Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn - USA TODAY Sports

What are the Canucks Optimal Defence Pairs?

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.

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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%

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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.

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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.

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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%

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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

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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.

  • Wise Canuck

    The league is all about puck moving D with offensive upside now and GMMG clearly saw this when he signed Tanev and Hutton years ago. Poulliot was also long coveted by the Gillis/Gilman regime but the Pens still had high hopes for Derek then.

    In comparisson, Benning’s ‘foundational piece’ Slugbranson is as redundant as a chocolate teapot with no offensive upside whatsoever and should therefore be traded for a bag of pucks asap. He has not been missed and we actually only started losing when our star player, Bo Horvat, another Gillis masterstroke, went down.

    Benning extension you say… hahaha Rasmus Dahlin picked by a new GM please.

  • Bud Poile

    Benning needs to make a decision on Guddy so the .org has to play him.
    CDC is conducting a poll regarding which d-man they want to sit when Guddy returns.
    The overwhelming vote goes to Hutton.

  • Jim "Dumpster Fire" Benning

    Tanev, Stetcher, Pouliot & Del Zotto are all 3/4 dmen (which is fine in my books for this team at present). Basically icing anybody but Edler and Guddy is fine with me. Both are massive liabilities IMO.

  • Bud Poile

    Gudbranson was heavily relied upon when Tanev and Edler were injured.
    Guddy played 21 games.Tanev has played 23.
    These combo comparisons also do not include Biega whom played 15 games.
    A defenceman’s job is defending- skills such as blocking shots,hitting opponents and defending your crease and tender.
    None of these skills are even mentioned,never mind those stats that are kept.
    Having the strength and guts to steer opponents from the blueline to the netfront and/or punish them physically if they take liberties means nothing to staticians and those that never played the position.
    A zone exit stat does not even exist when the team is already scored upon.

    • Wide Awake in Ubud

      Bud/beers after/defenceman factory (all the same user loser) Please explain the following which all CONTRADICT your fork-tongued drivel…

      “I wished Jim Benning would have retained and listened to Gilman.” – Bud Poile

      “The Canucks won’t do anything until they get a QB on the PP” – Bud Poile

      ” The Canucks need players that can contribute out of the gate, particularly on D. I would take Liljegren or Heiskanen. ” – Bud Poile

      Your act is as outdated as your hockey opinion. Conclusion – beat it and get a life. You are a laugher here.

    • Adamemnon

      Dude, your commentary is so tired. You and Andrew Walker should get a room.

      I’ve played the game plenty, and I’m also not afraid to use statistics intelligently! How crazy is that?

      It takes about ten minutes of watching him by someone who actually understands hockey, to realize Guddy is lost out there. He’s an old school defender, you’re right about that. Totally inept with the puck and too slow to keep up with the play. Which means he gets to spend all his time clearing the net front and ramming players he’s just coughed up the puck to into the boards. You know, the kinds of things that you never get to do if you leave the zone with control of the puck.

      There’s a revolution in understanding hockey that’s completely passing you by Bud, and I frankly find it hilarious that you come here of all places, to try and shove the intelligent analysts who write articles (for the love of the game btw, it’s not like they’re getting paid tons of cash!) back into the dark ages. Why do you read this site if you’re so dead-set against its raison d’etre?

      Troy Stecher, Johnny Gaudreau and all kinds of players of their ilk would have been passed over by “old schoolers” like you. I would have loved to see you out on the ice as an opposing D man. Players like you used to make me look like an NHLer ; )

      • Wide Awake in Ubud

        This place is his life pal. He has at least 15 accounts and doesn’t even watch the games…too busy having a meeting of the mindless on Canucks.dot.bomb LOL

        “this parting with very good nhl and ahl prospects has me less and less interested in this team.” – Bud Poile

      • Bud Poile

        Yeah,hockey passsed me by.
        Now arithmatic geeks get hockey gigs talking about how much they know when their data is mostly incomplete to begin with.Waste of space defending geek dung.
        Go Arizona Go!

        • Dirk22

          Bud – let me help you out.

          Gudbranson could be the best shot blocker, the best crease clearer and the best hitter on the Canucks blue line. Whether that’s true or not whatever. Let’s say he is all those things.

          Does it matter if his hockey sense and lack of quickness means he is hemmed in his own zone the majority of the time so the net effect is a negative. It’s not rocket science Bud. Guddy would have been good in the late 90’s when Derain Hatcher and co. were dominating the game… it’s time you joined the rest of us in 2017.

        • Adamemnon

          Well, there you have it. You can’t even spell the word “passed,” of course you get off trying to bully “geeks.” It strikes me as hilarious that you name yourself after Nashville’s GM, you know, the guy who assembled one of the best teams in hockey around a small, mobile D core. The real Bud Poile wouldn’t touch Gudbranson with a ten foot pole.

          Don’t get me wrong, I actually like the guy, Gudbranson seems like a fun dude. But as Dirk22 points out below, the game has passed his skillset by.

    • The_Blueline

      People like you who think hitting and blocking shots are indicators of player quality are so tiresome.
      I don’t mind you so much. What worries me is that there are plenty of hockey ops out there with similarly wrong priorities when evaluating players

    • Gudbranson fails both the eye and stats test. In terms of toughness, I recall the game where Kadri blindsides Sedin and there’s no pushback. Gudbranson ends up fighting Martin who jumps Stecher. What good is an “enforcer” who only fights the other team’s designated fighter? Maybe if Gudbranson actually bothered to use his size and throw hits against the boards but he doesn’t even do that. Size and strength are only relevant if they’re used. Look at guys like Krug or Stecher, they lack size but make up for it with good positioning and gap control, defensive awareness, an active stick, and 110% effort.

  • CanucksRalBish

    great in-depth read – i love how the vancouver canucks are playing defense with feelings – looking forward to your article about connor mcdavid and how he used roller blades to get into the nhl

  • SJ

    Just a thought; what about playing 7 defencemen when Gudbranson is healthy? The forward ranks are decimated at the moment. You can work Gudbranson into some minutes (you know, to showcase him for a trade), and not have to take any of your best 6 defencemen out of the lineup to do so. The forwards get more minutes (Jake), and you can send Chaput or Dowd up to the press box.

  • HockeyTruther69

    good enough artcile but you failed to mention that gudbrandson has the highest pdo of defencemen who have played less than 300 minutes. the numbers may not tell you this but its important to have a guy who scared the other goalie into forgetting how to stop the puck and makes his own goalie scared to not stop the puck. thats somethig you nerds overlook

    • Dirk22

      Garrison put up 33 points in his only full season, was the highest scoring dman on the Canucks that year, and no defencemen has had a more productive year since. Not saying they shouldn’t have traded him but kind of puts it in perspective.

      Ballard trade was a bust obviously but the rationale to spend futures to build a deep defence at that point was sound. They just picked the wrong defencemen.

      • defenceman factory

        Guddy certainly didn’t come as advertised. By your rationale on Ballard Dirk couldn’t you argue it was a good move by Benning to sign a big young Dman, former 1st round draft pick who plays physical and eats big minutes. Benning just signed the wrong one.

  • Ragnarok Ouroboros

    I really enjoyed the article. When Gubrandson comes back, Canucks will have to play him if they want to trade him. To me the only option is to sit Del Zotto and play Gubrandson with Stetcher. Hopefully Gubrandson will play well enough that he can be traded by the trade deadline.

  • DJ_44

    … It gets better…. Here I thought Hutton was just a top-4 dman….now we can add top shutdown pair to his label….
    Get yer top-4, top-shutdown dman here!!!

  • DannyVanCity

    To me this article is unfinished.
    Initially you propose where to play Gudbranson when healthy but your article ends without finishing that thought.
    Your line combos would suggest a trade and perhaps that is what you are proposing however the article is unfinished until you finish that thought. Just saying.
    With that in mind I did quite like all the information given and how it was stated. Nice work there.

  • Steamer

    Hey, that was one of the best articles to ever appear at CA! Great analysis & excellent communication of the data ( you can pay me outside ). Still unhappy with many Hutton giveaways in D-zone – but not as much as I am with GudB & Edler.
    Del Zotto is an enigma vis-a-vis ice time from coach; so many defensive miscues – he’s lucky to be paired with Stecher.

  • Burnabybob

    Nice article.

    It’s worth pointing out that the Canucks’ defense is the most improved aspect of the team’s overall game this year so far. They give up the 8th least goals per game.

    Offence is still rock bottom, as their goals per game is 29th in the league.

  • Cageyvet

    I am on board with Hutton-Tanev, that’s effectively letting Hutton play while also sheltering him, something that is a side-effect for all D-partners of Tanev. Hutton is scary but slowly improving this year, and there’s no doubt he does some things very well.

    I value the side of the game that Gudbranson brings, but I’ve given up on him being good enough to make those traits worth keeping his faults, and his contract demands will certainly seal his fate. There’s no rush to trade him, whenever you can get maximum value, but that should be the plan.

    Pouliot, Tanev, Stecher, Edler and Hutton (I’m assuming here that Hutton will reduce the brain cramps) are the keepers. The rest are expendable. We should definitely be targeting more blueliners in the draft, and hopefully someone who is both mobile and brings some size.

    • Bud Poile

      Tanev is a defensive d-man.
      Hutton is being sheltered defensively and Ben doesn’t produce offensively.
      1.5 years of Hutton brain cramps leads me to hope he’s being showcased.

  • Buula

    Welcome to the CA!! Good first start, you agree with some posters that it felt the article was cut a bit short but we all start somewhere and I look forward to more of your articles!

  • Rodeobill

    I hope you bring more of your insights to this site, and also the disposition with which you frame your article! Definitely food for thought.

    ***Please skip the rest of this comment if you are not interested in my personal introspective rant.

    Strange, although not a Hutton “hater,” per se, every time I see him make a stupid move it bothers me, yet when I see Virtanen or Boeser make one, I immediately start making excuses for them in my head. I wonder why for some people I have patience while other not so much. The “stats” (or empirical evidence beyond the eye test) says he’s worth his mistakes yet they continue to confound me, yet the opposite is true for me of, say, Gudbranson. With Edler it’s a wierd acceptance that he sometimes comes up big, and you know sometimes he will flub big too. Maybe it’s just with Edler, you know what he is and laugh or cry, with JV you forgive the mistakes as long as you see a blossoming potential. But with Hutton he was beyond expectation in his first and second year, and then when you come to expect as much of him and he does something stupid, it feels disappointing. With Gudbranson you give him room for error because he seems like the kinda guy you would want on your side, I dont know.