Canucks counting on bolstered blueline
Eighteen months ago, Patrik Allvin was hired by the Vancouver Canucks to spearhead an organizational turnaround as the team’s 12th general manager. His chief objective: rounding out a very top-heavy franchise, one that has managed just a single playoff berth over the last eight seasons.
The Canucks have been under salary cap siege for years, but they aren’t completely swimming upstream. The franchise was blessed with two cornerstone talents in forward Elias Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes, two must-see skaters capable of single-handedly winning games.
The rest of the lineup remains a major project.
In many respects, where Vancouver is right now reminds me of where the Edmonton Oilers were just a few seasons ago, with a sharp talent skew to the uppermost parts of the roster. If you have watched a Vancouver game in recent years, you know there are effectively three unique teams:
- The Canucks with both Pettersson and Hughes on the ice.
- The Canucks with at least one of Pettersson or Hughes on the ice.
- The Canucks with neither of Pettersson nor Hughes on the ice.
These three teams are as distinct as you will find. Consider the performance of each of these groups over the past couple of seasons – we will focus on even-strength play for apples-to-apples comparisons.
Pay close attention to just how significant the drop-off in production is across the lineups:
It’s to be expected that Vancouver’s best, and most highly compensated, players are driving favourable goal differentials – the Canucks have outscored their opponents by 15 goals with both Hughes and Pettersson on the ice, and another 15 goals with just one or the other on the ice (albeit in significantly more minutes). That’s exactly what you would expect to see from a playoff contender, with top-end talent delivering premium results.
But the rest of the roster has struggled. The Canucks are 27 goals in the red over the past two seasons with both on the ice, and that’s despite getting a shockingly strong 91.3 per cent stop rate in those minutes. If goaltending were closer to league averages with Vancouver’s best players off the ice, those goal differentials would be even deeper in the red.
The Canucks – owing in part to their own cap constraints, in part to the league’s muted revenue growth – didn’t have a ton to work with this off-season, but there was a concerted effort to deepen what they had available to them on the blueline. The Canucks signed two veterans in Ian Cole (via Tampa Bay) and Carson Soucy (via Seattle), and when you factor in the late-season acquisition of Filip Hronek – well, it’s safe to say it’s a new-look defensive corps.
This was by design. The Canucks struggle mightily exiting the defensive zone and in the transition game whenever Hughes is off the ice. The distribution in performance here was almost comical last season – of nine regulars, only Ethan Bear was discernible from a replacement-level player.
That said, consider where the likes of Hronek, Cole, and even Soucy compared to what Vancouver was deploying just a few months ago:
From a roster-building perspective, shoring up the defensive group has long made sense for the Canucks. It’s just that previous big additions – think of the Tyler Myers signing, or more recently, Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s inclusion in the mega-deal with Arizona – have failed in practice, and more likely have been subtraction by addition. The need has stayed the same; the approach is what has missed the mark.
I suspect Vancouver also believes their defence’s general inability to play with the puck has impeded an otherwise talented forward group, and that bolstering this part of the lineup can also be fruitful for the forwards.
Whether the Canucks have it right this time remains to be seen, but there is no question the defensive core heading into the 2023-24 season is more impressive than what we’ve seen in recent years.
If the new additions can bring some stability to the blueline, this team may not be far off from a return to the postseason – especially in a weaker Western Conference.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference