Nailing down the Canucks’ one major need: Another puck-moving defender

Photo credit:© Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
3 days ago
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It wasn’t all that long ago that the only appropriate response to the question of “What are the needs of the Vancouver Canucks?” was something along the lines of “How long do you got?”
Scoring wingers, right-handed defenders, players without exorbitant albatross contracts. The Canucks used to have a lot of needs. But the front office, helmed by GM Patrik Allvin, has done some real quality work in addressing each and every one of them, to the point that we can look at the roster as currently constructed and point out only one major gap.
With Thatcher Demko in place and Arturs Silovs ready to apprentice, the goaltending position is locked up. At centre, they’re rolling Elias Pettersson, JT Miller, Teddy Blueger, Pius Suter, and Nils Åman. More scoring has been added to the wings in the form of Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen, and Dakota Joshua’s services were retained.
They’ve got the best blueliner in the league, circa 2023/24, in Quinn Hughes and another high-quality defender on the other side in the recently-extended Filip Hronek. They’re backed up by a forest of tall trees in the bottom-four which the 6’4” Derek Forbort now counts as “the little guy.”
What more do the Canucks really need, aside from some of their key players to either maintain or get back to their premium level of play?
Really, at this point the only clearly-identifiable need that we can identify is a need for another puck-moving defender on that blueline.
We’re not winning any Pulitzer Prizes for this revelation. The overall lack of puck-skills on the blueline was commented upon during the playoffs, and shortly after the Canucks’ elimination at the hands of the Oilers.
Put in the bluntest terms, the Canucks had two defenders on their roster with above-average abilities with the puck on their stick, and those two defenders – Hughes and Hronek, obviously – tended to play together.
The two other remaining D, Carson Soucy and Tyler Myers, don’t exactly possess stone hands, but neither are experts with the puck. Soucy can complete fine enough passes and shots, and Myers can skate with it, but that’s it. Neither are particularly apt at making outlets.
The two defenders the Canucks added via free agency, Vincent Desharnais and Forbort, bring many desirable qualities to the table, but almost all of them fall on the defensive side of the puck. The same could be said about the designated extras in Noah Juulsen and Mark Friedman.
Really, what makes a good puck-moving defender? It can be tricky to quantify with anything other than the patented eye-test. It’s perhaps best defined as a loose collection of skills, including pass completion, zone exits, transitioning the puck up ice, and skating with possession. None of which, inconveniently enough, are publicly-tracked.
We can do some measuring, at least. Assists are a basic enough measure of how well a player tends to pass the puck. In 2023/24, Hughes had 75 assists, the most of any Canuck defender ever. Hronek had 43 of his own.
Beyond them, Myers had 24 assists, which is actually well ahead of his five-year running average of 17.4. Soucy battled injuries and only wound up with four assists, but only has a career-high of 16. Forbort profiles similar, with four assists last year and 17 as a career high. Desharnais, meanwhile, only has two NHL seasons under his belt, with assist totals of five and 10.
Clearly, the Canucks would prefer at least another defender who can pass the puck with success more regularly.
The other form of puck-moving, as in moving around the ice with it on one’s stick, is even more difficult to measure. The NHL EDGE stat-tracker can at least tell us how fast and how frequently these folks skate, and unfortunately, the results are not promising.
Hughes stands out as one of the best blueline skaters in the league, with a skating distance in the 93rd percentile and speed-bursts in the 78th percentile. The only other Canucks defender to not be below the 50th percentile in any of the skating-related categories is Hronek, and that’s for skating distance only.
In terms of skating speed, all five of the Canucks other regular defenders fall below the median.
Which goes to show that the Canucks will either need to rely just as heavily on Hughes and Hronek in 2024/25, or find someone else who can move the puck.
One solution at hand, suggested by Allvin himself, is to split Hughes and Hronek, so as to at least have a quality puck-mover on both top-four pairings. But as we’ve already discussed at length, separating Hughes and Hronek raises its own issues, and is far from a perfect solution.
One can imagine a set-up something like…
…in which the top two pairings have a designated puck-mover, and the bottom-pairing just has to tread water on that front.
But it’s far from perfect, and it doesn’t really move the Canucks far enough away from the blueline issues that helped sink them last season.
Put Hughes and Hronek back together, and you’ve got a real top-pairing again – at the expense of the other two pairings’ ability to play the puck.
A far more workable solution seems to be the one that everyone is suggesting, and that’s bringing in an additional defender with some genuine puck-moving skills. Such a defender might not even need to be an every-night sort of player, just someone who can add a different dynamic to the blueline when that dynamic is needed.
Having that player on hand allows Hughes and Hronek to play together more frequently, which is good for all involved. It also allows for them to be separated, along with the new player, in three distinct pairings, each with some puck-moving ability.
The Canucks made signings to get better in their own end this offseason. But they’re still better off if they can increase their ability to not have the puck in their own end in the first place.
In the days to come, we’ll be exploring the possibilities for acquiring just such a puck-moving defender, either from the dwindling stock of free agents or through the trade route.
Suffice it to say for now that the need is real, it’s vaguely statistically-measurable, and that it needs to be addressed for the Canucks to truly say that they’ve got a chance of improving upon last season in 2024/25.
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