Talking like a playoff team in late September is one thing. Performing like one for seven months from October to April is another entirely.
The Vancouver Canucks have projected a sense of optimism throughout training camp. At every level – from the players, to the coaches, to management – the organization has made it plain that the goal is the playoffs. Those are lofty aspirations for a team that finished with just 75 points a year ago, the third-fewest in hockey.
If the Canucks are going to improve enough to keep up in the competitive Pacific Division, improving their overall defensive play will be crucial. Though quality goaltending performances from the tandem of Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom served to disguise the extent of the issue at times, the Canucks were truly one of the NHL’s most permissive defensive teams last season. Only the Colorado Avalanche allowed scoring chances at a higher rate.
It’s totally reasonable to expect the club’s defensive play to be sturdier. Brandon Sutter is healthy, which should at least help relax some of the Sisyphean deployments Bo Horvat struggled under last season. And with Erik Gudbranson in the fold, it’s possible – even likely – that the Canucks could ice two defensive pairings capable of controlling the run of play.
It’s to Willie Desjardins and assistant coach Doug Lidster’s credit that in their two years behind the bench in Vancouver, they’ve rolled consistently with Chris Tanev and Alex Edler as their top defensive pair. Perhaps Vancouver’s coaches could be more disciplined in how they use Edler and Tanev as a matchup pair, but even still, Vancouver’s top-two defencemen can be counted on to soak up north of 20 minutes of ice time per game. With Tanev and Edler on the ice over the past two seasons, the Canucks have controlled better than 52 per cent of unblocked shot attempts at even-strength and have reliably outscored the top-end of the opponent’s rosters.
The problem for the Canucks in the Desjardins era has been what’s occurred when Edler and Tanev take a breather. With Tanev and Edler on the ice at even-strength since October 2014, the Canucks have outscored their opponents by five goals. With any other pairing on the ice, the Canucks have been outscored by 44.
Fixing this issue was a priority for the club this summer, obviously, as the Canucks paid a significant price to acquire Gudbranson in a trade with the Florida Panthers. Gudbranson isn’t a defender who moves the river on his own, but he’s a dependable, durable, physical blue liner who has improved his two-way game appreciably as he’s matured over the past couple of seasons.
Much has been made of Gudbranson’s underlying numbers, which on a superficial level have been found wanting by many in the public sphere of hockey’s burgeoning analytics community. In fact, when you get into the weeds, it seems more likely that Gudbranson’s two-way impact has generally been fine.
The 24-year-old stay-at-home defenceman’s team-relative numbers look poor on first glance, but they’re sewered in part by Gudbranson’s territorially challenged partnership with Willie Mitchell and how rarely Gudbranson was tasked with playing with ace play-driving defenceman Brian Campbell until this past year. Gudbranson has also genuinely fared well paired with the sort of left-handed partner – whether Campbell or Dylan Olson – that mirrors Ben Hutton’s puck-moving profile.
“I think (Ben Hutton) complements my game really well,” Gudbranson said last week. “The perfect example is Campbell, whenever (we) got an opportunity to play together we played really quick. We played together with speed, we attacked people at the blue line, our gaps were strong and we defended skating forward a lot of the time, which is a huge plus in terms of matching speed and creating turnovers.”
Hutton isn’t Campbell, but if a Gudbranson-Hutton partnership proves as well calibrated as expected – the two defencemen have been paired throughout training camp and are familiar with each other from a Kingston Frontenac’s training camp nearly a decade ago – the Canucks might have a second pair capable of controlling play for the first time since 2014.
That would represent a solid defensive foundation for the Canucks, the magnitude of which shouldn’t be understated. And Gudbranson doesn’t have a high bar to leap over in his effort to improve Vancouver’s second pair. Matt Bartkowski, after all, logged the third-most ice time among all Canucks defenders last season.
Significant questions linger for the Canucks. Most expect – even management worries – that this iteration of the Canucks will struggle to produce goals. A variety of hopeful wagers – continued improvement across the board from a host of young Vancouver forwards; Philip Larsen and Anton Rodin making meaningful contributions – are going to have to pay out for Vancouver if the Canucks are going to ice an average offensive attack.
The composition and quality of the Canucks’ third pair is also an open question. Luca Sbisa and Larson are seen as having an inside track to open the season on the third pair, which seems suboptimal. Even if one or two of Alex Biega, Andrei Pedan, Nikita Tryamkin or rookie Troy Stecher steal a third-pairing job, the Canucks could give some of the gains from their improved second-pair back at the bottom end of their defence corps.
Still the Canucks have a group of top-four defencemen with enough overall quality to make it more difficult for opponents to pepper Miller and Markstrom with scoring chances this season. If that isn’t enough to justify all of the pre-season optimism in Vancouver at the moment, at least it’s a start.