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Can the Canucks' blue line get better next season without big changes?

June 18, 2021, 1:54 PM ET [273 Comments]
Carol Schram
Vancouver Canucks Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
In Travis Green's four seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, the club ranks 26th overall in goals against, averaging 3.14 goals against per game.

New Jersey, Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo and Ottawa rank below them. And they're actually pretty close to the five teams right above them — Florida (3.08), Edmonton (3.10), San Jose and the Rangers (both 3.12) and Philadelphia (3.13).

Of course, those numbers come despite some pretty solid goaltending along the way. I thought it might be more instructive to look at shots allowed, but once again, the Canucks are 26th, averaging 32.5 shots allowed per game. The same five teams are below them, but the order is shuffled a bit — it's actually Chicago that has given up the highest average number of shots per game.

I've been dabbling a little bit in advanced stats lately, so I took a peek at Evolving Hockey, one of the more well-known public analytic sites these days.

They don't offer a multi-season overview like I cited above. But when I looked at the Canucks in 2020-21, their expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60) came out worst in the league, at 2.8 — based on 5-on-5 play, adjusted for score and venue, of course.

Last season alone, the Canucks were also 26th in goals against (3.34) and 29th in shots allowed (33.4). No matter which way you want to slice it, the team needs to improve its defensive play next season if it hopes to battle for a playoff spot.

Hopefully, some of that improvement will come naturally, with the divisions being re-aligned back to normal and a schedule that will allow for more rest between games. And the Canucks won't have to deal with Montreal nine times next season! They were by far the biggest offensive challenge that Vancouver faced, scoring an average of 4.56 goals per game in their nine matchups against the Canucks.

Despite all the hurt that the Canadiens put on our home team this year, I'm finding myself rooting for them against Vegas — and I generally like Vegas. It's not so much about Tyler Toffoli; it's mostly because no one is giving them a chance. Also, they're doing an impressive job of rolling with the punches. Getting Jeff Petry back from injury earlier than expected was crucial for them in Game 2. And those eyes! We'll remember these memes for a long, long time.

And here's some Canucks content: as I'm writing this on Friday morning, Montreal coach Dominique Ducharme has been sent home due to an irregularity in his Covid test.

Alex Burrows, come on down!

Anyway...back to the blue line...

Like I said, a more normal schedule should help the Canucks handle themselves better next year, no matter who's on the back end. I'm also hoping that Brad Shaw's defense-first approach brings a tighter structure than we've been seeing.

As for the blue-line personnel — at this point, only Tyler Myers, Nate Schmidt and Jack Rathbone are under contract for next season.

Let's go out on a limb and assume that Quinn Hughes and Olli Juolevi are re-signed. I'd also like to see Travis Hamonic come back. I thought he gelled nicely with Hughes during the second half of the season, and played with lots of bite and intensity when the team came back after the Covid pause.

Averaging 20:26 of ice time, he scored eight of his 10 points for the season in those final 19 games, led the Canucks in penalty minutes, with 31, and delivered an even plus-minus (as did Vancouver's other key UFA defenseman, Alex Edler).

While Hamonic's desire to stay in Western Canada led him to sign a bargain $1.25 million contract with the Canucks this season, it sounds like he's not going to be willing to grant the same type of concession going forward.

Earlier this week, Elliottte Friedman offered up a tidbit on Hamonic's plans:

My first assumption is that this is a bargaining ploy, teasing the idea that Hamonic has options in order to extract more money from the Canucks. If he was really intent on leaving, I don't think there's any reason why that needs to be made public right now.

But what the Canucks can do under the cap won't be determined until they know how much they'll have to commit to Hughes and Elias Pettersson. If that drags on, and Hamonic doesn't want to wait, he could end up signing somewhere else if the money and fit is right for him.

I value Hamonic more than Edler, at this stage, because he's a righty. Even if Schmidt plays on the right side next season, the Canucks still have Hughes/Rathbone/Juolevi down the left side.

Yeah, that's young. But I want to see Rathbone moved into a meaningful full-time role next season. And I think Juolevi can handle third-pairing minutes as long as he's paired with an appropriate veteran partner — which would be Schmidt or Myers, if Hamonic comes back and plays with Hughes again.

Of course, the expansion draft is also a consideration when signing any player to a new deal. But it looks like the Canucks would have room to re-up Hamonic before that, if they choose.

According to CapFriendly, Olli Juolevi came in four games under the expansion draft exposure threshold, so he remains exempt. So are Hughes and Rathbone. At the moment, the only three defensemen in the system who fit the protection requirements are Myers, Schmidt and trade-deadline acquisition Madison Bowey.

At least one eligible defenseman is required to be exposed. I'd assume that'll be Bowey although — who knows — maybe the Canucks will take a flyer and see if they can get the cap hit of Myers or Schmidt off their books? If that happens, though, they'd immediately be back in the market for a defenseman. It might only make sense if they thought they had a real crack at locking up Seth Jones or Dougie Hamilton for the long term.

So with all that being said: If Hamonic and the Canucks can come to terms on an agreement, there is room to sign him and give him a protection slot before the expansion draft.

One other quick point: in the 2017-18 season, the New York Islanders were the worst defensive team in the league (3.57 goals against per game). One year later, after signing Barry Trotz, they were the best (2.33).

I'm not saying Brad Shaw will be as impactful as Trotz. But they still had a cobbled-together netminding duo of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss at that point. And their defense group didn't really change that much.

They had some injuries in the 2017-18 season, but their top six in terms of total ice time was Nick Leddy, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Thomas Hickey, Johnny Boychuk and Scott Mayfield.

One year later, the top six was Pulock, Leddy, Mayfield, Pelech, Boychuk and Devon Toews.

Boychuk has now retired, and essentially been replaced by another veteran, Andy Greene. Toews was traded to Colorado; replaced by up-and-coming Noah Dobson.

The Islanders have used the same six defensemen for their entire playoff run so far this season. By ice time: Pulock, Pelech, Leddy, Mayfield, Greene, Dobson. Four were drafted, between Rounds 1 and 3; Leddy and Greene were acquired by trade.

My point here is that the no-name group that got blamed for the Islanders' poor defensive play turned things around in a hurry once Trotz arrived, and has continued to stay strong. I'm not saying I expect the Canucks to turn into defensive dynamos next season. But the Islanders give me hope that a turnaround is possible without significant personnel changes, and that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.
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