pairing. Making reads in the neutral zone and preventing teams from entering the zone with control. Hutton haters, believe it or not, Hutton slightly edges Tanev and is currently the Canucks best defencemen at preventing controlled entries. I speculate this is one of the reasons Green trusts Hutton to play over 21 minutes per game and has tapped his shoulder for a team-leading 834 shifts this season. I don’t think he’s the one coming out of the line-up when the right-handed Gudbranson is fit to play.
According to my neutral zone tracking, when targeted by opposing players, Hutton is allowing controlled zone entries only 39.53% of the time, the best rate on the team. Chris Tanev isn’t far behind at 39.70%. If the goal is to win hockey games, this will be your go-to defensive pairing. The following is a chart of outputs displaying the success this pairing has had together and is also useful as a reference for the other pairings I’ve recommended.
Alexander Edler Derrick Pouliot
Alex Edler and Derrick Pouliot share a combined Corsi for of 51.74%. I’d like to see this pairing get their fair share of offensive zone starts. Their Corsi for per 60 of 58.34 and expected goals for per 60 of 2.41 are both the highest of the three pairings suggested. When these two are on the ice, the team is generating offence, at least more than usual. It’s worth mentioning these two are leading the team among defencemen, Pouliot with .90 and Edler with .85 points per hour.
Another reason Edler should be with Pouliot is that without him, Edler’s possession game falls off a cliff from 51.74% to 40.28% — yikes!
Pouliot is second on the Canucks with a controlled zone exit rate 44.19%
Edler is fifth on the Canucks with a controlled zone exit rate of 41.49%
Primary shot contributions – Shot Attempts + Shot Attempt Assists (PSC/60) – Pouliot is leading the way with 17.02 PSC/60 followed directly by Edler at 16.64 PSC/60. If you want to generate offence, deploy these two together.
Michael Del Zotto and Troy Stecher
This combo is admittedly an experiment, but it could get a lot worse when it comes to third pairings in the NHL. They’ve spent limited time together, so it’s tough to be critical of their outputs so far. Additionally, given how productive the top two pairings have been together, I have time for these two to work things out and find some chemistry.
Stecher ranks first on the Canucks with a controlled zone exit rate of 44.57%
Del Zotto ranks fourth on the Canucks with a controlled zone exit rate of 41.80%
At the very least, we know both of these guys can move the puck out of the zone. I like these two together because Stecher thrives defensively in the neutral zone whereas Del Zotto struggles. The idea being Stecher compensates for Del Zotto’s shortcomings. Stecher breaks up a team-leading 17.75% of the plays when targeted. Stecher would need to be on top of his game in this aspect, the less time these two spend in the defensive zone better.
For comparison, here’s how the pairings from last game have produced so far this season.
Primary Shot Contributions/60
Controlled Zone Exit %
Thanks for reading my debut article on CanucksArmy. There are many more to come, I’d hope! As always, I’ll be tracking the game live tonight, I’ll see you on twitter. Follow me @DKeeping.