Exploring whether the Canucks could balance their defensive group by shifting a lefty to the right
Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
3 months ago
What three-letter combination do Vancouver Canucks fans both desire and fear in equal measure?
The desire part is pretty straightforward. If there’s one singular asset that the Canucks need to upgrade their roster in the present day, it’s a Right-Handed Defender capable of playing in the top-four of their blueline. If there are two assets that the Canucks need, it’s TWO right-handed defenders capable of playing in the top four.
The fear angle comes in when Vancouver fans consider the possibility of starting out the 2021–22 season with a right side of Schenn-Myers-Poolman, easily the worst RHD depth in the Pacific Division and among the worst in the league.
At this point, potential solutions are difficult to come by. A young, high-ceiling RHD has been a stated target of all trade talks this summer, but none have been acquired as of yet, and teams tend to hang on to such talents.
Drafting and developing an in-house RHD is a great option, but it takes time. How much time? Well, the last time the Canucks did so, Kevin Bieksa was the RHD, so don’t hold your breath.
Trading for a veteran RHD still on the upswing of their career is a near-impossibility, and even if it were possible, the Canucks don’t have the cap space.
The UFA market is picked bare. How bare? So bare that some Canucks fans were envious when Josh Brook — a formerly-touted RHD with one combined point in the AHL and ECHL last season — signed a PTO with the Calgary Flames.
But what if the answer were as simple as dropping a single letter from the occasion? What if, instead of focusing entirely on the holy grail that is a top-four RHD, the Canucks shifted their focus to finding the best “RD” possible — regardless of their “H”-ness?
As many know, handedness has become a more important factor over the past couple of decades in determining which side a defender should play, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of blueline positioning. Left-handed defenders on the right side are increasingly rare commodities, but they do exist, and they continue to make a big impact across the NHL.
When we initially set out to write this piece, we had hoped to find concrete numbers as to how many LHDs regularly line up as RDs. That wasn’t really doable, as NHL lineup cards record all defenders in the lineup as “D” only, and no one else seems to be keeping track.
With statistics off the table, we went for the anecdotal evidence.
It doesn’t take a long look, or a descent too far down the league standings, to find a LHD playing a prominent role on the right.
Before he was injured, Sam Girard did so for the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
The previous two-time champs, the Tampa Bay Lightning, had the left-handed Ryan McDonagh taking top minutes on the right side, as he’s done for a good chunk of his career, as has Mikhail Sergachev.
The Maple Leafs have TJ Brodie, who straight-up prefers his off-side.
The best of the bunch might be Miro Heiskanen in Dallas, who is so effective on the right-side that the Stars let John Klingberg, an actual top-four RHD, walk as a UFA this summer.
Shea Theodore does it in Vegas sometimes, and did it a lot more before Alex Pietrangelo came to town.
Traveling way down the standings, consider Rasmus Dahlin. The former first overall selection struggled to make a consistent impact in Buffalo before being switched to the right side this past season. Now he’s playing his best hockey yet.
The Canucks don’t even have to go too far into their own history to find a sterling example. Christian Ehrhoff was probably the team’s best overall defender on their 2011 run to the Finals, and he was a LHD playing a large swath of his 5v5 minutes on the right side.
The point we’re trying to make is not that any ol’ defender can switch sides and play just as effectively. The vast majority of defenders play best on their natural side, the vast majority of coaches prefer their defenders to play on their natural sides, and that will probably remain the case for eternity.
But there are more than enough examples of a LHD working out on the right side, and in some cases even playing better there, to make it a possibility well worth exploring for the Canucks in the seasons to come.
The search for a genuine top-four RHD can and should continue, but in the meantime, what’s the harm in trying out what you already have?
We wrote earlier in the summer about Oliver Ekman-Larsson being the best candidate to switch sides, and we’ll stand by that assertion.
But it doesn’t have to be OEL, either.
Travis Dermott is left-handed, but has about an equal amount of experience on either side of the ice.
Maybe Quinn Hughes learns to use his superior skating ability to cover his off-side with aplomb.
Maybe that’s how Jack Rathbone carves out a spot on the roster for himself.
Maybe the Canucks try out all their LHD on the right side, and they all fail at the transition. So what? The worst-case scenario is just the Canucks ending up back where they started, with no top-four-quality RHD on hand.
The best-case scenario, on the other hand, is the Canucks gaining a right-side defender out of thin air, addressing their primary roster weakness without having to pay any cost of acquisition.
There’s really nothing to lose here, and so much to gain.
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