The Vancouver Canucks can move the puck.
It seems simple, but it’s a crucial upgrade for a team that so often struggled to do so during a six game loss to the Calgary Flames in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs.
There were days not so long ago when Vancouver’s defence corps was one of the club’s major strengths. Those days are in the past, for now, but to the club’s credit they have managed to construct a more mobile blue-line.
“When we lost out in the playoffs, we analyzed where we were at and where we felt we came up short,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said in a conversation with Sportsnet in early November, listing improving the club’s blue-line speed as one of the major priorities to come out of that assessment.
“We wanted more mobility in our back end,” Benning continued. “We wanted to be able to transition the puck better, our defencemen to go back with speed, have good mobility, get the puck and either make a good first pass or carry it through the neutral zone and get it into the offensive end.”
Though Vancouver’s defensive play has been erratic at times, particularly on in-zone play in their own end, there’s no doubt the club is more effective at escaping from their own end of the rink.
Vancouver defenders aren’t just dumping the puck out either. Dimitri Filipovic, an analyst at CanucksArmy.com who worked in the analytics department for an NHL team last season, is currently tracking how Canucks defenders have fared on zone exits.
Through 20 games his tracking project reveals that five of Vancouver’s seven regular defencemen have successfully completed over 85 per cent of their exit attempts. Meanwhile four of the club’s seven defenders have exited with possession of the puck more than 50 per cent of the time.
Filipovic’s tracking matches what the Sportlogiq data suggests about the Canucks defence, and their improved transition game. So far Vancouver’s blue-liners have dumped the puck out of their own end at the third-lowest rate among all NHL teams, and average the fourth highest rate of carry-outs.
The movement and speed being generated by the Canucks’ back end isn’t stopping at the red line either, as the club’s defensive group ranks in the top-10 by both carry ins and controlled offensive zone entries.
If you’re looking to explain why the Canucks appear to be an improved group at even-strength this season – and the club’s score adjusted shot attempt differential has jumped from 49 per cent last season to 50.5 per cent this year, according to puckon.net, while Vancouver’s negative 5-on-5 goal differential has vanished – the improvement in the club’s transition game seems like the place to start.
Outside of the club’s bona fide top pair of Alex Edler and Chris Tanev, both legitimately first-pairing players, the Canucks defence corps is not a particularly glamorous group.
Pending unrestricted free agent Dan Hamhuis is getting long in the tooth and is no longer the first-pair matchup guy that he was once was, while Matt Bartkowski was a regular healthy scratch for the Boston Bruins last season. Ben Hutton was a Maine Black Bear this time last year and it wasn’t so long ago that Yannick Weber was lining up as a fourth-line winger in Vancouver. Even Luca Sbisa is having perhaps his best stretch as a member of the team.
“He's been good for us,” Benning told Sportsnet of the oft-criticized Sbisa’s improved form earlier this month.
Sbisa’s underlying numbers remain unsightly, but it was difficult to ignore that the club struggled enormously in his extended November absence. And while the shot-based metrics paint an unflattering portrait of Sbisa, Sportlogiq’s more granular data suggests something a bit more complex.
The Canucks, for example, rank in the bottom 10 in defensive-zone hits that successfully separate opponents from the puck, according to Sportlogiq. Luca Sbisa, however, ranks 11th among defensemen who’ve logged at least 150 even strength minutes by this category.
“He's a physical, hard player,” Benning told Sportsnet of Sbisa in early November. “He's strong in the corner and in front of the net and when teams start cycling on us, he can finish his checks and stop the play so we can get the puck going the other way.”
The 25-year-old Swiss-born defenceman is also among the 10 best defenders in hockey when it comes to completing defensive-zone passes, according to Sportlogiq.
“He's simplified his game,” Benning said of Sbisa. “When he gets the puck on his stick he looks for the first option, and he's been good in front of the net and in the corners."
Vancouver’s defence corps is more effective in the neutral zone this season. They’ve been more effective the offensive zone too, as only 10 blue-line groups in hockey have produced more points.
Material improvements in two-of-three zones aside, it’s the third zone that’s proving tricky for Vancouver’s blue-line and for the team as a whole.
You might reasonably base your opinion about the extent of the problem on which numbers you prefer. Sportlogiq places the Canucks 15th by scoring chance differential so far, which would imply that the club’s defensive play is average. By war-on-ice.com’s scoring chance data though, the Canucks rank 27th, which is tire fire territory.
Either way there’s little doubt that Vancouver has been too permissive in its own end this season. Lackluster defensive play has cost this club in close games repeatedly, as the Canucks have too often made it look impossible to hold on to a narrow third-period lead.
Defence is ultimately what wins championships, but speed kills in the contemporary NHL. At the quarter mark of the season, well, it’s at least apparent that the Canucks have added the latter component to their blue-line.