The Vancouver Canucks defence has been fine but some tweaks could make it even better.
The Canucks shored up their defence core by adding veteran Travis Hamonic to the group just hours before training camp kicked off.
With the addition of Hamonic, it has opened up plenty of options for the six-man unit each night. The current defence core is featuring a big dose of Quinn Hughes alongside Hamonic followed by Alex Edler and Nate Schmidt playing a lot at 5-on-5.
Defensive Pairings stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick
Each pairing has shown glimpses of success in the early parts of this season. Those situations have been very different when you evaluate how each pairing is being used.
For example, the Hamonic-Hughes pairing has had tough minutes against top competition while playing a lot with the Elias Pettersson line. The Edler-Schmidt pairing has been taking on the medium-tough competition while getting a lot of time with the Bo Horvat line. The Olli Juolevi and Tyler Myers pairing has played much more sheltered minutes against weaker competition while being saddled up with the Adam Gaudette line.
From my calculations, Juolevi has played 80.7% of his 5-on-5 ice time against bottom-six competition. This is a situation for him to be given the best chance for success. It is showing in the early returns as Juolevi holds the highest Corsi percentage and control of expected goals out of each defenceman.
With such a small sample size, the numbers can only mean so much. The eye test tells more of the story right now and for the most part, the six-man unit has looked the part of a middle to high-class NHL defence group.
What not to Change
Schmidt and Edler have clicked and that pairing has looked the most consistent over the first three games.
The addition of Schmidt to Edler’s side has been an excellent addition. Schmidt has been able to fire shots at will being on his one-timer side and his presence takes a lot of pressure off of Edler to be a puck mover and offensive contributor.
That pairing just works. They will continue to build chemistry as the season goes on and Schmidt shows a high-end ability in the offensive zone to extend plays. This will benefit Edler as it will help limit blocked shots and tougher minutes in the defensive zone.
As a second pairing, they are so far, so good.
What to Change
To be fair, the defence core hasn’t shown enough negatives to incite changes to their pairings. That being said, there are a few avenues that haven’t been explored that show a lot of potential.
The first change is the swap of Hamonic and Myers. The Hughes-Myers pairing has played 13:30 together so far at 5-on-5. In those 13 and a half minutes, 80.9% has been with the Pettersson or Horvat line. It’s a pairing that was used a lot last season to help generate offence from the back end.
From an analytics standpoint, there has not been a better defensive partner for Hughes in his career.
The pairing complements each other well. Hughes is at his best when he can roam freely through the neutral and offensive zones. When he is linked up with Myers, it gives the Canucks more power from the backend with two defencemen who can carry the puck between the blue lines and pinch once they are in the offensive zone.
Last season, they did a good job of limiting goals against as the duo only allowed 2.82 GA/60 minutes while the Hughes and Chris Tanev pairing allowed 2.89 GA/60.
Anyone concerned about Myers and Hughes defensively may be overreacting to the big giveaways that happen which result in goals. Those happen at times. From a 340 minutes sample size, the pairing does a fine job of keeping the puck out of their net while throwing a ton of attempts at the opposition’s net.
So far this season, Hughes’ most consistent partner has been Hamonic. Like the defence as a whole, that pairing has been fine. They have only been on the ice for one goal against in 29 minutes of 5-on-5 play. They have also been bailed out by their goaltending as Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko have combined to have a .952 save percentage with Hughes and Hamonic on the ice together.
Hamonic plays a quiet game. He looks to be in the right place in the defensive zone almost all the time and that calming veteran presence is the most important thing that he brings to a defence pairing at the current stage of his NHL career.
This is the reason why I would like to see more Hughes-Myers and more of Hamonic holding down support on the third pairing.
This would mean a pairing of Juolevi and Hamonic. The duo are two more defensive-minded defencemen but this is a good thing for Juolevi. Out of the six current Canucks defencemen, the eye test screams that Myers is the worst in his own zone. There are times where the blade of his stick looks like a broom sweeping in front of a curling rock. He is fine at defending on the rush but once stationary or during rotations against the cycle is where he gets lost.
This could cause added pressure on Juolevi to do more than what is expected against NHL competition in his rookie season. Consistently bailing out your partner in the defensive zone is a lot to ask of the young Finnish defenceman. One of the areas where Hughes looks to have improved the most from an eye test point of view is his stick checking and in-zone defending. He’s showed a more active blade and is doing a great job of disrupting the opposition’s offensive flow.
A calming veteran defenceman opens up fewer panic situations for Juolevi and Hamonic’s presence means that Juolevi can activate as an offensive boost more often instead of worrying about the consistent offensive pinching of Myers.
I asked head coach Travis Green about his view of Juoelvi so far this season.
“I think Olli has looked solid,” said Green. “We are working him in slowly. I like Olli, we’ve liked him. I think he really turned a page last year when he came into the training camp leading into the bubble. But, he’s a young defenceman and there’s going to be nights where we might have to protect him a little bit, but he’s been solid.”
Not only does having Hamonic on the third pairing make things better for Juolevi, but it also makes Jack Rathbone a serious option to jump into the lineup from the taxi squad. Rathbone’s play style and lack of experience defending NHL competition make him a no-go to play with Myers. Having a defensive-minded Hamonic on the right side gives the Canucks a chance to work in Rathbone.
Working Rathbone into the lineup should be a top priority for the Canucks before the AHL begins in early February.
There was a lot of star potential seen in Rathbone’s first NHL training camp.
It would be a mistake to not at least get a look at Rathbone in an NHL game. The Canucks have three games in four nights against the Ottawa Senators at home near the end of January. With the weakest team in the division coming to your city, it makes a lot of sense to get Rathbone into some action.
There’s a star quality to him and he looked wildly confident at times during training camp. There were mistakes in the nine-day camp but for the most part, Rathbone impressed a lot of people. He has earned a shot to be looked at at the NHL level. That landing spot on the third pairing is much softer with Hamonic there to lessen the blows in the defensive zone.
After a remodelling of the defence core by the stagnant cap, a realignment, and Jim Benning, the Canucks have put themselves in the conversation to have the best defence core in the division.
Now it’s up to Green and co. to figure out the best way to utilize his group. Green also mentioned on Monday that, “there might be a time what we want to get Chatfield into the lineup.”
The Canucks have depth to go with their depth, with options like Chatfield, Rathbone, and Brogan Rafferty riding the taxi squad, the big club has options with their sixth and seventh defencemen. Not to mention that Jordie Benn could be returning to the team any day after he clears the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols.
There’s not a problem on the defence just yet, but there are doors that haven’t been opened yet. Some of those doors could create the best situation for their group as a whole.
It’s still early, but this is also a very different year. To me, health is the most important part of this Canucks team, and we have seen that early on with the J.T. Miller absence. The Canucks should look to explore some creative moves to their defence core to make them the most prepared for a run to and through the playoffs.
That’s going to take some thinking outside the box during a season that will consistently be outside of the norm.