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Photo Credit: © Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Who each Canucks’ defenceman played best with last year, and where they go from here

With three of the Vancouver Canucks’ seven regular defenders from the 2019/20 season now departed, there are going to be some shakeups on the blueline in 2021. To anyone who witnessed the team’s often shaky defensive efforts last year, this may come as welcome news, but there’s still the matter of head coach Travis Green arranging all the fresh arrivals into effective pairings.

In order to help figure out what those optimal pairings might be, we thought it might be worthwhile to check out which Vancouver defenders succeeded with which partners last season, and which duos struggled.

The results aren’t exactly shocking, but they are interesting and at least mildly surprising, in some instances.

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All Corsi, Expected Goals, and Scoring Chances stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com, and reflect even-strength minutes from the 2019/20 regular season.

Quinn Hughes

Partner Minutes With CF% With CF% Without xGF% With xGF% Without SCF% With SCF% Without
Chris Tanev 724:39 49.44% 58.61% 49.77% 46.08% 47.38% 57.78%
Tyler Myers 348:16 56.29% 52.05% 52.12% 46.30% 55.28% 50.00%
Troy Stecher 64:04 61.76% 52.75% 56.98% 47.54% 65.67% 50.84%
Alex Edler 40:24 68.48% 52.80% 30.07% 52.42% 61.70% 51.63%

The popular notion this past season was that Chris Tanev’s stay-at-home presence insulated Hughes’ arrival into the league, but the numbers don’t quite bear that out. Though Hughes played more than half the year alongside Tanev, he posted better numbers with all of his other partners.

Hughes and Tyler Myers seemed to elevate one another’s games, and though the eye-test would strongly suggest that Myers was the primary beneficiary of the pairing, the stats say it’s not an entirely one-way street.

It’s a small sample size, and useless information now, but it’s worth noting that Hughes played his absolute best hockey when partnered with Troy Stecher.

2021 Partner?: Rolling with Myers is a logical and likely choice, but it’s also possible to interpret Nate Schmidt as a bigger, faster, and more talented version of Stecher. The draw of a Hughes/Schmidt pairing is immense.

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Nate Schmidt

Partner Minutes With CF% With CF% Without xGF% With xGF% Without SCF% With SCF% Without
Brayden McNabb 878:16 52.14% 55.38% 53.88% 47.13% 51.91% 54.20%
Shea Theodore 121:13 61.04% 51.83% 43.47% 53.38% 59.02% 51.64%
Nick Holden 31:27 59.02% 54.47% 51.61% 54.18% 59.09% 54.18%
Jon Merrill 28:48 49.12% 51.17% 70.06% 50.10% 55.17% 50.68%

Schmidt spent the vast majority of the 2019/20 season supporting a partner who, if we’re being blunt about it, was probably not deserving of those minutes. That Schmidt was able to elevate Brayden McNabb’s performance is an encouraging sign that he could succeed with any partner in Vancouver, but such a pairing isn’t the best way to utilize him.

Schmidt looked significantly better when on the ice with the uber-skilled and fellow leftie Shea Theodore. Together, they dominated possession, and one has to think their other stats would have also skyrocketed with a larger sample size. Schmidt complements an offensively-oriented defender well.

2021 Partner?: Schmidt would be fine with anyone, but his success alongside Theodore is just one more reason to put together the Hughes/Schmidt super-pairing.

Alex Edler

Partner Minutes With CF% With CF% Without xGF% With xGF% Without SCF% With SCF% Without
Troy Stecher 484:22 47.27% 50.41% 44.75% 51.28% 47.23% 48.32%
Tyler Myers 408:18 51.70% 47.43% 49.67% 48.40% 49.04% 47.34%
Chris Tanev 122:22 37.80% 50.40% 62.76% 45.92% 36.94% 49.07%
Quinn Hughes 40:24 68.48% 48.07% 30.07% 50.80% 61.70% 47.25%

Although it was thrown back together time and time again and enjoyed some success in the past, the Edler/Stecher pairing was not a winning one in 2019/20. Edler was much more effective when paired with Myers, and the reverse is also true, albeit to a lesser extent.

Edler’s advanced statline tanked, however, whenever he partnered with Tanev — especially when it came to the penalty kill. Even at even-strength, Edler and Tanev tended to get hemmed into their own end with alarming frequency.

2021 Partner?: If Hughes ends up with Schmidt, Edler and Myers is probably a cinch. Edler may not be up to sheltering a rookie partner like Brogan Rafferty anymore, and he and Benn should be a nonstarter. Edler/Schmidt is also a workable option.

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Tyler Myers

Partner Minutes With CF% With CF% Without xGF% With xGF% Without SCF% With SCF% Without
Alex Edler 408:18 51.70% 47.92% 49.67% 48.69% 49.04% 48.17%
Quinn Hughes 348:16 56.29% 46.62% 52.12% 46.66% 55.28% 45.40%
Oscar Fantenberg 339:37 41.73% 51.33% 42.79% 49.20% 38.41% 51.83%
Jordie Benn 110:22 40.71% 53.21% 43.49% 49.71% 46.88% 50.15%

Myers got a bit of a bad rap in his debut season. He had a positive impact on his two most frequent partners in Edler and Hughes, but he also spent nearly a third of the season with Oscar Fantenberg, and that absolutely cratered his fancy stats. A hundred minutes with Benn didn’t help much, either.

It seems to be that Myers is a top-four defender only when paired with another top-four-quality player. He just doesn’t have it in him to carry a partner, and that’s consistent with his recent history in Winnipeg.

2021 Partner?: It pretty much has to be either Edler or Hughes. There’s some reason in a theoretical Olli Juolevi pairing, what with Juolevi’s reputation for steady two-way play, but that’s not the ideal way to support either player.

Jordie Benn

Partner Minutes With CF% With CF% Without xGF% With xGF% Without SCF% With SCF% Without
Troy Stecher 350:34 45.38% 40.68% 41.88% 43.77% 43.65% 43.24%
Chris Tanev 127:55 38.40% 44.57% 41.63% 43.03% 36.13% 45.41%
Tyler Myers 110:22 40.71% 43.42% 43.49% 41.72% 46.88% 41.49%

Last season, Benn made everyone who played with him worse. It’s a big part of the reason why he lost his spot in the top-six early on to Fantenberg and had to watch much of the season from the press box.

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It has been noted, though, that Benn played his best Montreal hockey on his off-side, something he’s had little opportunity to do thus far in Vancouver. In the playoffs, however, he did so alongside Fantenberg. And we all know how that went.

2021 Partner?: Benn should either be on the right, or he should be in the press box. Fortunately, as we’ll discuss in a moment, Olli Juolevi has ample experience playing with stay-at-home types on their off-sides.

Olli Juolevi

This author consulted with an old friend and resident Comets expert Cory Hergott for a little insight on who Juolevi and Rafferty worked well with last season.

Juolevi spent a large portion of the year partnered with Jalen Chatfield, a steadying presence in the prime Chris Tanev mould that allowed Juolevi’s offence to finally flourish.

He also tallied significant minutes with an off-side Ashton Sautner. Again, it looks as though Juolevi benefits most from having a reliable partner, or at least that the Utica coaching staff believes he does. This could be seen, in part, as a reflection of their desire to protect their youngest defender.

Juolevi did play a couple of games alongside Rafferty, giving him the opportunity to be the more defensive presence on a pairing for once.

Brogan Rafferty

Rafferty played with a ton of partners in 2019/20, but by far the most frequent was Sautner. According to Hergott, that’s because Sautner is seen by the coaching staff as the most trustworthy defenseman to put alongside a rookie.

Rafferty also spent time with Juolevi, Josh Teves, Guillaume Brisebois, and more; but no matter who he was paired with, he achieved great results on the ice.

Jack Rathbone

Rathbone famously partnered with Adam Fox in the 2018/19 season, but Fox’s graduation to the NHL left Rathbone as the big man on campus. This past year, he played with a variety of other Harvard defenders, including New Jersey draft pick Reilly Walsh. In fact, Rathbone often played with multiple partners within his games as he was double-shifted and saw his overall ice-time soar.

In any case, Rathbone is expected to start the season in Utica, where there’s a very good chance he’ll be paired with, you guessed it, Ashton Sautner.