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Canucks Move Toward Skill With New-Look Defense

The offseason of 2015 will be remembered as one of change for fans of the Vancouver Canucks. Gone are fan favourites Eddie Lack and Kevin Bieksa. In their place are Jacob Markstrom and Matt Bartkowski. More specifically, the identity of the Canucks’ blue line has changed with the subtraction of Kevin Bieksa and the addition of Matt Bartkowski and/or Ben Hutton.

The Canucks have never had a huge blue line, but Bieksa brought an element of grit and physicality to the Canucks’ defence. He had 153 penalty minutes and 253 hits over 136 games for the Canucks’ during the past two seasons, including 9 fights. With the trade of Bieksa, this signaled two things for the Canucks. The youth movement for the team now includes the defence and grit is less important than the ability to move the puck.

Lets look at some other remaining Canuck defenders and their “grit”:

  • Edler had 206 hits and 104 PIMs over 137 games during the past 2 seasons.
  • Hamhuis had 169 hits and 70 PIMs during 134 games the past 2 seasons.
  • The past 2 seasons, Chris Tanev had 48 hits and 20 PIMS over 134 games.
  • Sbisa had 234 hits and 89 PIMs over the past 2 seasons while only playing in 96 games.
  • Over 114 games, Yannick Weber has 46 PIMs and 99 hits.
  • New addition Matt Bartkowski played in 111 games with the Boston Bruins over the past 2 seasons and had 243 hits and 67 PIMs.

Bartkowski is not known for his physicality, despite having similar size and hit counts as Bieksa. What he is known for is his ability to skate the puck up the ice, which Bieksa was not. Same with Hutton, who is not known for laying huge hits or dropping the gloves. However, what he is known for is the ability to hold onto the puck, skate up the ice and make a smart pass.

If you read scouting reports on the six defencemen who were on the roster for the 2015-16 season opener against the Calgary Flames, the main thing you will notice is their mobility. Alexander Edler, Dan Hamhuis, Chris Tanev, Luca Sbisa, Bartkowski, and Hutton are all praised for their mobility and ability to move the puck up the ice. That is a new look for the Canucks. No more two-on-ones with the second defenceman scrambling to get back.

What the new additions to the Canucks’ defence does is give the blue line added speed and mobility that has not been there in the past seasons. Mobile defence is a trend that is taking place in the NHL. When you look at up-and-coming teams like Calgary, Minnesota and recent Stanley Cup winners like Chicago and Los Angeles, this is a trend they are setting. Gone are the days when teams relied on defencemen to make big hits and to clear the front of the net. Teams are relying on their blue line to be involved with offence and helping the forwards posses the puck.

This is especially true of the past two Stanley Cup winners. The finalists all had good puck possession statistics from their defence and the Stanley Cup winners did not have a Corsi For % under 50% from their defence. The Canucks are hoping their blueliners will prove to be better possession wise with their new mobility.

While the Canucks do not have defencemen with the ability to produce huge point totals, the added mobility to their defence should increase their blue line’s offence totals as a whole. Greater puck possession by the blue line will also help their forwards. The fact the Canucks have ageing veterans as their main point producers is no surprise. Henrik and Daniel Sedin just turned 35, Alexandre Burrows is 34 and Radim Vrbata is 34.

The Canucks’ 2015-16 season opener against Calgary was a good test for the new look defence. One of the issues during the Canucks’ first round loss in the 2015 Playoffs was the speed of the defence. The 5-1 win in Calgary had the forwards’ complementing the speed of their back end. Especially noticeable was rookie Hutton, who was making his NHL debut against the Flames. Jannik Hansen had this to say about the rookie and the new defence in an interview with The Province:

“You see (Hutton) skate it out of trouble, skate it out of his own end? We weren’t getting hemmed in. It’s so huge for us forwards, when the D can do that. You saw how the pressure relieved when (Hutton) and Bart and Tan Man and Edler skated the puck out of trouble. It took a lot of pressure off their forecheck.”

The Canucks’ blue line picked up three assists in their season opener, which bodes well for this new look. Hutton even had his first NHL point with a nice pass to Hansen on the opening goal of the game.  Tanev and Hamhuis had assists in the opener as well.

In the highly competitive Pacific Division, the Canucks will look to their mobile defence to get the puck on net and to their forwards. If the Canucks make the playoffs, it will be because their balanced scoring includes their defence. Skating and passing the puck out of trouble will be a trademark of the Canucks’ blue line. Gone are the days of grit and massive hits, now reigns the fast and mobile team.

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