The Vancouver Canucks made significant moves this offseason to improve their defence corps. Adding Tyler Myers was the biggest offseason transaction, but Oscar Fantenberg and Jordie Benn have also been useful additions this season. Obviously, the biggest change to the Canucks’ blue line wasn’t acquired via trade or free agency, but through the draft. Quinn Hughes, recently named to the 2020 All-Star Game, has come in and changed everything in a manner similar to Elias Pettersson in his rookie year.
Not only have the top six defencemen improved dramatically since last season, the organizational depth has taken a huge step forward as well. It’s ironic, considering the team didn’t draft a single defenceman at the most recent NHL Entry Draft.
Jim Benning has made some mistakes during his time as General Manager, but this offseason might have been his best when it comes to improving the defence corps.
Let’s look at those improvements and how the group as a whole has looked this season.
New Year, New Me
There’s just no nice way to say it: the Canucks defence group was bad last year. No, not mediocre, bad. My eyes almost popped out of my head when I started researching for this article. I wanted to see the most consistent defence pairing from last season. Get ready to laugh, because at 5-on-5, the most consistent pairing was Erik Gudbranson and Ben Hutton. That pairing played almost 600 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time together.
Bo Horvat played 1285 minutes of 5-on-5 last season, during a year where he played in all 82 games. We saw a lot of Bo last season, and the realization that the Guddy-BHutt pairing played half as much at 5-on-5 as Bo last year makes me feel like I just took a drink of orange juice after brushing my teeth.
The Gudbranson-Hutton pairing had the worst goal share in the league out of pairings that played at least 350 minutes at 5-on-5. They were on the ice for 17 goals for while being on the ice for 38 goals against. The pairing ranked fourth worst in the league when it came to Corsi%, and it wasn’t the only Canucks pairing getting shelled on a nightly basis.
Thank the Church of Pettersson, because this season has been much better. Big changes were needed and give Jim Benning credit, big changes were made. And I don’t just mean that Tyler Myers is tall.
The Canucks got rid of Gudbranson and DJ Michael Del Zotto at the deadline, moved on from Derrick Pouliot in the offseason, traded Alex Biega early on this season, and lost Ben Hutton to the LA Kings in free agency after a weird contract situation.
A team is guaranteed to improve when you get rid of players like Gudbranson, Del Zotto, Pouliot, Hutton and Biega and replace them with NHL players like Myers, Fantenberg, Benn and Hughes, and it’s resulted in more competent pairings this year. Here’s an example of the top 15 most consistent pairings and what they have done at 5-on-5 this season.
When it comes to time on ice together, Hughes and Tanev lead the way, followed by the Myers and Edler pair.
The Hughes-Tanev pairing were placed together on day 1 of training camp, where I spoke with Tanev about that pairing. Looking back at what he said, it’s funny to see just how prescient he was. When I asked which part of his game he thought would match nicely with Quinn’s, he had this to say:
“We can both move well and can move the puck. Obviously he can get up the ice and he is very crafty and offensive. I think we will read well off of each other. If we do end up playing together I think we will be a good pairing.”
While there was a sizeable chunk of Canucks fans who thought moving on from Chris Tanev was the right move, the decision to hold onto him has paid off in spades. The long game was to see Hughes come into the NHL and play alongside Tanev. He’s been a natural fit with Tanev, who plays hockey like he’s smoking a cigarette out there, to quote former teammate Kevin Bieksa. He’s calm and makes short, effective passes to get out of the zone.
We have seen Chris Tanev’s game change since he has played with Hughes as well. Does anyone remember Tanev driving the net in a 5-on-5 situation like he did in this clip?
This pass from Quinn Hughes. 👀 @Canucks
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) October 10, 2019
Folks, you love to see it.
These Are “D” Goals We Want to See
The Canucks had 16 goals from defencemen last season at 5-on-5, and scored an additional 11 goals from other situations: 6 goals on the powerplay, 4 at 4-on-4/3-on-3, and one shorthanded goal. This season, the Canucks currently have 10 goals at 5-on-5 and eight goals in other situations. 20 goals from a defence core at 5-on-5 should be a goal for a team that doesn’t possess a natural goal-scoring defenceman.
The last time the Canucks defence group scored 20 goals at 5-on-5 was the 2013-14 season,. They were led by Dan Hamhuis and Chris Tanev, who each scored five goals at 5-on-5.
Tyler Myers, Alex Edler, Quinn Hughes and Troy Stecher all have the capability to score five goals a piece at 5-on-5 this season.
Quinn Hughes, Tyler Myers and Alex Edler have been the defencemen who have taken the bulk of the powerplay duties so far this season. Myers and Edler each have a powerplay goal, while Hughes has three.
The position of defenceman has evolved over the years. Gone are the days of the 6″4′ defencemen who play tough around their net. You now need to have defenceman who can skate and move the puck up ice. Losing Gudbranson and bringing in players like Hughes and Myers. The NHL is evolving and the fact that the Canucks are ahead of the curve with a defencemen like Hughes and Stecher is great for the longevity of this team’s defence corps.
Good Health with Better Replacements
Though moving away from players like Del Zotto and Gudbranson while bringing in Hughes and Myers is a huge change to the defence group, perhaps the biggest change from years past is the overall health of the team.
Last season, not a single defenceman suited up for more than 78 games for the Canucks. They used 14 different defenceman throughout the year. Some of that was due to the MDZ and Gud-bye trades late in the season, but it’s still an obscenely high number. We’ve now reached the 46-game mark of the season, and the Canucks have only used eight defenders so far. Three defencemen (Tanev, Stecher and Myers) have yet to miss a game due to injury, while Quinn Hughes has missed just one.
Jordie Benn and Oscar Fantenberg were added in the offseason to help improve the team’s depth, and so far they’ve accomplished that. Benn was excellent at the beginning of the season, and when his game began to drop, Fantenberg was there to take over. That’s the power of good depth.
That organizational depth also extends to the AHL. Brogan Rafferty is leading the AHL in scoring from a defenceman with 33 points in 39 games, and is continuing to extend his lead on former Canuck Derrick Pouliot. Rafferty has been excellent throughout this season. He skates the puck up the ice more than he passes it, and has been able to quarterback the power play with some very skilled offensive players on the Comets first unit.
The reason he has not been called up yet is simple. He is playing a ton of minutes in the AHL and building his confidence. This is his first professional season and the Canucks haven’t needed any long-term help on their defence. If one defenceman goes down they can bring in Benn or Fantenberg off the bench and call up Guillaume Brisebois or Jalen Chatfield to be an emergency replacement.
He will be called up in the event that two defencemen suffer injuries. If there are significant minutes to be played in the NHL, I expect Rafferty will be the guy the Canucks’ turn to to eat up minutes on the third pairing.
Justin Bailey scores on a great effort from Brogan Rafferty. You can see Rafferty recognize the potential of an odd man rush and he pounces all over it.
Kole Lind also got an assist on the goal. pic.twitter.com/FLgWYorKw3
— Chris Faber 🤙🔥🎙 (@ChrisFaber39) January 9, 2020
There is another defenceman in Utica that many love to talk about. Olli Juolevi may not have lived up to his draft slot, but he still contributes to the team’s depth and has been a decent performer at the pro level.
Juolevi’s had an up-and-down season so far, and has been marred by injuries since turning pro. When he is fully healthy, he is a great AHL player. He’s still just 21, and has been becoming a more impactful player every month this season. Juolevi has been blocking a ton of shots for the Comets, and his overall defensive game is improving. Though he may cough up the puck here and there, he makes up for it with his great playmaking ability.
After I tweeted out Olli Juolevi's giveaway, he comes back with a great back door feed to Wacey Hamilton on a slap pass. This is the exciting part of Juolevi's game! pic.twitter.com/CDZbNVRSBL
— Chris Faber 🤙🔥🎙 (@ChrisFaber39) December 29, 2019
Canucks fans may be tired of hearing it at this point, but he plays a quiet game. He makes good passes, clears the puck out of his zone, and can step up and play on the PP if needed. His biggest improvement this season has come on the penalty kill, where he has been on of the team’s most-utilized players.
As much as he’s improved, it’s still unlikely that he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL. He could be called upon if a run of injuries were to come to the Canucks defence, but he has been passed on the organization’s depth chart by Brogan Rafferty.
Brogan Rafferty and Olli Juolevi fill different roles for the Canucks, which also helps the team in the depth department. Juolevi is a quiet left shot defenceman who stays back and makes good passes out of the zone, while Rafferty is a right-shot defender who puts up points and skates the puck up the ice like a forward.
The Canucks defensive depth is deeper than it has been over the past handful of seasons. The last time they had this much depth, they were a playoff team, and as the season plugs along, it’s looking more and more like that’s what they are this season, too.
Things may seem good right now, but there will be many questions going into the offseason about the defence corps.
Troy Stecher, Oscar Fantenberg, and Chris Tanev are all on expiring deals, and Myers and Edler’s combined salary is 12 million dollars. There are still some tricky situations to navigate, but thankfully, they have one of the team’s best young defenders to build around.
Quinn Hughes will challenge for the Calder trophy this season. Lots of hockey analysts were called out or laughed at when they said that Hughes would one day win the Norris trophy. No one’s laughing now.
The chances of Hughes being the best defenceman in the NHL have definitely improved after we have seen what he is able to do in his first professional season. His skating is next level, his passing is next level and his hockey IQ is next level. The only question right now is what is Hughes’ next level?
He looks like a magician right now as a rookie. A 22-23 year old, Hughes has the potential to take over the league. The Canucks have their number one defenceman. That’s one of the hardest things to find. If they can build up the group in a similar way to how they did this season, they will be able to contend in the playoffs for years to come. The hardest part will be putting together a defence corps with big money and long term tied into a guy like Tyler Myers.
Myers does have some flaws, but you would be wrong if you think he hasn’t improved this defence corps from last season. Thankfully, we said “Gud-bye” to a contract that was an anchor to the defence corps. It will be interesting to see how this group looks in two years. The Canucks have the young core of forwards that have the capability to content for a Stanley Cup.
This is where the pressure is on Jim Benning.
Benning needs to put together a defence group that can compete in playoff games. This team hasn’t had that in many years. They need it in the next handful of seasons. Players like Juolevi and Rafferty might be part of the answer, but right now they are unproven at the NHL level.
The team will still need improve the defence over the next handful of years, and Jim Benning is the GM who traded for Gudbranson and Pouliot. I think Benning and his management team have learned since those trades. I do actually have faith that this management group can see what puck moving defencemen like Hughes and Stecher can bring to a team while veterans like Edler, Tanev and Myers help round out the defence.
Pressure is on the management group moving forward, but for now the defence is stronger than it’s been in recent memory.