Centers and right-handed defensemen are the two most valuable commodities to any NHL team.
Look at the rosters of the recent Stanley Cup champion teams and it’s clear that no team is making it through the slog that is the NHL playoffs without plenty of depth down the middle.
In this area, the Canucks seem to be well-prepared for the future as Elias Pettersson has slid seamlessly into the top-line centre role, allowing captain Bo Horvat to bounce down to the second line and give the Canucks the crucial 1-2 punch that they need.
But right-handed defensemen are a different story and they are a commodity that the Canucks severely lack. Conventional hockey knowledge pushes the idea that wingers and defensemen handiness should line up with the side that they play. A right winger that is skating down the boards will have an easier time if they are right handed and can keep the puck to the outside, on their forehand, away from the stick-checking of the defensemen.
For defensemen it’s a similar way of thinking that has prevailed. By sticking to their natural side a defensemen can have an easier time digging the puck out of battles on the boards, making that D-to-D pass, or breaking the puck out by ringing it around the boards.
Special players such as Alexander Ovechkin have helped break this way of thinking slightly on the winger side of things. While there are many disadvantages, there are some advantages for a winger coming down on his off-side such as the ability to shoot from a different angle. For stars with great shots (and Ovechkin has one of the best shots we’ve ever seen) this can be a great advantage as long as they are skilled enough to deftly handle the puck on their backhand well enough to keep possession.
Still, it takes a very special player that possesses that combination of stick handing skills, a wicked shot, and the hockey IQ to put it all together to make it worth it for a winger to play on their off-hand. For defensemen, their mistakes are amplified as they can more often lead directly to goals compared to a winger and therefore coaches are hesitant to experiment and break the traditional thinking.
Since coaches are looking to keep one player of each handiness on each defence pairing, they run into a problem due to basic math. While it changes slightly every season, in general around 60% of NHL skaters in any given year are left-handed. Right-handed defensemen can be hard to find and this makes them a valuable commodity.
Canucks coach Travis Green has proved himself a believer in this ideology and has kept his defence-man stapled to their sides. It’s no secret that the Canucks lack anything resembling a competitive, Stanley Cup contending group of defensemen and that area of the roster will definitely be dissected by GM Jim Benning and crew.
Look deeper at the defence group that the Canucks have and it becomes clear that it’s really the right side that the Canucks need to improve on. Heading into this season management clearly felt like it was a need that had to be addressed and it’s hard not to imagine that it was a factor that went into the offseason signing of Tyler Myers.
Before the 2019-20 season, Myers was handed a five-year, $30 million deal that turned a lot of heads. With the current feeling surrounding the Canucks roster being that it’s these overpaid veterans - Jim Benning free agent signings to be more specific - hampering the ability for the team to make the moves it needs, signing a player like Myers to a deal like that struck fear into plenty of fans.
Myers already isn’t a stud and as he ages the concern is that his contract will be another albatross for the Canucks to deal with. Myers had 49.5% shot attempt differential which was slightly above the team’s average of 48.4%. He’s not a bad player, but the worry is that he is overpaid and as he ages his game will deteriorate.
Myers joined Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher to make up the right-side of the Canucks blueline this season. While those three may seem to be a solid group, nothing amazing but definitely not bottom of the barrel, there are plenty of causes for concern when we peel back the layers.
Tanev is a solid stay-at-home defensemen that has been a staple on the Canucks for some time now. He had a strong season partnered with superstar rookie Quinn Hughes as his defensive style complemented Hughes well. However, Tanev is now an unrestricted free agent and the Canucks cap crunch makes it a very real possibility that he will not return.
In fact, Benning has publicly said that re-signing goaltender Jacob Markstrom is a priority and when you look at the fact that Tyler Toffoli will also require a good chunk of cap space should the Canucks choose to re-sign him, (not to mention the RFAs the team wants to bring back and the many rumours surrounding a possible trade) Tanev seems to be a likely candidate to be the odd man out.
Even if the Canucks do manage to bring Tanev back, his injury history is scary for a player who is now on the wrong side of thirty. Tanev has missed plenty of games in his career, and even though he did stay healthy for this year, his fearless style of play does put him in harm’s way all the time.
Vancouver-area native Troy Stecher was another RHD that played significant minutes for the Canucks this season. Stecher is a solid player but he’s not a guy you want to be relying on to be a significant contributor in your top-four.
He showed plenty of fight during this year’s playoff run but still at this point of his career is someone better suited to a bottom pairing role. Not only is Stecher not ready to crunch the big minutes on the right-side, but he is a restricted free agent and the Canucks will have to find a way to squeeze him in under the cap if they wish to bring him back.
Building for the Future
The Canucks have a few defence prospects who could make an impact on the big team in the future and their are two right-handed defensemen who stand out. Brogan Rafferty and Jett Woo are two players who both shoot right and have shown some promise.
However, when it comes to prospects nothing is guaranteed and both of these players have serious questions to answer before they are surefire NHL players. Rafferty had a great season in the AHL this year but can he survive in his own zone against NHL forwards? Woo had a great season after being drafted but this year was a bit of a let down and a regression in his development.
These questions may be answered sooner than later as the Canucks may be forced to rush these players into the NHL to fix this dearth of right-handed defensemen. Whether they end up rushing these players into NHL roles or attempting to fix the problem by throwing money at free agents or reaching in the draft, it doesn’t seem like there are many good solutions.
To fix this problem, the Canucks have to think outside the box and the solution may lie in the hands of the player who has fixed so many of the team’s problems.
The Possible Solution
I mentioned above, it takes a special player to play on their off-hand but lucky for the Canucks they have a very special player that could maybe just pull this off. Quinn Hughes has added a completely new dynamic to the team and has wowed everyone with his stellar play.
Hughes is a lefty and behind him the Canucks have more left-handed options. Alexander Edler has been a mainstay on this team for many years but they also have players such as Oscar Fantenberg and Jordie Benn who can eat minutes and are NHL-caliber players. Fantenberg is an unrestricted free-agent and Benn only has one more season but the Canucks have prospects that should be ready to go in the next few years.
Olli Juolevi has taken a long road to the NHL but impressed in a one-game sample during the playoffs. He should be pushed into the NHL lineup very soon and should be able to take a Benn / Fantenberg role sooner rather than later. Jack Rathbone is another prospect that many people are very excited about and while it’s too early to peg exactly what he will be at the NHL level, he is another touted prospect that means the Canucks should be set on the left-side for years to come.
While it may not be the ideal solution, the Canucks cap struggles as well as their surplus of left handed prospects mean that the coaching staff should experiment with playing Hughes on the right side. The left-handed defensemen that Hughes played the most five-on-five minutes with this season was Alex Edler. The pair played a whopping 29:16 together, not enough to draw any real conclusions from, but they performed well during those thirty minutes as they had a shot attempt differential 62.5% and outshot opponents 19 to 13.
When the Canucks lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in seven games in this years playoffs, the Golden Knights relied on a surplus of left-handed defensemen to get the job done. In game seven, a 3-0 victory for the Golden Knights, Vegas used five left-handed defensemen and only one righty. They still managed to shut down the Canucks and secure a shutout and Hughes is much more talented than any of the Vegas defenders barring maybe Shea Theodore.
There's no guarantee that this would work, but if Hughes can perform equally on the right side as the left it will help the Canucks tremendously with their roster building. A legit, top-pairing right side defensemen would make it much easier for the Canucks to overhaul their defence core as well as limit the amount of changes they would need to make.
It’s time for Travis Green to put aside traditional hockey thinking and try a creative solution to a pressing issue. Quinn Hughes would not be a Vancouver Canuck if management had stuck to the classic thinking that defensemen need to be large, imposing players. It’s time for them to test one more hockey tradition and let Hughes roam the right side.