Canucks defenceman Tryamkin exceeding early expectations

Vancouver Canucks are excited to unleash their new 6’7” 240 pounder Nikita Tryamkin, who’s been called Chara version 2.0, but Henrik Sedin hopes we don't hype the young d-man up too much.

On a lottery bound Vancouver Canucks team that has struggled enormously to score goals, much less win games, 6-foot-7 rookie defenceman Nikita Tryamkin has been a sizable pillar of hope.

The enormous Russian defender signed an entry-level deal with the club earlier this month upon the conclusion of Avtomoboist Yekateringberg’s KHL campaign and has now appeared in five games with the Canucks. So far in his brief audition he’s looked the part of an NHL defenceman.

“I didn’t expect him to maybe be quite this good,” Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins said of Tryamkin following Vancouver’s 3-2 shootout loss on Thursday night. “It’s a big step coming over from Russia. He’s only 21, he doesn’t have the language, but there have been some good things.

“He’s played well. When he first came over I said ‘I hope he can be a No. 6 d-man’ and he’s done that and maybe a bit more for us.”

Following an NHL debut in which Tryamkin played just over 11 minutes and recorded a secondary assist, the 21-year-old blue liner has logged major minutes – averaging over 20 minutes in Vancouver’s past three contests. Tasked with handling a role in Vancouver’s top four, Tryamkin has shown decently well for an overmatched Canucks side.

On Thursday night against the Nashville Predators, Tryamkin was solid. He even swatted away powerful winger James Neal with seeming ease and killed the entirety of a 4-on-3 penalty. Relying more on instinct and hockey awareness than an acute understanding of Vancouver’s system, Tryamkin has demonstrated a genuine ability to use his size and reach to effectively disrupt the opposition attack.

“There’s certainly some times when he doesn’t understand,” Desjardins said of the language barrier. “I think on the 4-on-3 kill at the end of the game he really wasn’t sure what we were doing, and then you just rely on talent and other guys kind of reading off him. For a guy coming over, he’s battled pretty hard and I think he’s gotten better.”

The underlying numbers suggest that Tryamkin, like most Canucks this month, has spent too much time in his own end of the rink. The club is controlling just over 42 percent of unblocked shot attempts with Tryamkin on the ice at 5-on-5, an inauspicious rate to be sure, though the sample is as miniscule as Tryamkin is huge.

On a team struggling to the extent the Canucks are though, one should be careful about placing too much stock in his small sample underlying results. It’s perhaps as telling, for example, that the club has taken to giving Tryamkin an extended look on the penalty kill – where he’s fared extraordinarily well in limited run – and seems to be comfortable allowing him to start regular shifts in his own end.

By any meaningful indicator, Tryamkin’s performance has served to ingratiate him to the Canucks coach staff.

“He’s got a long reach and he’s heavy,” said Desjardins. “We’ve got to be better on the cycle and stopping the cycle and he’s a guy that can stop the cycle, he’s just got the size. We’ve been missing that all year, it’s nice to get a guy with his presence in the lineup.”

Desjardins’ diagnosis of Tryamkin as a ‘cycle stopper’ appears to be spot on. In his first five NHL games Tryamkin has managed to throw body checks that effectively separate opponents from the puck at a rate of 4.5 per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, according to data from Montreal-based player tracking firm Sportlogiq. That would represent an elite rate, if Tryamkin can sustain it.

On the other side of the ledger though, Sportlogiq’s data suggests that Tryamkin has been rather limited in transition. Through five games Tryamkin has posted a high neutral zone turnover rate and a very low neutral zone passing success rate, which isn’t uncommon for a young defenceman learning the ropes in the NHL.

Tryamkin has also attempted to dump the puck out of the defensive end more than 30 per cent of the time, a number that stands in stark contrast with the rest of the Canucks defence corps, most of whom attempt to transition the puck with possession at a rate well above league average. It’s a discrepancy that may reflect Tryamkin’s relative lack of familiarity with Vancouver’s systems.

“He does keep it really simple and that may be the worry is that once he gets more confident he’ll start doing a bit more,” Desjardins said on Thursday, “but he’s been good, he’s kept it simple and he’s a big body.”

In a brief but impressive NHL cup of coffee, Tryamkin has performed at a level that strongly suggests that he isn’t out of place in the show. That’s a crucial development for the Canucks, particularly because Tryamkin’s two-year entry-level contract includes an AHL out clause.

Fortunately for both the club and the player, Tryamkin’s hockey awareness and physical tools are already at an NHL level. And his issues in transition arguably tell us more about the language barrier and Tryamkin’s lack of NHL experience than they do about his foot speed and puck skills.

What’s clear for now is that Tryamkin has exceeded all reasonable expectations through five games. If he can maintain this level of performance over the balance of the season and into next fall, his AHL out clause won’t matter.