Over the course of the off-season, the Vancouver Canucks have made adjustments to their blue line, which has created a blend of youth with competent veterans. The pieces are there for the back end to hold some level of respectability, despite the lack of a true franchise defenceman. The cliche “boom or bust” holds true for many aspects of the 2017-18 Canucks, and perhaps none more so than defence core. For the purpose of this exercise, which will rank current members of the Canucks’ blue line only players from last year’s roster, as well as free agent signings will be included (which means the likes of Olli Juolevi and Andrey Pedan will not be present on the list).
#1. Christopher Tanev
Widely regarded as one of the NHL’s premier defensive blue liners, Tanev is an easy choice as the Canucks’ top defender. While bringing very little to the table offensively (with a career high of 20 points), Tanev plays a low-key defensive style while providing strong mobility from the back end. While playing big minutes against top competition, Tanev has played an airtight defensive style, and considering his history, it stands to reason that his lackluster 2016-17 is an exception, rather than indicative of any sort of trend. In a league that increasingly places value on transition-friendly defensive defencemen, Tanev is becoming more appreciated, and is undoubtedly worthy of the top spot in this ranking.
#2. Alexander Edler
Edler, who will go down as the highest scoring Canucks blue liner of all-time upon his retirement, has seen some slight regression of late, but is a sturdy presence nonetheless. This past season, the 31-year-old Swede was tasked with helping ease Troy Stecher into a more prominent role on the back end, which may have had an effect on his play to an extent. While 2016-17 was hardly a banner year for the veteran, he still stands as an effective big-minute defender, playing strong defensive hockey against tough opposition. The flash and offence from his game has diminished drastically from his peak years (after having scored just 21 points in 68 contests most recently), but Edler remains a steady member of the Canucks’ D-core.
#3. Troy Stecher
In his rookie year, Stecher took home the Team Award as Best Defenceman, while scoring 24 points (tops among all Canucks defenders). While his defensive game requires improvement, he proved immensely effective in transitioning the puck out of his own end. On a team that severely lacks that skill set, Stecher was able to separate himself from the pack. Additionally, while lacking a powerful slapshot, his shot volume numbers were exemplary, making him a strong candidate for power play ice time in 2017-18. While hardly a perfect player, the 23-year-old will be a major piece of the Canucks’ blue line for the upcoming campaign, as well as those to come.
#4. Michael Del Zotto
The most recent addition to the Canucks’ defence group, Del Zotto brings an element of mobility to the blue line. As outlined above, few Vancouver defenders are able to bring any level of excitement on the ice, but Del Zotto may be the exception to that rule. While his point totals are inconsistent to stay the least - he scored 18 and 13 points the previous two years, but scored 30+ three times - he plays a free wheeling style that is a refreshing change of pace for the Canucks. The defensive flaws are there to be certain, and time will tell if his two-year, $6 million deal will be worth it, but for now, Del Zotto appears to be a respectable addition to the roster.
#5. Ben Hutton
A rookie sensation in 2015-16, Hutton took a step back this past season, but remains a project with potential. After finishing second in assists by rookie defenders and scoring 25 points, he fell to just 19 in 2016-17. This was topped off by a noticeable drop in his defensive performance, which admittedly improved (along with his production) throughout the second half of the campaign. However, it’s fair to say that some of this regression may have been a result of his defense partner, Erik Gudbranson, who proved to be a defensive anchor of sorts. There are undoubtedly holes in Hutton’s game, namely his gap control and one-on-one battles, but there are additional strengths, such as his puck rushing abilities and ability to quarterback a power play unit. There is upside in Hutton’s game, but he will need to prove that his sophomore year was a one-off in order to reach his full potential.
#6. Erik Gudbranson
Acquired last summer from the Florida Panthers in exchange for forward prospect Jared McCann and a 2nd round draft pick, Erik Gudbranson has become one of the poster boys for Jim Benning’s mishaps. While the move made little sense at the time, it has certainly not improved with time. The former third overall pick (in 2010) was limited to just 30 games, and wasn’t particularly impressive by either the eye-test, or the analytics-based metrics. Touted as a physical presence, Gudbranson did very little to establish himself as a player to be feared on the ice, nor did he contribute much of anything in the way of offence scoring (just one goal and six points). While there is hope for a rebound in 2017-18 - he did, after all, play respectably as a top-four defender with Brian Campbell in Florida - there is absolutely work that needs to be done.
#7. Patrick Wiercioch
Signed early in this summer’s free agency, Patrick Wiercioch appears to have been a savvy depth signing by Canucks management. After demonstrating some promise during his early years with the Ottawa Senators, the 26-year-old fell off somewhat, before ending up on the historically bad 2016-17 edition of the Colorado Avalanche. However, the underlying numbers were strong for Wiercioch, which demonstrate a certain amount of untapped potential. Of course there are flaws in his game, notably on the defensive side of the puck, but it’s conceivable that these could be rectified. The sizeable blue liner may not set the world on fire, but he could turn out to be the smartest move made by Benning all off-season.
#8. Alex Biega
When the Canucks signed Biega a handful of seasons ago, he was written off as nothing more than farm depth for the Utica Comets. Since then, Biega has established himself as an unspectacular, though serviceable depth defender. Despite his almost non-existent offence and inconsistent possession numbers, Biega brings a level of tenacity and physicality that few others on the team do. It’s realistic to assume that on a better team, Biega wouldn’t be an everyday player, but it’s hard to fault his game considering the circumstances. He will inevitably be passed by younger, flashier options in the near future, but Biega has served his purpose, and done so fairly well.