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.
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.Tags: Alberts, Bieksa, Canucks, Chris Tanev, Defence, Edler, featured, Hamhuis, HamJuice, Salo