When the Vancouver Canucks officially brought back the exact same defence prior to the 2018-19 season, there was shock, anger, and frustration in the market.
I mean, the Canucks defence in 2017-18 wasn’t good. It was the opposite of good. As a team they collectively allowed the third-most scoring chances in the league at even strength and if it wasn’t for Jacob Markstrom, they would have been worse than 20th overall in goals against at evens.
They also had the worst scoring chance differential in the entire league, pointing to a defence that not only allowed too many chances, but one that was bad in transition as well.
So yeah, anger in this market was justified when the Canucks came back with the same defensive core. However, now that we’re at the All-Star break and have some time to reflect, it’s easier to understand the rationale behind those decisions.
Blind Faith in Bad Blueliners
A bit of a harsh heading there, but it echoes the sentiments that many felt towards the Canucks blueline. The last game of the season 2017-18 season ended with Alex Edler, Michael Del Zotto and Derrick Pouliot being the Canucks three leaders in ice time.
It’s no secret that Chris Tanev and Alex Edler are the veteran stalwarts on the back end. The next defender with the least amount of question marks was Troy Stecher, but even then, Travis Green seems to underutilize the Richmond, B.C. native. That’s been true this season as well, but he’s still the least of the Canucks worries.
The real question marks were with the next four defenders on the depth chart.
On the left side, none of Michael Del Zotto, Derrick Pouliot and Ben Hutton performed well down the stretch. There was also Erik Gudbranson, who was long gone from the roster due to injury.
Despite those uncertainties, everyone came back. It didn’t make sense at the time, but if you squint hard enough now, you can start to see the logic.
Uncertainties Have Been Answered
You want to know why I believe (or like to believe) the reason for the Canucks bringing back all six defencemen? I think it boils down to two main factors.
1. The Canucks were never going to seriously contend in the playoffs this year. Even Jim Benning and Francesco Aquilini had to be realistic about expectations coming into this season after three straight bottom-five finishes. Because of that, they had time to be patient with some of the defencemen on their roster.
2. If you look at the Canucks six “best” defencemen, you knew that there weren’t many questions about what Tanev or Edler could do. Stecher was also progressing nicely despite his light usage.
Coming into 2018-19, Del Zotto and Alex Biega were on the outside looking in. Again, you know what you were getting with both players. Even though Del Zotto played all 82 games in 2017-18, it was clear early this season that his shine in Vancouver had worn off.
That left questions about the remaining three defencemen: Hutton, Pouliot and Gudbranson. Say what you want about their mediocre performances, but the organization had time to be patient this year to see what they had in these defencemen.
Now that were more than halfway through 2018-19, uncertainties about these three defencemen have been answered.
‘17-18 in a nutshell: Couldn’t have gone worse. Ben Hutton had good underlying numbers but when he did turn the puck over, it was usually one of those “what the hell was that” kind of plays. His fitness was questioned down the stretch and he ended up firmly in Travis Green’s doghouse.
Now: His turnaround has been one of the best stories for the Canucks this season. He’s gone from liability to one of the Canucks best defencemen for moving the puck up the ice. Hutton is part of the solution now instead of part of the problem, although his looming contract status could complicate matters. How much do the Canucks want to pay him?
‘17-18 in a nutshell: Great start, brutal finish. Everyone was praising Pouliot’s early performance after being acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins, but Pouliot’s performance peaked in that December 5th, 2017 game against the Carolina Hurricanes. He had a goal and two assists in arguably his best game as an NHLer. At the time, he led all Canucks defencemen in scoring chance suppression.
Horvat broke his ankle in that game and the team cratered, along with Pouliot. The sturdy defence he provided, albeit in a sheltered role, dissipated. Down the stretch, only Michael Del Zotto was on the ice for more scoring chances against, despite Pouliot still starting the majority of his shifts in the offensive zone.
Now: While Pouliot’s sample size from December onward was larger and more troubling, you can see the logic in wanting to give Pouliot another shot. It turns out that Pouliot utterly struggles to move the puck out of his own end, and is a liability more than an answer at this point. The Canucks have no choice but to move on at the end of the season, if not before.
‘17-18 in a nutshell: Bad and unlucky. Bad in terms of Gudbranson’s on-ice performance, and unlucky because of injuries. What happened next was perplexing, but I’m going to try and find the logic.
With Gudbranson being a looming UFA, Benning decided to re-sign him to a three-year deal worth $12 million. The decision was panned by most after Gudbranson had struggled mightily at doing what he was supposed to do: be a reliable defensive defenceman.
While I’m with those who didn’t like the signing, some defended him since he was hardly healthy. His first two years were riddled with injuries, after Gudbranson had major wrist and shoulder surgery within 14 months of each other. The simple logic? The team probably wanted to see what a full season of healthy Gudbranson would be.
- Now: Well, we know what healthy Gudbranson looks like, one of the worst defencemen in hockey. Here’s where Gudbranson ranks among all defencemen with more than 250 played at even-strength this season.
- Most scoring chances against per 60
- Most high-danger Corsi against per 60
- Worst scoring chance differential per 60
- 5th-worst goals against per 60
The only area where he’s been okay is the penalty kill, but his numbers there are still more mediocre than good. The bottom line is that it’s time to move on from Gudbranson, as my NM colleague Markus Meyer highlighted earlier this week. We’ve seen healthy Guddy, and we’ve now seen nearly 150 games of him in a Canucks sweater.
If Benning didn’t know what he had before, it should be abundantly clear what he has now, and that’s someone who isn’t an NHL calibre defenceman. He needs to move on if there are any old hockey boys in the NHL willing to bring him in.
Shoot this Pouliot-Gudbranson pairing into the sun.— Jason Brough (@JasonBroughTSN) January 24, 2019
What Happens Next?
In a nutshell, Quinn Hughes.
The arrival of the Canucks super rookie should change the dynamic of this blue line. Chances are that we are mere months away from his arrival, as it’s expected he pulls an Adam Gaudette or Brock Boeser, and suits up for the final few games of the season.
Quinn Hughes doing his thing vs. Penn State tonight.— Darryl Keeping (@dkeeping) January 25, 2019
Joins the rush, gains the zone, creates the space, distributes the puck, hard shot on net for his teammate. Soon enough it'll be Boeser walking into these tee shots! #Canucks #Michigan pic.twitter.com/dbA69shYu7
It’s also pretty much a guarantee that Pouliot will be gone. Gudbranson should be gone with him, but that’s less of a guarantee.
While there’s lots of talk about what happens with Edler, it’s hard to see him not re-signing. That leaves Edler, Tanev, Hutton, Stecher, and Hughes in your top six.
A simple fix? Get what you can for Pouliot and Gudbranson at the deadline, even if the return is minimal. It’s clearer than a summer day in the Bahamas that those two are hurting the team more than helping, at least on the ice. Rotate some of the younger players from Utica in this line-up if you wish, but you could roll a combination like this for the remainder of the season one Hughes arrives.
Edler - Stecher
Hughes - Tanev
Hutton - Biega
On an ideal, Cup contending team, Tanev, Edler, Hutton and Stetcher would make up your bottom four. That won’t happen, but bringing in Hughes is a step towards that vision. The biggest immediate need after that should be a puck-moving right shot defenceman. Basically, the opposite of Gudbranson.
Hello, Erik Karlsson?
Hell, I’ll take Biega at this point.