The Canucks’ defensive depth chart is a hot mess right now

You may have noticed that the Canucks are all in a pretty good mood lately. Alain Vigneault’s most recent interview on the Team 1040 was a gigglefest shy of the sprightliest I’ve ever seen him. The sometimes surly Ryan Kesler was a downright delight when we spoke with him yesterday over the phone. Cory Schneider spent the entirety of After Hours doing impressions (his Barack Obama was especially sublime) and shadow puppets (Barack Shadow-bama was the highlight).

And frankly, why wouldn’t they be chipper? The Canucks prioritized not getting hurt over winning nearly a month ago — the only wrinkle in this plan being when Daniel Sedin leapt headfirst into Duncan Keith’s elbow like an idiot — and yet, somehow, a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy is within their reach. And, more importantly, it sounds like pretty much everyone from Daniel to Aaron Volpatti will be ready for the playoffs. The outlook is positive.

In fact, the only problem the Canucks face now is determining who among this sudden plethora of healthy bodies will play in Game 1. It’s a good problem to have, of course, but it’s still going to be a tough call, especially on the back end. The Canucks’ defensive depth chart is a hot mess right now.

The Canucks have been toying with alternate pairings and giving core players days off for weeks. Saturday versus the Flames, they iced a defensive top six of Dan Hamhuis with Chris Tanev, Alex Edler with Marc-Andre Gragnani, and Sami Salo with Andrew Alberts.

This was made possible in part by Kevin Bieksa missing his 3rd straight game for maintenance, which is code for: an injury we’d prefer not to disclose, for fear that opponents will slash that area to dust in the playoffs. As Bieksa told Jason Botchford Tuesday, he’s “just going to take it once maintenance day at a time,” but his month of Sundays will come to an end this week. He’ll be back on the top shutdown pairing with Dan Hamhuis by the time the postseason begins.

Additionally, I’d expect to see Sami Salo reunited with Alex Edler  on the Canucks’ second unit, at least for game 1. Salo has looked a little slow of late and the Canucks have been experimenting with deploying him in a bottom pairing role recently, but he remains the first option for Edler’s right side. I’d hazard a guess that he starts the playoffs there.

Any way you slice it, those four blueliners — Bieksa, Hamhuis, Salo, and Edler — will be in the lineup when the Canucks open the playoffs at home. But what about the final two slots?

My guess is that Chris Tanev is a lock as well. His play since his recall has been as calm and collected as ever, and the Canucks’ coaching staff appears to have grown to trust him in a top-four role. On Saturday, he played a career-high 23:03 of icetime alongside Dan Hamhuis and didn’t look out of place at all.

This upward mobility, not to mention his right-handedness, should make him indispensable. If either Sami Salo or Kevin Bieksa were to go out with an injury during a game, Tanev could step into their spot in a pinch without the Canucks’ top four taking much of a hit.

And so, like my doctor, we turn our attention to the strange cluster on the left side of the bottom pair.

Marc-Andre Gragnani has been excellent the last two games playing with Alex Edler. The Canucks may have stumbled into a discount Christian Ehrhoff (like, a crazy discount, like $40 million off) in the former Sabre. Will Alain Vigneault be able to justify sitting him if he finishes the regular-season campaign at the same level we saw from him this weekend?

Will Vigneault be able to say no to Aaron Rome, who is as true a number six as the one that seduced Gaius Baltar? Vigneault has shown a weakness for Rome’s steady, low-event play over the past two years. With Rome rumoured to be ready to return to the lineup for game 1 after his knee injury in Colorado, you can never rule out the possibility that Vigneault will let him.

Additionally, Andrew Alberts has been playing well lately and is always an option, although he appears to have become the poor man’s Aaron Rome, which is a hilariously sad nickname. One assumes that, if both he and Rome are healthy, Rome gets the nod.

But let’s not forget Keith Ballard, who looks to be ready to return from his concussion. Will he draw back in, or has he been passed on the depth chart by two of Gragnani, Tanev, Alberts, and Rome? Ballard has struggled to earn the trust of the coaching staff since he arrived in Vancouver — will they be willing to throw him back into the mix after more than a month off? I have my doubts.

So there’s the question, all: who comprises the Canucks’ top-six in game 1 of the playoffs?

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25 comments

  1. ArtemChubarov
    April 3, 2012

    Yey, you used “low-event” to describe a bottom pairing defenseman. My work here is done.

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  2. Warpstone
    April 3, 2012

    Comparing Rome to Number 6 is someone off-putting (i.e. red dress…). But comparing AV to Baltar… really creepy. Think of AV air-kissing (or worse) like Baltar did for most of season 1…

    I see the bottom 6 berth to be a swiss-army knife decision. I expect Tanev or Salo will be able to cope with any combination of left-sided #6s.

    BTW, Gragnani quietly impressed playing on the right-side a few games ago. Usually, Rome has been the lefty to play on his off-side, but if the Canucks are up against a team that’s not overly physical and prone to getting killed by penalties (cough.San Jose.cough), Gragnani becomes a tempting choice for the #7 spot in case of injury.

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  3. bitterguy
    April 3, 2012

    best 6 is still

    ham/juice
    edler/salo
    ballard/tanev

    but i doubt ballard will be back and up to speed by game 1, so replace with rome.

    also, please do forget baumgartner. he should never ever see the ice for the canucks, playoffs or otherwise.

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    • Hips
      April 3, 2012

      God help us if we are ever so injured that we have no choice but to use baumer.

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      • Parker
        April 3, 2012

        If we were to start calling up the Wolves, would we start with Baumer, or call up Connauton first??

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    • Micheal
      April 3, 2012

      I like Baumgartner. I wouldn’t be averse to calling him up if we had injuries.

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  4. Showbot
    April 3, 2012

    Would love some Ballard, dude can skate like a beast.

    Hell, if MayRay gets injured, but Ballard in his place as a forward.

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    • Micheal
      April 3, 2012

      I’d like to see Ballard as a forward. Either him or Gragnani can seemingly play a forward position Canucks: bringin’ back the rover.

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      • Sean
        April 3, 2012

        Wasn’t MAG originally a forward at one point in his career? Or something…?

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        • Micheal
          April 3, 2012

          Gragnani played left wing in Buffalo so says Wikipedia.

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    • Lindsay
      April 3, 2012

      Yes! I’ve always wanted to see this! Guess the playoffs isn’t the place to try it out though… Shoulda tried that instead of having Andrew Alberts as #12 earlier in the season.

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  5. RG
    April 3, 2012

    Rome goes in to throw an ill-timed headshot to spark up a boring series and bring the other team roaring back. ;)

    (Too soon?)

    Or to score 3 goals in 2 games like he did earlier in the season.

    That guy’s a mystery.

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  6. Andre
    April 3, 2012

    Some of the late play by Salo has been more troublesome than you suggest. Just a titch slower may cross the fine line between Hmmm and “Oh-Nooooo!”

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  7. Frank
    April 3, 2012

    Individually, Tanev and Gragnani are the most talented players that could make a bottom pairing it seems. However, I don’t think that AV would put two rookies on a line together. So it probably will be Rome or Ballard playing with Tanev as the bottom pairing. Ballard and Tanev seemed to gel well last year. Let’s just hope that Ballard returns to form. Rome and/or Alberts could slot in when the opponent is bigger or plays a more physical game.
    Or more interesting would be to play Tanev with Edler as the second pairing and drop Salo to the third with Gragnani, Ballard or Rome. That way Salo could play less minutes in the beginning of the play-offs…

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  8. Niloc009
    April 3, 2012

    “And so, like my doctor, we turn our attention to the strange cluster on the left side of the bottom pair.”

    Excuse me while I go throw up.

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    • Lindsay
      April 3, 2012

      No way! I loved it! I copied it to quote too.

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    • Brent
      April 4, 2012

      Ya WAY too much information, not puke worthy, but too much.

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  9. Zach Morris
    April 3, 2012

    you just totally jinxed the Canuck’s health.

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  10. Mike S.
    April 3, 2012

    I suspect we’re looking at Bieksa-Hamhuis, Edler-Salo, and Tanev-Rome.

    We remember how good Bieksa and Hamhuis were together, and here’s hoping we can rekindle the magic of their playoffs fling last year. Oh, and Bieksa’s recent maintenance days? Money’s on him growing out his beard in preparation for the post-season, and phoning Don Cherry so that he gets his name pronounce properly on national television.

    Edler and Salo because why not, let’s put our offensively-minded d-men in one basket. Arguably, the bottom four can be interchanged at will, in addition to whoever’s scratched. We don’t really have one go-to guy who stands out as the top man defensively, but Edler and Salo are mainstays, so let’s stick with them. I like Gragnani and Salo from what I’ve seen, but Gragnani has been pretty week defensively since joining the Canucks, save these past two games. I don’t think that the playoffs are a time to figure out your place on the team.

    Tanev and Rome because they’re both reasonably solid defensively. Tanev doesn’t usually do anything regarding the opponents’ net, and we’ve seen Aaron Rome literally coast in and around the net for no real reason.

    OdD-Men Out:

    Andrew Alberts

    Remember when we called him a pylon, and every shift we cringed and prayed that he’d get off the ice, because we were sure that the other guys would score? Now it’s only every second shift. I still believe that his goal against Dallas was the by-product of two mysterious forces –

    1. Every Canuck scores when we play Dallas. We play Dallas about four times per season. 2 out of 4 of those games over the past few years, Canuck players have netted 4 goals or more.

    2. It was probably a hallucination. I still don’t believe it was Alberts.

    Marc-Andre Gragnani

    See above. Although, we HAVE needed a Christian Ehrhoff to replace the Ehrhoff we lost. Also, Marc-Andre Bergeron has been deep into the playoffs a few times of late, and this guy is also a Marc-Andre… coincidence?

    Keith Ballard

    Who? I remember how he smacked Tomas Vokoun in the mask with his stick in frustration, and then nothing for a couple years. Don’t get me wrong, I like Ballard. Even though he’s no Bobby Orr, nor is he Ray Bourque or Nick Lidstrom. Surely there’s a good reason he’s getting paid $4.2mil. Surely there’s a good reason for him playng 82 games per season with Phoenix and Florida before coming here. Surely.

    Don’t forget about Nolan Baumgartner, Ryan Parent, Yann Sauve and Kevin Connauton, players that can be called up at any time to make sure that we have enough people in the press box. Speaking of Dallas and Yann Sauve…

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  11. the real bob
    April 3, 2012

    you cursed MAG! he had an awful game tonight

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  12. Chris T.
    April 3, 2012

    Rome gets the nod as the 6.

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  13. Amor de Cosmos
    April 4, 2012

    I think the left side defensive choice will be situational. It’s going to tough to dump Ballard in at the deep end after being out so long, also he’s always one attempted flashy play/pass away from disaster. Probably last choice. Gragnani looked OK until last night’s game against the Ducks, only to be used when necessary. Which leaves the traditional duo of Rome and Alberts. I’m a fan of AA, he’s slower than a cargo ship in English Bay but checks hard, and rarely gets wrong side of his forward. His +/- is also slightly better than Rome’s. Truth is they’ll both probably get a shot.

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  14. George Stevens
    April 4, 2012

    As long as Gragnani plays at least one more game to hit 80 in his career to stop him from becoming a UFA – I’m fine with any of our d-men playing.

    They all have their strengths and weaknesses and it’s not like we’re throwing in some AHL bambi or 40 year old vetran rental on the ice.

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  15. Stinkpickle
    April 4, 2012

    I remember Ballard and Tanev playing well together last year as a pairing. Also, Connauton gets the nod over Baumer. No disrespect to Baumer, but its been years since he was considered a viable call up option.

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  16. Smokey
    April 4, 2012

    Canucks’ depth chart doesn’t follow the typical “top six” pattern, that’s for sure. I think it’s most accurate right now to break them down by threes, although earlier in the season I was thinking along a “top-four, bottom-four” ranking. So, you’ve got: Hamhuis, Bieksa, Edler; Salo, Tanev, Ballard; Rome, Gragnani, Alberts. Or if you’re Coach V, swap Rome and Ballard.

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