For the past few months, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Canucks knew how to evaluate defencemen in today’s game.
That the Canucks’ defence corps have collectively been a mess the last little while only added fuel to that fire. And almost everyone’s noticed — I’m not ahead of the curve or anything. It’s clear as day.
What’s interesting is that the organization’s best defencemen were all in place when the current management group took over; meanwhile, the weakest links have all been relatively recent additions. Some of those additions have worked out decently, while others have been just short of disastrous, be it in terms of the acquisition cost or their play.
That said, this issue is prevalent across the entire NHL. Teams struggle to evaluate defencemen and what will make them successful at the NHL level. It’s how a player like Samuel Girard falls to 47th overall, bursts onto the scene in Nashville little over a year later, and then everyone asks “where did he come from?”
There can be a lot of variability in prospect development and differing timelines, so it isn’t fair to look back at those for this regime. But we can look at the professional defenceman they’ve acquired, what was said at the time by the organization about the player (when I can find it) and why they succeeded or failed. It will become quickly apparent that trying to improve the defence over the last four years has left the organization with a mess.
It’s important to note that this is a look at the professional side of the spectrum. That means that the acquisitions of players like Olli Juolevi and Troy Stecher are excluded as both were acquired through the amateur side.
This isn’t a look at the overall direction of the organization or ownership’ input — it’s just a way to look at how they saw the player and what happened. Yes, the cost of the acquisition is critical to include as it sheds light on the evaluation process and the cost management.
Grab a coffee; this is a long one.
Luca Sbisa (June 27, 2014 – Trade)
Canucks general manager Jim Benning made a trade with the Anaheim Ducks to acquire Nick Bonino, 2014 first-round pick, 2014 third-round pick, and Luca Sbisa for Ryan Kesler. This is a multi-layered trade as the Canucks had their backs against the wall with Kesler’s no-trade clause. They wanted to replace him at the centre position, as well as add depth in the defensive ranks, all while adding draft picks.
At the time of the acquisition, the Canucks had an ageing defensive core with the likes of Kevin Bieksa, Jason Garrison and Dan Hamhuis, so in that sense targetting a 24-year-old (at the time) Luca Sbisa made sense.
Sbisa lacked an offensive upside but was a decent puck mover who was prone to glaring gaffes. He wasn’t overly physical but was willing to take the body and did so well. The problem was his mistakes were on display regularly.
Why didn’t he work out?
It was clear fairly quickly that Sbisa was prone to mental lapses that led to egregious turnovers and is likely why he was traded twice earlier in his career. That said, Sbisa is a competent NHL defenceman who has played decently with Vegas so far this year. This comes down to a few other factors, like targeting Sbisa as part of the return for Kesler instead of some of the other rumoured defencemen like Sami Vatanen. Then signing him to a three-year deal at $3.6 million per season.
If there was no expansion draft, it’s fair to believe he would still be here and be a serviceable, albeit overpaid defenceman for the organization.
For Sbisa, it’s more about the decision to want him over some of the other Ducks defenders at that time.
Andrey Pedan (November 25, 2014 – Trade)
The organization felt there was a gap in the age group for the players they were drafting and the incumbent defensive group, so they started targetting 20-to-22-year-old defencemen who might be undervalued by their current team. Andrey Pedan was the first defenceman acquired with this thought process. Sending Alexandre Mallet and a third-round pick, the Canucks acquired Pedan from the New York Islanders.
Pedan was regularly praised for his physical play by management and showed that in the limited NHL action that he saw. He was good at transitioning the puck at the AHL level and had an underrated offensive game that was led by his heavy shot.
The Canucks targetted him because he was buried behind depth in the Islanders organization and they felt that he would be a player with more of a chance. It was a justifiable bet, and they were almost right.
Benning was sure of Pedan to close out the 2016 season:
The Canucks waived Pedan before the start of the 2017 season and then traded.
Why didn’t he work out?
Pedan played very well at times at the AHL level and was leaned on heavily by Travis Green during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. But Pedan had some mental gaffes that resulted in giveaways or penalties. He was able to get into 13 games with the Canucks but couldn’t secure a spot as the hard-nosed defender the organization had hoped they’d picked up on the cheap in a trade.
He played at forward, which was a poor idea from the beginning, and then trended downwards. It was a combination of him not meeting expectations, regression, and not being given a long run (on defence) at the NHL level that got us to the end of his Canucks tenure.
From a process standpoint, Pedan made sense. He is a big defenceman, who is wasn’t afraid to be physical and can move the puck well. Not every prospect works out, and that’s what happened with Pedan.
Adam Clendening (January 29, 2015 – Trade)
Another player in the ‘fills the age gap’ line of thinking was Adam Clendening. Acquired for recent fifth-round selection Gustav Forsling, the Canucks were looking for a puck moving defencemen who wouldn’t take a few years to help out. They wanted someone in their lineup right away. Clendening was stuck behind some other defensive prospects at the time, so the Canucks used World Juniors standout Forsling to make the deal happen.
For Clendening, I couldn’t locate any specific quotes about him at the time of acquisition, but he was on XM Hockey Prospect Radio raving about the player they had acquired a month earlier:
Why didn’t he work out?
He lacked foot speed, which was apparent at the AHL level and a significant problem at the NHL level. Clendening has still carved out a professional career and appeared in 86 NHL games. He was traded to the Penguins in the deal to acquire Brandon Sutter, and has since been with the Oilers, Rangers, Coyotes, and (back with) Blackhawks organizations.
This is the first time where the cost of acquisition is part of the discussion. Forsling was coming off an excellent performance at the WJHC, and it seemed, at the time, that the Canucks were selling high on their fifth-round selection. Forsling is still only 21 but has appeared in 79 NHL games over the past two years.
By the Canucks wanting to speed up their development process, they acquired a defenceman who played 17 games for them but have given up a player that has already appeared in 79 games. There is no way to have predicted that Forsling would’ve come over and played this quickly. But the Canucks were high on him when they selected him, so the hope that he would be an NHL player would’ve been there.
Matt Bartkowski (July 1, 2015 – UFA)
After making the playoffs in their first season, Canucks management wanted to add some defensive depth to take that next step. Matt Bartkowski became an unrestricted free agent that summer, and it was easy to connect the dots between the former Boston Bruin and Benning. The Canucks signed the Pittsburgh native to a one year deal for $1.75M on the first day of free agency. The main criticism of the deal at the time was the dollar amount as it seemed high for a player who was coming off a four-assist campaign in 2014-15.
The argument was that Bartkowski was buried under some defensive depth in Boston and his skating and transition would be the best attributes of his game. Which was mentioned later in the day on July 1:
At that time, I did some radio transcribing, and Benning had this to say on TSN 1040 in the early afternoon:
Why didn’t he work out?
He skated himself right out of the league.
Bartkowski had flashes of what Benning was praising him for but would regularly skate plays into nothing. Either putting himself into the corner, creating a slim percentage chance or turn it over and be stuck out of position. Not to mention he had some huge defensive lapses in their own zone that led to quite a few goals against. Bartkowski was not re-signed and had to sign a deal with the Providence Bruins before getting a two year deal with the Flames. But it’s fair to argue that deal with the Flames was in part due to the expansion draft, as they wanted to ensure they met the exposure requirements. Bartkowski has played 38 NHL games over the last two years and continues to show those flashes, but that is beaten by the amount of frustration from his gaffes.
The acquisition of Bartkowski in a vacuum wasn’t bad – but the dollar amount, prioritization and then the amount of praise was unwarranted.
Philip Larsen (February 24, 2016 – Trade)
A few days before the trade deadline in 2016, the Canucks sent 2017 fifth-round pick to the Oilers for restricted free agent Philip Larsen. The Oilers had acquired the defenceman from the Dallas Stars and had him play 30 games before he headed to the KHL.
Larsen had been playing well in Russia and had expressed interest in returning to the NHL but didn’t want to do it with the Oilers. Enter the Canucks.
The Canucks signed him to a one year deal on July 1st and brought him over.
At the time of signing, Jim Benning had this to say about Larsen:
Why didn’t he work out?
Every general manager will talk up their acquisitions, which was clearly the case here with Larsen. But suggesting he will be ‘really good’ is an overstatement. Larsen was 26-years-old and had been okay at the NHL level in the past. Generally, players aren’t going to develop between 24 to 26 enough to become an impact player after being tolerable with one of the worst teams in 2014.
Larsen was too soft on the puck and would be regularly overpowered. Unfortunately, he suffered a concussion from a hit by Taylor Hall and missed quite a bit of time.
He didn’t have a separating skill that made his strength issues passable – the Canucks did not re-sign him, and he headed back to the KHL (where he has done quite well).
The thought process of targetting a puck-moving defenceman to help the powerplay makes sense, but his success in the KHL was overstated. The organization gave up a draft pick for 26 games.
Erik Gudbranson (May 25, 2016 – Trade)
What can I add that hasn’t already been said?
The Canucks moved Jared McCann, 2016 second-round pick and 2016 fourth-round pick for Erik Gudbranson and 2016 fifth-round pick. This deal was completed while the 2016 Memorial Cup was going on.
The players selected with the picks were Rasmus Asplund (2016 second –moved to Buffalo later in a trade down), Jonathan Ang (2016 fourth) and Cole Candella (2016 fifth).
It was clear that the organization felt that they needed more snarl from their defencemen and Gudbranson became their target. They hoped that the former third-overall pick would be a regular in their top-four for a long time.
It’s clear that they still feel that way, as they are exploring the option of re-signing him and had this to say last month:
Why didn’t he work out?
No matter what — there are both sides to the argument for Gudbranson.
For me, I am not an anti-Gudbranson person. I understand why he has value but there is a disconnect in that and what he provides and is worth. The cost to acquire him was too high, and they are stuck between a rock and a hard place with an extension due to his current compensation. I would move him at the deadline for futures. But it doesn’t really matter what my opinion is on Gudbranson, as the organization extended him this morning:
The deal isn’t a terrible hinderance going forward, so given that, I can’t really lament the decision to re-sign. Gudbranson does provide some value to the organization and I can understand the desire (to some degree) to keep him around. Just would’ve followed a different path.
So with that, I will link back to some of the other CanucksArmy writers takes on Gudbranson:
From Janik Beichler:
From Jackson McDonald:
From J.D. Burke:
Philip Holm (May 26, 2017 – UFA)
The same logic that was applied to the Larsen acquisition can be applied to the signing of Philip Holm. The difference is that the organization did not have to give up an asset for Holm.
Holm was the only non-NHL defencemen for Sweden at the World Championships last spring and was pursued by a few teams before ultimately deciding to sign with the Canucks.
There was an expectation that he was going to take some time to adjust to the North American game and then push for a roster spot. That is where we are at right now. Benning has been complimentary of his game from the time of his signing:
Holm is a bit of a late bloomer and precisely the type of player you target as a European UFA. If he works out, he supplements your depth. If he doesn’t, then you just move on.
Why didn’t he work out?
As we approach the more recent additions, it’s less about them not working out as they are still ‘in progress.’
As mentioned, there was an expectation that Holm would take time and then would be given an opportunity at the NHL level. I spoke with him at training camp, that is what he was sold on and understood that it might take a few months but he is over here to get a chance.
Some of the moves that the organization makes over the next few weeks could affect this, but they would be best served to get him into a few games to show they followed through on the promise. Otherwise, there is a chance the Swedish defenceman could go back to Europe.
Michael Del Zotto (July 1, 2017 – UFA)
This past summer, the organization went a little overboard adding some depth in the forward and defensive ranks with the hopes of supporting their young players. One of those players signed was Michael Del Zotto.
The Stouffville native was coming off an 18 point and 51 game campaign with the Philadelphia Flyers and was being looked upon to help the Canucks on the power play:
Like Holm and Gudbranson, Del Zotto is still part of the organization, so there is still some things left to be sorted out. But the thought process, short-term, and low cap hit made sense at the time of the signing.
Why didn’t he work out?
Del Zotto has been providing some serviceable ice time with an average of 21:00 minutes per game but is only seeing an average of 1:13 of PP TOI a game. He has helped the second unit but is ranked third among defencemen in PP ATOI and is only three seconds more than Ben Hutton.
He has a RelCF% of -3.15% and RELGF% of -2.88% at 5-on-5 play. So he has been playing a lot there but has been struggling. On the flip side, he has played well on the PK, limiting shots against and in the middle of the pack for GA/60 when down a man.
Given the term and salary, I wouldn’t say that Del Zotto hasn’t worked out. He has provided value in areas that he wasn’t expected to but hasn’t done much in the areas most expected. There have been some serious mental gaffes that have led to chances or goals against though.
Patrick Wiercioch (July 1, 2017 – UFA)
The last signing for the Canucks on free agency day this past summer was defenceman Patrick Wiercioch. Signed to a one year deal, the organization was clearly hoping that he would slide into a depth position and then slowly upon that as the season went on.
“Patrick has excellent mobility for a player his size and possesses a big shot from the point,” said Benning. “He’ll add to our depth on the blue line and we’re excited to give him the opportunity to play for his hometown team.”
From a process standpoint, the signing of Wiercioch made sense. Take a flyer on a depth defenceman, who has shown well with underlying numbers but might not have been given a full opportunity at the NHL level. Unlike Bartkowski, the amount was low enough that there was no forcing him onto the roster to justify the salary.
Why didn’t he work out?
Derrick Pouliot became available through trade and that immediately knocked Wiercioch out of the Canucks plans. To some degree, it made sense as the organization was able to add a young puck mover. Wiercioch was signed to be a depth defender, and that is precisely what he is at this point.
He has been passed by Holm on the depth chart and appears to be one and done with the Canucks.
Wiercioch is a bit clunky with the puck but does well from an analytical standpoint. It might’ve been worth giving him a chance over someone like Alex Biega. But Biega has played well this year, so you can’t blame them for the decision. It’s all worked exactly as it was set up to be.
Derrick Pouliot (October 3, 2017 – Trade)
With hours left before the opening day roster had to be submitted to the NHL, the Canucks swung a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They sent Pedan and a fourth-round pick to the Penguins for Derrick Pouliot.
Pouliot had fallen out of favour with the Pens, was subject to waivers, and thus became available. The Canucks took a chance on Pouliot because he was someone that they saw in junior and felt that his skill set would be very translatable in the NHL.
“A fourth-round pick for a player of the pedigree of Derrick Pouliot, I think it’s worth taking the chance to get a player like him,” he said. “I feel good about giving up a fourth round pick to take a chance on a player of his skill.”
“You watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year,” he said, “and you see how mobile Anaheim’s defence was in the Calgary series or you see Nashville, how mobile their defence is. That’s the way the game’s going. It’s about speed, it’s about handling the puck, carrying the puck, moving the puck fast. Over time, the game is going to keep getting faster and faster. Getting Derrick, he fits into that new style of what defencemen are going to look like moving forward.”
Why didn’t he work out?
Pouliot has only been with the organization for four months, so he hasn’t failed. (I kept the same header for continuity).
The former Portland Winterhawk played well to start his time with the Canucks and was looking like an absolute boon for the organization. He has however been unable to keep up that consistent play and has been a healthy scratch recently.
The concern with his game was on the defensive side of the ice, and that was very clear throughout his entire career. He struggled in the AHL last season and has work to do. That said, the cost was not steep, and Pouliot has already given the Canucks some games. Time will tell on this one.
I’ve been plugging away at these piece for a while, so it’s not like I am just fired up about something and quickly came to a conclusion.
It’s clear that the pro scouting department of the organization is struggling to evaluate defencemen, and when they are targetting legitimate NHL talent, there is a disconnect between their value and the price they paid.
There is a definite change in between the acquisition of Gudbranson and Holm, as it appears that underlying numbers played a part in the more recent additions. But it’s been less than a year for Holm, Wiercioch, and Pouliot and they aren’t perfect situations either. Given the length of the piece already, I didn’t go into their numbers in depth, but there are indicators that there has been a change in the way decisions are made. With that being said, the Gudbranson extension this summer could signal another change in direction.
Also, it’s not fair to think that they didn’t pursue other players who could’ve made an impact:
So, what can we take away from this?
Every NHL team has struggled at properly evaluating defencemen, their impact, and when they are ready for the show. It’s clear that the Canucks current pro scouting staff has suffered from all of those issues. That can even extend to the amateur side as they chose Olli Juolevi over players like Mikhail Sergachev, and Benning routinely praises players like Guillaume Brisebois. The last two are going to be NHL players, but there is a disconnect in their impact and the praise.
The organization has also prioritized getting puck-moving defencemen, which is evidenced by the Larsen, Bartkowski, Holm et al., acquisitions but it feels like they are chasing something that isn’t fully realized. Same can be said for a physical and hard-nosed player. The team knows what it wants but hasn’t acquired an impact one successfully.
They know what they want but can’t quite get it. The market can dictate that, as players need to be available to be acquired. But it’s apparent there is an idea of what they view a defenceman should look like and the players they have acquired just don’t get there.
Looking at the current group of defencemen that the Canucks have regularly dressed on their roster:
- Four were already here (Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Ben Hutton, and Alex Biega)
- One was through amateur side (Troy Stecher)
- Three were acquired by this regime (Erik Gudbranson, Michael Del Zotto, and Derrick Pouliot)
It’s fair to argue that they have not added an impact defenceman to that group and there isn’t a stud coming through the pipeline to help. They were quick to extend someone like Alex Biega to a two-year contract when his overall impact isn’t significant. I’ve mentioned a few times that every GM is going to praise their own players, but there seems always to be a disconnect from what a reasonable ceiling is:
Suggesting that Hutton could ever be a 50-60 point defenceman is so far from what an attainable ceiling is. Which is part of the problem.
They had made the group younger than when they took over, but that was going to happen inevitably.
No matter where the Canucks are in their life cycle, if you can’t evaluate defencemen correctly and struggle to place the correct value on them when acquiring them, you are in trouble. This is likely why it’s being reported that they refuse to explore trading Chris Tanev as it would just make the group even worse.
But instead, it’s rumours of trading someone like Hutton. That’s just really rearranging the deck chairs to make room for someone like Juolevi.
For the organization to rise back out of these bottom-five finishes, there has to be an improvement in this area of their talent evaluation.