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Photo Credit: © Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Tape: The traits that make Jason Dickinson an elite shot suppressor and why he struggles on offence

The Vancouver Canucks jumpstarted a crucial offseason by filling their hole at the third line center position with the acquisition of Jason Dickinson from the Dallas Stars. The 26-year-old center satisfies both the current need of a defensive-minded middle-six center that can kill penalties, while also being of an age that aligns with the team’s long-term plan of being competitive during the primes of Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes’ careers. 

Dickinson shifted around Dallas’ middle-six last season filling in as the team’s 3rd-line center and 2nd-line left winger while putting up impressive underlying defensive numbers. According to Evolving Hockey, Dickinson was in the 97th percentile for defensive value in their model. 

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The pivot also surrendered the 18th fewest unblocked shot attempts per 60 minutes out of all forwards in the NHL with at least 300 minutes played at 5-on-5. 

Rank Player FA/60
13 Sean Couturier 33.11
14 Josh Leivo 33.39
15 Tomas Tatar 33.49
16 Joe Thornton 33.61
17 Brendan Gallagher 33.79
18 Jason Dickinson 33.8
19 Michael Raffl 33.9
20 Jack Eichel 33.92

Data courtesy: Natural Stat Trick

Inserting Dickinson behind Pettersson and Bo Horvat affords Travis Green the freedom to look to exploit favourable matchups for Pettersson and Horvat while shouldering Dickinson with the difficult defensive assignments. This was a role previously held by Brandon Sutter and in comparison, Dickinson fares quite favourably in Evolving-hockey’s model.

While past statistics are not always the best indicators of future outcomes, the numbers, when combined with video, do show that Dickinson was exceptionally effective at suppressing offence last season. And the fact that Dickinson is still in his athletic prime makes it a good bet that his defensive acumen should continue during his early years with the Vancouver Canucks. 

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The traits that gravitate Vancouver towards Dickinson are his size, reach, and positional play that in combination, allow him to suffocate offences.

What Travis Green will immediately love about the center’s game is his knack for staying above the puck. In other words, making sure that he stays between the puck and his own goal when the opposition has possession. This is a crucial responsibility of the third forward (F3) in the offensive zone. 

Green’s Canucks like to play an aggressive offensive zone forecheck, committing two forwards below the hash marks hoping to force a turnover. Where the team got into trouble was when the F3 would also get caught below the hash marks while the opposing team was breaking out. Due to the third forward being caught behind the play, this led to many odd-man rushes as well as forcing Vancouver’s defencemen back, making it difficult for them to stand up at the red and blue lines. This was especially prevalent at the beginning of the season when the team wasn’t afforded much practice time.

Looking at some tape, Dickinson is constantly aware of his defensive responsibilities and is a tenacious back checker.

00:00 – In the first clip, Dickinson (DAL18) notices that his defenceman, DAL33, is pinching along the half wall to contest an exit attempt and DAL18 adjusts his route accordingly. He curls back, past the top of the faceoff circle, and provides support just as the puck is cleared. DAL18 is in a great position to support the lone Dallas defender. Had Dickinson been playing shallower, the ensuing one on one could have been much more threatening as the attacker could have additional cutback options. 

00:11 – This time, DAL18 closes out his assignment on the backcheck, coming through the dot lane and disrupting a breakout attempt. These are the kinds of defensive efforts that will help Dickinson endear himself to Travis Green. 

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00:17 – This sequence begins with a strong effort on the backcheck as DAL18 races to get into position to cover his pinching defenceman. As he leads the transition back towards the offensive zone, watch how DAL18 alters his path. Dallas is attacking with four players through the neutral zone, a staple of their team’s identity as their defenders have been given the green light to join the rush. DAL18 recognizes that DAL3 has pushed up the right flank and as Dallas gains the offensive zone, DAL18 stays high and then fills in for DAL3 on the right point.

In the defensive zone, Dickinson uses his size, reach, and thorough puck support to create retrievals and facilitate breakouts. 

00:00 – Dickinson is on Dallas’ second line this game positioned as a left-winger meaning he has to use his size and reach along the boards to win battles and push play up the ice. DAL18 swings his hips to almost comically assert his physical dominance on the Carolina player who takes a tumble and is immediately neutralized along the boards. As the play develops, he continues boxing out the Carolina player behind him and is able to flip the puck towards the blueline for DAL14 to clear. 

00:09 – With the puck in the neutral zone, DAL18 is already back and supporting his defencemen at the redline. This allows the strongside defender to stand up at the redline forcing a dump in. As the puck is moved into the corner, DAL18 who is now covering as a defenceman has taken up the responsibility as the net-front defender. He shoulder checks and sees that Dallas has recovered with numbers, specifically DAL15 is there to protect the slot which allows DAL18 to assist in the corner. This is where DAL18’s long reach comes into play as he sneakily pokes the puck off the stick of TBL18. In tandem with DAL4, the Stars are able to cleanly break out without surrendering a shot against. 

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The offensive side of the coin for Dickinson isn’t as promising. Fans hoping that there might be some untapped offensive potential out of the five-year NHL veteran will likely be disappointed. At his age, what you see is what you get from the 26-year-old and that is someone who doesn’t have the ability to stack multiple skills on top of each other to create advantageous situations with the puck on his stick. 

While his skating stride is solid and his north-south speed is an asset, his edgework and east-west movements are lacking which hamper his ability to be dynamic. 

00:00 – This sequence begins with a signature backcheck from Dickinson, thwarting TBL71 at center ice. What follows is a scenario where a dynamic offensive player would convert a turnover into a rush opportunity. A player that can stack elite edges and a dynamic posture, on top of dexterous puck control would make this tight turn and leverage it into building up speed and attacking. However, in this sequence, DAL18 is flatfooted coming out of the turn and has a weak base in his lower body which makes it difficult for him to control the puck and accelerate. He instead makes a thread pass from a standstill that just barely gets by TBL98 and Dallas settles for a dump entry. 

00:06 – Along the half wall on the cycle, DAL18 performs a cutback to go against the grain but once again, his edges aren’t strong enough and he is knocked off balance with slight contact. This knocks the puck out of DAL18’s pocket and DAL18 responds with a low percentage play by flinging the puck into the slot to be intercepted. 

But for a middle-six center that can play up and down the lineup and on the wing, can kill penalties, and is among the league’s elite at suppressing chances against, Dickinson fills an enormous need in Vancouver’s top-nine. If Green can use a third line led by Dickinson to limit the opposition’s best while also winning the shot attempt battle, that should bode very well for a team with a top-six that can be lethal on the scoresheet.