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Photo Credit: © Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

How Nate Schmidt will impact the Vancouver Canucks’ blueline

Be honest, Canucks fans: you guys were calling for Jim Benning’s head yesterday morning, weren’t you?

Me? I’m too smart to be a prisoner of the moment. I always had faith in our GM and knew that he’d pull a rabbit out of his hat (please don’t go through my tweets). 

But even the most optimistic fans didn’t think that it was possible for the team to acquire a high-end top-four defenseman without giving up quality assets, let alone a meagre third-round pick in the 2022 draft.

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Let me be clear: this trade is an absolute home-run for the Canucks. Sure, Schmidt’s contract comes with some risk considering its price tag and the fact that it ends during his early 30s, but giving up a mid-round pick for a #2/3 defenseman who can play both defensive sides is highway-robbery. 

There’s no doubt that Shea Theodore has gotten most of the attention over the past year for blossoming into a star, but Schmidt has been almost as integral to Vegas’ success as well, and his underlying numbers back this up.

What Schmidt Will Bring to Vancouver

Even with the loss of Tyler Toffoli, it’s safe to assume that the right side of Vancouver’s defence was the most glaring hole on the team. Schmidt is a natural lefty but has excelled playing on his offside for the past two seasons and I’d expect him to continue to be utilized in that role moving forward. Travis Green has shown a propensity for playing blueliners that match their handedness (*cough cough* Jordie Benn), but I’m sure that he’ll make an exception given the Canucks’ lack of depth on the right side.

For the past few seasons, Schmidt has been used in an offensive role while being deployed on a pair alongside Brayden McNabb. He’s elite at zone entries and exits, which is crucial for Vancouver since Quinn Hughes is the team’s only other defenseman who’s capable of reliably rushing up the ice with possession. 

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Admittedly, his entry defence leaves a lot to be desired, but he has been fed to the wolves by Vegas in order to allow Theodore to feast on easier competition. This past season, Schmidt spent 40.9% of his ice time matched up against the elite, which ranked second amongst all Golden Knights defenceman.

In comparison, these are Tanev’s numbers over the past two years: 

As you can see, Schmidt has him beat in almost every aspect other than entry defence. Remember, being able to successfully exit the defensive zone with possession means that you won’t spend as much time in the defensive end, which will help mitigate some of his deficiencies when it comes to preventing entries. 

Furthermore, Schmidt has proven that he’s capable of being at least a neutral defender when he isn’t constantly being matched up against elite competition.

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These metrics show his overall performance over the last three seasons, which includes seasons when he wasn’t matched up against elite competition. Assuming that Quinn Hughes gets even better in his sophomore campaign, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be ready to face better opponents. This can alleviate some of Schmidt’s burden and allow him to spend more time against mediocre competition, which could potentially set him up nicely to have a bounce-back campaign on the defensive side of the puck.  

Offensively, Schmidt has averaged 40 points per season (prorated to 82 games) over the last three years, which means that Vancouver’s top four defensemen might all have a chance of eclipsing the 30 point threshold next season. For a team that has struggled to get scoring from their defencemen in recent years, this will give them added firepower from the backend, which is a threat almost all contending teams have.

How the Canucks’ Defensive Pairs Might Look Next Season

It might be tempting to create an uber pairing of Hughes and Schmidt, but I believe that it would make more sense to split them up. If Schmidt were to line up alongside Edler on the second pair, that would allow Vancouver to have an elite puck-moving defenceman on the ice for over 45 minutes every game, which will allow the team to control play better and spend less time in their own zone.

Some fans might cringe at the sound of Myers on the top pair, but he actually put up good numbers when he played with Hughes last season. In fact, they controlled shots over 56% of the time and had an expected goals rate of 57.94% in over 300 minutes of five on five time together. Both of their numbers took a significant nosedive when they played without one another, so the team will be in good shape if they can rediscover their chemistry. Moreover, Hughes actually controlled shot attempts less than half the time when he played alongside Tanev and they only had an expected goals rate of 50.22%, which just shows how much he helped mask the significant decline in Tanev’s game. 

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If you’re curious, Schmidt controlled shot attempts over 53% of the time last season at five on five and had an expected goals rate of 53.06%. These numbers are even more impressive considering the competition he was frequently matched up against, and this wasn’t a case of him being carried by McNabb, either; both of these metrics actually went up when Schmidt played without his usual defence partner. 

Conclusion

To summarize, the Canucks got a legit #2/3 defenseman while only giving up a third-round pick, which will no doubt go down as one of Jim Benning’s best moves as the team’s general manager. Schmidt gives Vancouver another elite puck mover and provides them with bundles of firepower from the backend, which is something the team has desperately needed in recent years.

Defensively, there’s every reason to believe that he can bounce back and become at least a neutral, if not a positive defender given that Hughes will likely spend more time matched up against elite competition. Given Tanev’s atrophying game and Schmidt’s offensive prowess, the latter will be a huge upgrade over the former Canuck. Hughes and Myers have also shown great chemistry in the past, and this could be the best top-four defensive group that Vancouver has had in years.

Rejoice, Canucks fans; the days of having Pouliot and Gudbranson on the top pair are long gone. 

All stats from Evolving-Hockey, PuckIQ, Natural Stat Trick, and CJ Turtoro.