On their current Eastern road trip, the Vancouver Canucks have earned seven of a possible ten points, which isn’t a bad total for any team.
Yet prior to Thursday’s game in Boston, the Canucks had been badly outplayed in each of those games, having allowed at least 40 shots over each of those four contests. On this road trip, the Canucks have allowed their two highest per game shot totals: 48 shots allowed to the Islanders on Sunday, followed by 49 shots allowed to the Rangers on Tuesday.
On Tuesday morning, former Canucks’ writer and current radio analyst Tony Gallagher described the Canucks’ defense as a “train wreck.” During the interview, he stated that the Canucks had given the Rangers “more time to shoot than a golfer at the first tee at Northview.”
The Rangers controlled the game, allowing just 20 shots to the Canucks to go with lengthy periods in the Canucks’ zone. Check out the event charts from War on Ice for more on how one-sided the play was in this game.
Even before the road trip, defense had been an ongoing problem from the Canucks. In an interview with sports talk radio station TSN 1040 on Tuesday, Rhys Jessop described the magnitude of the Canucks’ issues on defense from an advanced stats viewpoint.
In the interview Jessop listed some interesting statistics, which are eye-opening if you’re a Canucks’ fan.
The Canucks are 30th in the NHL in chances for percentage this season, which means they get outchanced more than any other team. In fact, the Sabres’ teams of the previous three seasons and the 2012-13 Oilers were the only teams in the last decade to allow a higher percentage of scoring chances. These were teams with far worse winning percentages than the 2015-16 Canucks.
Of all 215 defensemen that have played at least 150 minutes at 5-on-5 situations this season, Luca Sbisa is 215th in chances against (in other words, allowing scoring chances). Here’s a visual representation of where he stands relative to other Canucks’ defensemen over the last few seasons.
Jessop also mentions that according to colleague Nick Mercadante, the Canucks have the sixth-best goaltending after scoring chances (5v5 adjGSAA/60). For more on this comparative goaltending tool, check out his article on Blueshirt Banter.
Among qualified leaders, Ryan Miller isn’t even in the top 30 in either goals-against average, and his recent play puts him just outside of the top 20 in save percentage. Jacob Markstrom is barely inside the top 20 in both categories. As much as Canucks’ fans have criticized the goaltending this season (Miller in particular), the goaltenders have compensated for the team in front of them on many occasions.
In his earlier-mentioned interview, Gallagher suggests that the defense should focus on forcing teams to take shots more from the outside. However, that may be easier said than done with a defense that gives up a large amount of rebounds and allows teams to sustain continuous offensive pressure.
So how did it get to this point for the Canucks’ defense corps? Just five seasons ago, the Canucks’ defense was the envy of the NHL. But many of the veterans aged and began to trickle away. Christian Ehrhoff signed a lucrative contract with Buffalo. Sami Salo also left as a free agent for Tampa Bay. Jason Garrison was signed as a free agent in 2012, but he was traded to Tampa Bay to clear cap space. Kevin Bieksa no longer fit the Canucks’ plans and was traded to Anaheim.
So it is clear that upgrading the defense should be a major offseason priority for the Canucks. With Dan Hamhuis out with a facial injury, Alexander Edler and Chris Tanev have had to shoulder the load as the well-used first-unit pairing. Edler in particular has struggled at times, the strain of playing over 24 minutes per game weighing on him to the point in which he has made numerous crucial errors in his own zone.
Acquiring more depth on defense, both through the draft and through free agency, will ease the burden on Edler and Tanev. With about $17 million in salary cap dollars coming off the books at the end of the season (Cap Friendly), the Canucks will have some flexibility to make a move in the free agent market. Resigning the 33-year-old Hamhuis at a reduced amount is one possibility, but the Canucks may be better off trying to get younger at that position.
The Canucks’ farm system is relatively thin on defensemen, although Jordan Subban is a possibility to make the team next season. Subban has been strong offensively in the AHL this year (19 points in 32 games), but at 5’9” and 178 pounds is significantly smaller than the average NHL defender. But according to Canucks’ GM Jim Benning, Subban still needs to work on his game in his own end without the puck (Vancity Buzz).
As for upgrading the defense right now, the Canucks have virtually no cap room. So on the team’s current path, making the playoffs will be a difficult task, even in a watered-down Pacific Division.