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The Best Team to Never Win: Analyzing the Canucks 2011 Defence

We dig into how this group was so successful without a true number one defenceman

NHL: Preseason-Edmonton Oilers at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The 2010-11 edition of the Vancouver Canucks was remarkably well-rounded, with depth and firepower at every position. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than on the blue line. The team, through organizational development and off-season improvements, developed a deep defence that made them the league’s top defensive squad and carried them to a President’s Trophy as well as game seven of the Stanley Cup Final.

The current iteration of the Canucks has some well-documented defensive problems, particularly in regards to player development. What the 2010-11 edition shows is just how important a well-rounded defensive unit is to team success and the importance of prioritizing defensive depth. It is arguably an underrated component of what made the team so spcial, but an absolutely crucial one nonetheless.

Off-Season Moves

In the lead up to the 2010-11 season, general manager Mike Gillis made significant moves to shore up the the blue line. Gillis traded forwards Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner, and the 25th overall pick in the 2010 entry draft for Florida Panthers defender Keith Ballard. While controversial in the long run — Grabner was a Calder Trophy nominee that season and Ballard never really found his footing as a Canuck — it was nonetheless a bold move designed to improve the back end. The other key move was the signing of Dan Hamhuis. Hamhuis, after having had his negotiating rights traded to the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins — signed a six-year, $27 million deal with the Canucks, another move that vastly improved the team’s D core.

In terms of depth, the team signed Lee Sweatt, Chris Tanev (a future stalwart of the organization), and Yann Sauve, who all played a varying amount for the club. Ryan Parent was acquired from the Nashville Predators in a trade involving Shane O’Brien.

Lost from the 2009-10 campaign were the aforementioned O’Brien, who was traded to the Predators, and Willie Mitchell, who signed a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings.

The Impact of Christian Ehrhoff

While most would not add Christian Ehrhoff to a list of the top defenders of his era, alongside the likes of Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, or Zdeno Chara, it also isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. Finishing 8th in Norris Trophy voting that year, Ehrhoff proved himself to be among the league’s most effective offensive defencemen.

Ehrhoff was a dominant player in many respects of the game. He was the top Canucks blueliner that year by CorsiFor% and FenwickFor%, with impressive 55.15% and 54.81% rates. These numbers made him a top 20 defender league-wide by each metric, and on the cusp of the top ten when looking at the former. His counting stats were equally impressive, with 14 goals and 50 points. His goal total ranked 6th among all NHL defenders while his point total placed him 7th.

Ehrhoff was also key to the dominant success of the Canucks league-best power play that year. With 28 power play points, Ehrhoff used his heavy shot and outstanding transition play to enhance a power play with weapons like Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler. This an area where, upon his departure, it was clear the team missed Ehrhoff. While the likes of Alex Edler and Kevin Bieksa were fine power play quarterbacks, and players like Ben Hutton and Derrick Pouliot were less so, Ehrhoff was a force for movement with the man advantage the team had not seen until the arrival of Quinn Hughes.

While perhaps not of the same pedigree as core pieces like the Sedins, Kesler, and Roberto Luongo, Ehrhoff nonetheless proved to be pivotal to the team’s success and was arguably just as valuable as the more easily identifiable members of the roster.

The Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa Pairing

In addition to the dynamism brought by Ehrhoff, Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa proved to be an effective shutdown pairing for the club. The key idea with the pairing was balance: Hamhuis would provide an unflappable defensive presence to Bieksa’s carefree style of play. The two played more as a pairing — 657:43 minutes on the season — than any other duo that year. Their numbers were excellent, boasting a CorsiFor% of 53.20% and a FenwickFor% of 52.94%. They also controlled nearly 53% of shot attempts when they were on the ice and started more in the defensive zone than any other pairing.

What made this pairing remarkable is their ability to play such a high volume of minutes in tough circumstances, while still managing to drive play at such a high rate. While the raw offensive totals don’t necessarily jump off the page — six goals and 23 points for Hamhuis and six goals and 22 points for Bieksa — they nonetheless proved to be a dominant, play-controlling defensive pair for the Canucks.

Both went to be part of major storylines in the Stanley Cup Playoffs that year. For Bieka, the highlight was of course his Stanchion Goal that sent the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final. For Hamhuis, the memories are not as positive, with the standout moment being his hit on Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic that resulted in an injury sidelining him for the series (an injury many accredit for costing the Canucks the series). In different ways, these moments highlight the value of both players to the team, and certainly both were integral to the fortunes of the 2010-11 squad.

Alex Edler and Sami Salo

Two other players who were both key figures and often injured were Alex Edler and Sami Salo. While they played just 51 and 27 games respectively that season, they were both valuable assets.

Edler in particular was a key part of the roster. With 33 points in 51 games, Edler scored at a 53-point pace that year, often playing alongside Ehrhoff. The pairing was dominant, posting a CorsiFor% of 54.19%, perhaps unsurprising given the puck moving capabilities of both players. Edler added additional value in providing a physical edge, capable of laying players out with impressive bodychecks. While perhaps underappreciated at the time (and in the present), Edler was a well-rounded presence on the back end.

While Edler was out down the stretch with an injury that is said to have been exaggerated for reasons of cap compliancy, he nonetheless proved himself to be a valuable asset. Salo, while less productive (three goals and seven points in 27 games), nonetheless offered veteran depth and an effective slapshot to the defence, while coming it at 50% in CorsiFor%.

Despite their injury status, both Edler and Salo fit the mold of the 2010-11 blue line: stability blended with puck moving capabilities. They are traits that defined the careers of Edler and Salo and what made them such good fits on the 10-11 squad.

The Depth

Another key aspect of the success of the Canucks 2010-11 blue line is the effectiveness of their depth players. Ballard, while underwhelming relative to expectations and never really meshing with then-head coach Alain Vigneault, was nonetheless an NHL veteran with solid skating ability. Overpaid at $4.2 million? Sure, but performance-wise Ballard was a fine depth option capable of moving into higher roles when necessary,

The likes of Andrew Alberts and Aaron Rome offered additional veteran stability and physicality on the back end, serving as legitimate #5 or #6 quality players playing in #7 and #8 roles. A young Chris Tanev was making his NHL debut, while even Lee Sweatt had his moment, scoring his first NHL goal in his first NHL game.

While hardly core players, the effectiveness of the 2010-11 Canucks blue line was built on a depth strategy. Part of that comes down to even non-everyday players, and in that regard, the Canucks had a solid foundation.

The 2010-11 Canucks blue line offers a template for how the team should move forward in crafting a cup contender: an emphasis on depth and puck movement. The 2010-11 squad was arguably ahead of its time with its emphasis on skill and mobility in a league built on size and physicality. The current iteration of the Canucks would do well to follow this model and set themselves up for the same sort of success.

If, or when, they do, they may just set themselves up to go all the way.