It’s very easy to look at the Canucks’ 2-3-1 start and place a large portion of blame on their goaltender, Roberto Luongo. After all, his 3.70 GAA and .856 SV% places him near the bottom of the league. This is one of those cases, however, where the stats don’t tell the whole story. The defensive breakdowns in front of the Canucks’ goaltenders have been a major contributor to the Canucks’ struggles so far and it’s clear that the coaching staff is thinking the same thing.

The juggling of defence pairings has begun in earnest, as even last season’s stalwart duo of Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa, or HamJuice as they’re affectionately known, have been split up. The reasoning is simple: the Canucks just don’t have enough right side defencemen.

The Canucks have only two right-handed defencemen on the active roster: Sami Salo and Kevin Bieksa. Both are most comfortable on the right side. Christian Ehrhoff, last season, was the third defenceman on the right side; he is one of the few left-handed defencemen who prefers to play on the right. With him gone and Chris Tanev (another right-handed defenceman) sent down to the AHL, one defenceman needs to play on his off side.

While many defenceman are able to play on their off side, it can take some time to make the adjustment and some players really struggle to adapt. One of the reasons that Keith Ballard may have fallen out of favour with Alain Vigneault last season is his inability to play on the right side. When Sami Salo missed the majority of last season, the coaching staff needed their defence to be flexible to make up for his absence, and Ballard’s lack of flexibility likely contributed to his time spent in the pressbox.

It’s understandable why Ballard prefers the left side. Take a look at his history of hip checks on YouTube: every single hit is made with his left hip. It’s one of his favourite tactics and a huge part of his defensive tool kit. It also requires perfect positioning.

And that’s the issue: proper positioning is difficult to learn when you’re playing on your off side. Combine that with the normal difficulties of learning to play with a new defensive partner and some of the communication and positioning issues that the Canucks’ defence have had to start the season begin to make more sense.

This is why last game we saw Ballard with Bieksa and Alberts with Salo. They clearly don’t want to pair Ballard or Alberts with someone on their off side: that’s just asking for trouble. So they put together two of their most reliable defencemen, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler, with Edler playing on his off side, hoping that their reliability would overcome this issue.

It didn’t.

Hamhuis and Edler both finished minus-3 on the night and their defensive struggles cost the Canucks the game. There was a lot of talk last season about how Hamhuis steadied Bieksa’s game, but it’s clearly equally important that Hamhuis play with a defenceman comfortable with the right side.

Let’s take a look at two of the goals from last night’s game against the Rangers: on Mike Rupp’s opener, Edler pokechecks one defenceman but then gets caught standing still, neither taking away the shot nor turning in time to pick up Rupp on the rebound. The Rangers’ second goal, from Ryan McDonagh, can be partly pinned on Alex Burrows and Daniel Sedin blowing the zone early, hoping for a 2-on-1, but Edler gets caught in-between two players. Instead of taking away the passing option and leaving the puck-carrier for Luongo, Edler gets caught in the middle and goes down to block the pass too late.

Both those goals can be attributed to Edler’s difficulty in adjusting to the right-hand side.

Ideally, Tanev would be the Canucks’ third right side defenceman, but his early struggles and contract status made it easy to send him down. And once Aaron Rome returns from injury, the picture gets even more murky as he is, you guessed it, left-handed. Rome has played on the right side when necessary (yet another reason Vigneault likes him so much), but is more comfortable on the left.

While it’s still early in the season, the coaching staff will need to figure out their defensive pairings soon, or we’ll be seeing more and more defensive breakdowns.

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12 comments

  1. Immie_8
    October 19, 2011

    Thanks for this. So assuming that the Canucks top 4 will consist of Bieksa, Edler, Hamhuis, and Ballard – someone is going to have to learn to play on the right. (Unless a trade happens.). If this is the case then I kind of hope the juggling on the defense stops. Of course it’s going to suck in the beginning – the learning curve is probably pretty steep, but experience, in this case, is the only real teacher.

    Since it looks like Edler’s the one who they’re trying to switch, I’m wondering which of the remaining left-side defensemen seem to be a better match. Ballard or Hamhuis?

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    • Daniel Wagner
      October 19, 2011

      I have a feeling they’ll reunite Bieksa and Hamhuis right quick. They were used as the shutdown pair all last season; if they want to staunch the bleeding, that’s a good place to start. After that, the best option would be to have Salo step into the top four to play alongside Edler, but the Canucks seem to be limiting Salo’s minutes at even strength early this season. He has the fewest even-strength minutes of the defencemen who have played all six games. Otherwise, you could pretty easily make Ballard and Alberts (or Sulzer or Rome) the bottom pairing.

      Because they’re trying to limit Salo’s minutes, however, it’s a bit more difficult. The issue with pairing Ballard and Edler together is that it limits Edler’s offensive flexibility in the same way that him skating with Ehrhoff last season did. With Ballard constantly wanting to jump up into the play and rush the puck, Edler would have to be more of a stay-at-home defenceman to compensate. The only other option, unfortunately, would be to pair Edler with Alberts. While it might work, Alberts is not a big-minute guy.

      You can see why it gets complicated really quickly and why they tried pairing Edler with Hamhuis and Ballard with Bieksa.

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      • bergberg
        October 20, 2011

        Maybe I missed something, but why aren’t they pairing Salo and Edler anymore? You say they are limiting Salo’s minutes – is he injured? Or do they no longer trust him to stay healthy?

        At least then we have two pretty solid pairings, and the bottom pairing can be sorted out.

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  2. critically canuck
    October 19, 2011

    A very insightful piece. Thanks.

    For two periods last night, the new pairings looked solid. After the first Ranger goal, things seemed to come apart.

    Presumably Tanev’s demotion to Chicago has more to do with contract status than anything else?

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    • Daniel Wagner
      October 19, 2011

      Yeah, Tanev’s demotion is definitely contract related, though he was struggling early and was a healthy scratch twice. But he and Hodgson were the only two players on the roster who were exempt from waivers and there was no way that Hodgson was getting sent down. I assume they didn’t want to risk Sulzer or Ebbett getting claimed on waivers, so sent down Tanev instead.

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  3. invisibleairwaves
    October 19, 2011

    I wonder if Gillis is waiting until Mason Raymond’s return (and the ensuing surplus of non-waiver-exempt forwards) to make a move for another right-side defenceman. Given the attitude he’s demonstrated towards building a deep blueline corps, it’s hard to imagine he would be willing to go through the season and into the playoffs with a shortage on one side even before the inevitable spate of injuries (Rome notwithstanding).

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    • Daniel Wagner
      October 19, 2011

      I suppose that Gillis could try to add another right-side defenceman, but I suspect they’ll try to get Edler to adapt to the right side instead. They could try Hamhuis on the right side instead, but he and Bieksa were such an effective pair last season, so I expect they’ll put those two back together.

      It’s a bit of an unexpected side of losing Ehrhoff in the off-season. Everyone was focused on his offence but missed that the Canucks would need someone to take his spot on the right side. The question is, who’s available in the trade market that would fill that role? It might be easier (and less costly) to adapt a current defenceman.

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      • invisibleairwaves
        October 19, 2011

        It would be great if Edler became comfortable with playing the right side, but his struggles so far this season indicate that there’s a good possibility it might not work out.

        The Leafs are one team rumoured to be shopping defencemen around, and I’m sure there’s others. Failing that, Bryan McCabe is still unsigned and able to play both si…okay, I couldn’t even finish that sentence because of how horrible an idea it is.

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        • immie_8
          October 19, 2011

          I think that Elder should be given a few more games with the same defense partner to see if he can adjust to playing on the right-side. (It’s only been two games he’s played that side, IIRC.) It really would be the ideal situation and I think that Edler is capable of adjusting.

          The thing I see as being more of an issue is that, like Daniel said above, the most likely pairing would be Edler/Ballard, which would probably limit Edler’s offensive opportunity.

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  4. invisibleairwaves
    October 19, 2011

    Actually, now that I think about it, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a defenceman coming back in a deal. Trading away an unnecessary roster player for a pick or prospect would free up a roster spot and cap space for Tanev and/or Rome. A big chunk of the problem here is that the Canucks simply have too many forwards on the roster and the defense is suffering as a result.

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    • Daniel Wagner
      October 19, 2011

      Well, Rome is still on the IR. The number of forwards on the roster is not the reason he’s not in the lineup. I think they’re waiting to see if any further injuries develop prior to Raymond’s return; they don’t want to lose any players they don’t have to. You can see the example of Sami Salo last season: his injury allowed the Canucks to keep Bieksa on the injury and by the time Salo was ready to return there were other injuries. I think they’ll do their best to hang on to guys like Ebbett and Sturm as injury insurance. That’s why Tanev is the guy they sent down. He’ll also be the first defenceman called up in case of injuries to the defence.

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  5. BeCanucks
    October 19, 2011

    You cannot dismiss Bieksa struggles in this beginning of season (bad pinches, timing a bit off, …) but to the people complaining that he’s only playing well in contract season, please remember the guy lost a close friend to suicide this summer.
    Our whole groupe of guys is going to struggle mentally, they have to grieve collectively and it’s a time and energy consuming process.
    At the end of the day, it’s a game, it’s entertainment. I really love it, I sometimes take it way too seriously, but you have to be able to take a step back sometimes.

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