The Canucks will probably hit less in 2023-24, but they might hit more effectively

Photo credit:© Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
7 months ago
Though they rarely received credit for it at the time, the 2022/23 Vancouver Canucks were — by the numbers anyway — one of the most physical teams in the NHL.
The Canucks racked up 2,024 hits overall, good for eighth-place in the league. That being said, expecting that trend to continue into 2023/24 may not be realistic, given where so many of those hits came from.
Luke Schenn led the entire NHL with 318 hits, 258 of which came with the Canucks (16.37 per 60). Kyle Burroughs chipped in 165 (11.87 per 60), and Curtis Lazar managed 124 (13.59 per 60). Take those three players away, and the Canucks plummet in the hit-rankings — which isn’t a hypothetical, as all three have since moved on to different teams.
The only two remaining big hitters on the roster from last year are Dakota Joshua, who ranked second in both hits (222) and hits-per-60 (14.63), and JT Miller, who landed 200 hits but only 7.16 per 60.
The rest of the holdover roster looks decidedly average-to-below-average when it comes to physicality.
Now, the Canucks have definitely replaced some of Schenn and Burroughs’ pugnacious contributions to the blueline during this past offseason, albeit to a significantly lesser extent. Carson Soucy had 143 and 6.75 per 60, Ian Cole had 117 hits and 4.64 per 60, and Matt Irwin had 117 and 8.82 per 60.
We should probably also consider the addition of Filip Hronek, who thew 102 hits and 4.40 per 60, a middle-of-the-road rate that at least surpasses anyone left over from last year on that blueline.
The forwards, on the other hand, remain about the same. Teddy Blueger and Pius Suter don’t move the needle much when it comes to banging bodies, and there’s no obvious replacements for an energy fourth liner like Lazar waiting in the wings.
The end result is pretty obvious: the Canucks are probably going to hit less in 2023/24 than they did last year.
But that might not be an entirely bad thing.
Let’s start with a harsh truth: hitting is overrated. The reality is that a player or team can typically only record a hit when they’re on the defensive, and so recording a lot of hits usually correlates with not having the puck very often. A defender who can use hitting as a means of playing defence is great and all, but it’s even better to be a defender who usually doesn’t need to.
This can especially be seen in the play of Schenn. Yes, Schenn’s ability to punish opposing forwards definitely had a positive effect on the Canucks overall last season. How could it not?
But the vast majority of Schenn’s hits came within his own end; slamming opponents against the sideboards, smushing people in the corners, clearing out the front of the net. Those can all be positive contributions, but they can’t happen until the other team has already brought the puck into the Canucks’ zone. At that point, said opponents have already put themselves in a position to generate offence, and all the hits in the world can only do so much to delay the inevitable.
Let’s contrast that with the reputations of Cole and Soucy in particular, who seem destined to become to new face of physicality on the Canucks’ blueline. Neither may hit near as often as Schenn, but both appear to be far more effective at hitting players before they get the puck past the blueline.
Cole is a semi-renowned neutral zone crusher:
And there’s nothing “semi-“ about Soucy’s reputation between the bluelines, as the Canucks already know firsthand:
Say what you will about the cleanliness of some of those checks. But they’re undoubtedly the sorts of hits that force other teams to change their whole approach as they move the puck up the ice. The ever-present threat of getting decked at center ice is a defensive tactic in and of itself, especially when it results in the puck never quite making it past the blueline.
Aside from all that neutral zone business, both Soucy and Cole, but especially Cole, have a real penchant for preventing zone entries and breaking up offensive rushes via big collisions:
“Preventing zone entries” is literally one of the ways in which advanced stats analysts measure a defender’s defensive effectiveness. Ostensibly, one prevented entry is as good as another, but one has to think that those that involve painful landings have got to make at least a little extra difference, if only on a psychological level.
And that, basically, is our thesis statement for today right there.
The Canucks probably won’t throw as many hits in 2023/24 as they did in 2022/23. But because of the players they’ve added, they’ll probably throw more hits that matter, and that actually contribute to them winning hockey games.
As for the forward corps, we haven’t even mentioned yet that the 2023/24 campaign will start and presumably finish with Rick Tocchet behind the bench. We all know how Tocchet feels about physicality and demanding it of his players. Perhaps it’s safe to assume that a good chunk of the Canucks will hit more as individuals than they did in 2022/23, with emphasis on a heavier forecheck.
With that said, maybe the Canucks will throw as many hits in 2023/24 as they did last season. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Quality means more than quantity. The point still stands that, even without Schenn, Burroughs, and Lazar gone from the roster, physicality won’t be a shortcoming of the Canucks this year.
It might even be a genuine strength.
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