Let’s not go overboard, people. Edler is a great defenceman: he leads the Canucks in average ice-time, powerplay time, and points from the defense. But he is not the Canucks’ top defenceman. To be quite frank, the Canucks don’t have a “top defenceman.” Edler is merely a very good defenceman who plays with other very good defencemen. No one is doubting his contributions to the Canucks or that those contributions will be sorely missed, but there are too many components missing to label him the Canucks’ top defenceman. While he has the potential, he is not yet a number one defenceman.
Edler is putting up fantastic offensive numbers and was set to surpass last season’s point-total until this setback. But he’s been putting up those numbers while playing some of the most sheltered minutes on the Canucks. While he leads the Canucks in average time-on-ice, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Firstly, he’s leading that statistic by just over one minute and is playing approximately the same number of shifts per game as Dan Hamhuis. The top-four defencemen for the Canucks are all averaging over 22 minutes per game. Combine them with Keith Ballard, who averaged 22:24 per game with the Florida Panthers last season, and you have five Canucks defencemen capable of playing top-four minutes. Conveniently, that is one more than they needed.
First, let’s look at his Quality of Competition. Of Canucks players to play at least 20 games this season (weeding out players like Peter Schaefer), Edler is 11th on the team in the quality of opponents he faces. Of the defence, he’s 4th, well behind Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa in the statistic. The Ham-Juice defensive pairing continually faces the top competition night in and night out, leaving Edler and Ehrhoff to a much easier task. In comparison, players who are rightly called number one defencemen around the league generally face much stiffer competition. Duncan Keith is third on his team, just behind his defensive partner Brent Seabrook. Zdeno Chara is second on his team, first amongst the defence. Shea Weber is first in quality of competition in Nashville and Dan Boyle leads defencemen in the category in San Jose. There are exceptions, of course. The aforementioned Chris Pronger is 9th on his team, third amongst defencemen. Keep in mind, however, the injury troubles he faced and the improved depth on the Flyer’s blueline; they appear to be sheltering him somewhat. Last season, he led the Flyers’ defence in quality of competition and will likely see that number rise as the season progresses.
There are other considerations, of course. I’ve shown the quality of competition Edler faces, but that’s just one component of the situations he plays in. Another area to consider is zone starts. Where do Edler’s shifts begin? A whopping 59.2% of Edler’s shifts begin in the offensive zone. This places him fourth on the Canucks, first amongst defencemen1. For perspective, that’s the 12th most favorable O-Zone start percentage in the entire NHL amongst defencemen. It’s clear from this stat combined with his quality of competition that Edler is not asked to focus on the defensive side of the ice. This isn’t a knock on Edler, just an acknowledgment of his strengths as an offensive player.
Again, let’s compare this to other defencemen who are considered number one defencemen. Duncan Keith is 12th on the Blackhawks, Zdeno Chara is 14th on the Bruins, Shea Weber is 12th on the Predators, and Dan Boyle is 12th on the Sharks. Each of these players plays in all situations but trends towards below 50% in offensive zone starts as they are counted on in tough situations. Edler is not.
Finally, let’s look at a breakdown of Edler’s time-on-ice. As mentioned above, Edler’s icetime doesn’t tower over his teammates as the icetime of number one defencemen generally do (Dan Boyle is averaging almost 6 minutes more icetime per game than his closest teammate). In addition, Edler gets almost twice as many minutes per game on the powerplay than he does shorthanded. Bieksa and Hamhuis, unsurprisingly, log the most shorthanded minutes. Again, a comparison with number one defencemen in terms of shorthanded time-on-ice: Duncan Keith leads his team, Zdeno Chara leads his team, and Dan Boyle leads his team. Shea Weber ends up in a situation much like Edler’s and sees most of his special teams icetime on the powerplay. Chris Pronger, on the other hand, is second on his team for defencemen in shorthanded icetime despite his slightly sheltered minutes this season. Unsurprisingly, last season he led his team.
Not one of these stats is definitive on its own. In each category, a comparison can be drawn to a player who is considered a number one defenceman. Combined, however, and they paint a picture of a defenceman used primarily in offensive situations against easier competition. This is not a coincidence: the strength of the Canucks’ defensive corps allows Edler (and Ehrhoff, but no one’s running around claiming he’s a number one defenceman) the luxury of playing with two of the top offensive players in the NHL in prime offensive opportunities, just like the strength of the Canucks’ forwards allows the Sedins the same luxury. Edler’s skill and poise is what earned him that position and he’s an extremely valuable player to the Canucks. The powerplay will certainly miss his slapshot from the point and, more importantly, his sublime passing skills, but he’s not the versatile, one-man show that a true number one defenceman needs to be. He doesn’t play in all situations, he doesn’t shutdown the opposition’s best players, and he doesn’t start on the penalty kill; he is not a number one defenceman.
Fortunately for the Canucks, they don’t need him to be.
1. It’s interesting to see the Sedins and Burrows at the top of the list and Manny Malhotra at the bottom. A big reason for the Sedins skyrocketing offensively is the increasingly sheltered minutes they have been able to play. It’s also a big reason why Malhotra, Torres, and Hansen haven’t been scoring a whole lot of points. Also note Keith Ballard’s position on that list: you can stop wondering why he hasn’t been scoring like many Canucks’ fans had hoped.