If we can all agree on one thing, it’s that the 2021/22 season was definitely a strange one. If you saw it going down exactly like it has, we’d first like to borrow your crystal ball, and then we’d like to kick you in the shins for not warning us ahead of time.
It’s been a genuine rollercoaster of a season, and it’s one that will no doubt be dissected fully in the weeks to come. But we’d like to start that process now, with a few games left on the clock — a vivisection, if you will — to address one of the questions that is inevitably going to come up this summer:
If the Vancouver Canucks’ blueline is their weak spot — as everyone seems to agree that it is — how did they manage to allow the third-fewest goals against in 2021/22?
As of this writing, the Canucks have allowed just 138 5v5 goals against through 79 regular season games, trailing only the Calgary Flames and Carolina Hurricanes — two bona fide contenders — in that category.
How could that be?
The easiest answer might be that the Canucks’ blueline is not an area for improvement, and is, in fact, good enough for the team to compete in the near future, despite what the critics say.
But anyone who has watched the Canucks with regularity this past year should know that’s not the case.
Just look at the roster composition.
Obviously, the crease is not an issue. Thatcher Demko has that locked down for the foreseeable future.
The top-six forwards are also in pretty good shape. Elias Pettersson, JT Miller, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Conor Garland, and the rapidly emerging Vasily Podkolzin is an impressive set of scorers, and they’re supported by decent depth throughout the rest of the forward core in Tanner Pearson, Juho Lammikko, Matthew Highmore, and Alex Chiasson; each of whom had excellent seasons.
Nils Höglander and Jason Dickinson struggled, but each still represented greater forward depth than the Canucks have had in a good long while.
The blueline, on the other hand, just doesn’t look anywhere near as competitive.
There’s the resurgent Quinn Hughes, no doubt a number one defender. There are Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers, two overpaid veterans who played well over and above their recent standard in 2021/22. There’s fan favourite Luke Schenn, who has been better than anyone could have reasonably expected. There’s deadline acquisition Travis Dermott, who’s been fine. Brad Hunt has provided some offence, Kyle Burroughs has brought physicality, and Tucker Poolman has given everyone a new contract to be upset about.
It’s a group in which everyone is contributing something and arguably playing well by their own standards, but it also looks like a group in which each and every defender — with the exception of Hughes — is playing at least one or two spots higher than they should be on the depth chart.
So, we’ll ask it again:
How did such a blueline allow the third-fewest 5v5 goals against in 2021/22? How did they prevent goals at even-strength at the same level as a contending team with a supposedly sub-contender-level blueline?
We don’t have all the answers, but we have some.
It’s pretty tough to talk goals against without referencing Demko. The barely-disputed Team MVP, Demko has kept the Canucks in a lot of games they probably shouldn’t have been in throughout 2021/22, and he’s done that by not letting in some shots that really should have been goals.
Demko’s goals-saved-above-average and goals-saved-above-expected — two measures of how many “extra” goals Demko prevented compared to a league-average goalie — are ranked tenth-best and 14th-best, respectively.
That alone helped improve the Canucks’ 5v5 numbers, but anyone who saw Demko tend goal this year will attest that those rankings seem a little low. On a near-nightly basis, Demko stole away A+ shot attempts with highlight-reel saves.
In other words, the Vancouver blueline would have been scored on more often, had Demko not been backing them up with Vezina-quality play.
We’ve covered this topic a couple of times lately, so we won’t belabour the point. But it bears mentioning again that, prior to his season-ending injury, captain Bo Horvat was finally succeeding as a shutdown center, providing the Canucks with 20+ minutes of strong defensive play against top-six opposition on a nightly basis.
By facing down the best the rest of the league had to offer and still coming out ahead at 5v5, Horvat also singlehandedly improved the Canucks’ even-strength numbers across the board. Perhaps not as much as Demko, but between the two of them, they did an awful lot of heavy-lifting for the blueline, covering up holes that would have otherwise been exploited.
They do always say that the best offence is a good defence. Hughes has played a preposterous average of 25 minutes a night through 2021/22, nearly half of each game, and when he’s on the ice, he’s usually in possession of the puck. Hughes and his teammates have the puck on the stick to the tune of about 60/40 compared to their opponents in any given game, and that makes it pretty difficult to score against them.
A lot of the time, of course, it’s Hughes and his teammates doing the scoring.
Combine that with a drastic reduction in gaffes and missed coverage, and you’ve got a defender who is built to prevent goals against at even-strength, albeit in a fairly non-traditional way.
By playing that many minutes, and never seeming to slow down or tire, Hughes made up for a lot of deficiencies in his fellow blueliners — just like a good number one defender should. Most specifically, he remains the Canucks’ only defender with the ability to consistently break the puck out of their own zone. In fact, you know what? That merits its own header.
Breakouts, or Lack Thereof
Though its sometimes hard to quantify without dedicated trackers, it doesn’t take an analytics guru to see that the Canucks’ blueline has an issue breaking the puck out of their own zone, with Hughes being the obvious exception to the rule.
If Hughes isn’t on the ice, chances are good that it will be a forward carrying the puck out or making a breakout pass, and that limits the Canucks’ opportunity to open up the ice and generate odd-man rushes.
Or, even worse, sometimes the other defenders do take it upon themselves to break the puck out of the Canucks’ zone, and chaos often ensues. It’s theoretically possible to track the number of times that a Vancouver blueliner got turned back into their own zone by a forechecker, resulting in a chance against, but who would ever want to go back and count ’em?
On the one hand, it’s a seemingly small, singular component of the game of hockey. On the other, it’s the sort of factor that effects everything else around it. Defenders not being able to consistently break the puck out of their own zone hinders forward scoring, creates chances against, and makes the Canucks overly predictable.
But we probably don’t have to tell Canucks fans about how little things can become big problems.
Possession in General
A team’s forwards and defenders do not operate in a vacuum, and the play of one corps inevitably impacts the play of the other. This can be true in both the positive and negative sense, as we’ll get to in a moment. But first, on the positive side, there’s really no doubt that the Canucks forwards helped out the blueline a lot in 2021/22, and they did so primarily by maintaining possession.
In recent years, the Canucks’ forwards have been absolutely buried at 5v5. This season, the Canucks’ entire aforementioned top-six, plus Pearson, achieved a Corsi over and above 50%. Hughes was the only blueliner with positive on-ice possession numbers.
How does that help out the defence? Well, quite simply, it means that they don’t have to defend as often. Again, you can’t get scored against when you have the puck, and the Canucks’ forwards made sure they had the puck in their opponent’s end far more often than other way around in 2021/22.
The luxury of rolling out Miller, Pettersson, and Horvat on successive shifts was often more than enough to shift control of the game in favour of the Canucks, regardless of what the blueline was providing in their own zone on any given night.
Lack of Offence
Just as a team’s forwards can support the defence, a team’s blueline can support the offence. Unfortunately, that didn’t really happen in Vancouver in 2021/22.
Hughes’ 63 points is a team record, and there are no complaints to be made there.
The rest of the blueline, as a whole, produced 95 points, with 27 of those points belonging to Ekman-Larsson alone.
That’s simply not good enough.
So, while the Canucks’ blueline may have done part of its job at 5v5 — statistically-speaking, anyway — by not getting scored on, they also actively suppressed their own team’s 5v5 scoring by not providing enough active offensive support.
This made it a lot easier for opponents to shut down the Canucks’ forwards, and actually makes that aforementioned possession success look even more impressive in context.
But it doesn’t bode well for the competitiveness of the blueline, especially looking at the contributions that every playoff team seems to be getting from their defenders.
Roman Josi and Cale Makar, for example, will each end the season with more points than every Canucks defender not named Hughes combined. That can’t be good.
This is a fairly simple point to make, so we won’t go over it in great detail. But part of a blueline’s job is to prevent goals at all strengths, including the penalty kill, and there the Canucks’ blueline was woefully inadequate.
The Canucks may have some of the best 5v5 numbers in the league, but they also had the second-worst PK unit, even after some improvements under Bruce Boudreau. Preventing 5v5 goals is one thing, but it doesn’t do much good if you then turn around and get scored on every other time you’re shorthanded.
Here, the Canucks simply need to be better, and that goes for both the defence and the forwards.
Control of Chances
Not letting goals against in is great. Possessing the puck is great. More and more, however, statisticians have realized that the game of hockey largely comes down to a control of scoring chances. And on that front, the Canucks’ blueline really did not shine in 2021/22.
Only Hughes was on the ice for more chances for his team than against, and only barely so. The lower-end defenders, like Poolman and Burroughs, allowed scoring chances at a rate of about 60/40, and did so while facing lower-tier competition and limited, sheltered minutes.
The exchange of high-danger chances was even more egregious. There, only one defender notched a positive rating, and it wasn’t who you think: Travis Hamonic, of all people.
Every other Vancouver defender allowed more high-danger chances against while on the ice than their own team generated, and the numbers slide as one travels further down the depth chart.
In other words, it’s exactly what fans who rely solely on the eye-test would probably say: the Vancouver blueline is more porous than their raw goals against would suggest, because they bleed quality chances against and are continually bailed out by their All-Star goaltender.
But, eventually, the numbers add up and some of those high-danger chances start turning into actual goals against at crucial times, and that has certainly happened to the Canucks of late.
Top-Heaviness and Cost-Efficiency
We’ve covered Hughes’ 2021/22 greatness plenty here, and we’re also going to give shout-outs to Ekman-Larsson and Myers. Together, that trio played at least 22 minutes per game and should each finish the season with a positive goal-differential at 5v5. They ate up all the difficult matchups with relatively good success, and gave the Canucks the edge when they were on the ice.
Schenn also deserves credit for being a steady partner to Hughes throughout the season.
The rest of the blueline, though? As we’ve laid out pretty clearly here, there’s serious room for improvement.
Unfortunately, that improvement will be hampered by a little something called “cost-efficiency.”
Hughes performed as a top-pairing defender and is paid fairly for his work. Schenn, of course, is drastically underpaid.
OEL and Myers played as a top-tier second pairing throughout 2021/22. They were paid, however, a combined $13.26 million against the cap to do so, making them one of the highest-salaried pairings in the entire league.
As good as they were, the veteran duo still did not live up to their paycheques — and that’s going to make it difficult to surround them with more talent in the years to come. It’s worth noting that both are now also on the wrong side of 30, and can probably be expected to see a slide in their play in the years to come. That’s something the Canucks really can’t afford, in every sense of the word.
And so, we find at the end of it all that the Canucks’ blueline is, more-or-less, exactly what both the critics and the numbers says it is, as contradictory as that may sound.
A blueline that prevented goals at even-strength, but didn’t provide them.
A blueline that lacked talent, but had several players play above their station, anyway.
A blueline that got perforated while shorthanded.
A blueline that needs improvements, but is already a little overpaid, making said improvements difficult to come by.
We hope that provides a satisfactory answer to the question in the headline, even if it doesn’t give much indication as to what comes next.