General manager Jim Benning and his group had a busy offseason. There was the blockbuster trade that brought in Conor Garland and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the deal to acquire Jason Dickinson from the Dallas Stars, and a bunch of different free-agent signings. All in all, the Vancouver Canucks made plenty of changes to their roster after a disappointing season and gave fans and media alike plenty of debate points.
Among all the moves — which included trading a top-ten draft pick as well as losing longtime Canuck Alex Edler to a division rival — the one that seemed to create the most outrage was the signing of a depth defenceman. When the signing of Tucker Poolman to a $10 million / 4-year contract was announced, the reaction was swift and severe. Everyone from small Twitter accounts to respected local media members were quick to comment on the deal and the overall feeling was largely very negative.
Scarred by years of Benning overpaying free agents and the consequences coming back to bite the team later, many were quick to come to conclusions before the ink had dried on the contract. While the reaction to other moves was much more evenly split, the Poolman signing had few fans. Many were furious about the term given to a bottom-of-the-lineup player while others were concerned about the dollar amount considering the Canucks cap constraints.
While it will be impossible to fully judge this contract until many years down the line, it’s now been six games and Poolman has played a significant amount of minutes. He has played the majority of his even-strength minutes alongside either Quinn Hughes or Ekman-Larsson as his more defensive style complements their riskier offensive styles.
Through this early period, there have been positive and negative takeaways from Poolman’s play, which is to be expected from a player at his position on the depth chart. While the tiny sample size isn’t enough for a definite answer, we can start to ask the question of if Benning found an undervalued player and locked him up long-term or if the masses were correct with their outrage. Let’s examine what six games have taught us.
Positives from Poolman’s first six games
As a right-handed defenseman, Poolman is a rare and valuable commodity for the Canucks. The position group is almost definitely the weakest across the entire organization and having someone there who can eat minutes while not being an absolute disaster is an upgrade on many of the other potential options. Thus far, Poolman has played a total of 112:25 at 5-on-5, fourth-most of any defenceman and second-most of any right-handed defenceman behind Tyler Myers.
During that time that he’s been on the ice at 5-on-5, the Canucks have outscored their opponents by a one-goal margin. While that’s a small margin over a small sample size, it’s an encouraging sign that he isn’t out of place. Consider that other depth players like Kyle Burroughs (-5 goal differential at 5-on-5) and Brad Hunt (-3) have yet to be on the ice for a Canucks goal and Poolman’s numbers start to look better. Granted not everyone gets the chance to play their minutes alongside some of the best offensive talents on the team, but Poolman is still just one of three Canucks defencemen that has a positive goal differential at 5-on-5.
Poolman has also been one of head coach Travis Green’s most popular choices to kill penalties. While the Canucks’ penalty killing units have struggled during the early going, it’s tough to assign blame because of the many factors that create what we see on the ice. They’ve dealt with a lack of suitable options at almost every position but especially at forward due to injuries to Tyler Motte and Brandon Sutter. Poolman is one of three defencemen who have had regular time on the penalty kill as he has played just over 16 minutes down a man. While the Canucks haven’t done great while he’s out there, his on-ice save percentage has been the lowest of any defenceman. As this stat moves to be more in line with his teammates, his penalty-killing numbers should start to look better.
Beyond the numbers, many fans have been positively surprised by Poolman’s impact and have sung his praises. It’s Poolman that has been on the ice when the Canucks are protecting a lead late in games and he’s been better than many of the catastrophic players that the Canucks have iced in recent memory. That said, it hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows as there have been some clear negatives to Poolman’s game as well.
Negatives from Poolman’s first six games
While Poolman may be posting a solid goal differential at 5-on-5, his expected goals (xG) look much worse. The Canucks are only controlling 33.20% of the xG while he is on the ice at 5-on-5, the worst mark of anyone on the team not named Justin Bailey, who’s played just one game. While some may want to dismiss the effectiveness of expected goals as a statistic because of Poolman’s strong performance in terms of actual goals — which is objectively a more important measure — there are other causes for concern.
While Poolman is on the ice at 5-on-5, the Canucks are getting dominated in terms of shots, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances. They are only controlling 45.22% of the shots, 34.41% of the scoring chances, and 20% of the high-danger scoring chances. While the Canucks as a team are near the bottom of the league in terms of many of these advanced stats which may explain some of Poolman’s struggles, the fact that he is near the bottom compared to his own teammates invalidates that.
In addition, Poolman has been on the ice for a few goals where he should shoulder a large portion of the blame. One example came in the game against the Minnesota Wild when he allowed Mats Zuccarello to get behind him, eventually costing the team a goal.
— Minnesota Wild (@mnwild) October 27, 2021
Poolman attempts a risky play to cut the pass off as a last-ditch effort but the damage had already been done and the Canucks built themselves a deficit they could never overcome.
This goal came at 5-on-5 while Poolman was playing with Hughes and one storyline throughout the early part of this season has been that his steady defensive presence has allowed Hughes to flourish. While this was the first goal that the pairing allowed this season compared to three that the Canucks have scored while they’re on the ice, once again the advanced stats tell a scary story. The pairing has been on the ice for just 6 high-danger scoring chances while allowing 23 at 5-on-5. If it weren’t for an ungodly .975 save percentage while the duo is on the ice, we might be having a very different conversation.
Grading Poolman’s performance
While it’s impossible to come to any solid conclusions after just six games, the general assessment of Poolman’s performance thus far can best be described as a mixed bag. Some have seen enough to take back their scalding reviews of the signing during the summer while others still want to see more before they make up their mind. Both opinions are valid at this point in time and we may not get a clear answer for a few years.
Even if Poolman has a great rest of season and establishes himself as serviceable, signing a depth piece to a four-year contract comes with inherent risks. Those risks are sometimes things you have to accept to attract free agents, but it’s still an aspect of this puzzle that is worth mentioning.
What have been your thoughts on Tucker Poolman this far? Have you changed your mind since the summer? Leave your opinion in a comment below. Thank you to NaturalStatTrick.com for all of the advanced stats.