Where the Canucks really missed Christian Ehrhoff

One of the questions we’ve been trying to answer all season is whether the Canucks miss Christian Ehrhoff. This question usually focusses in on the gap in the Canucks’ top four defence corps on Alex Edler’s right side. The Canucks struggled to find a consistent partner for Edler and it showed in the playoffs. What should have been a breakout season for Edler, as he set a career-high in points and went to his first All-Star Game, fizzled.

But when it came to points from the blue line, the Canucks did just fine in Ehrhoff’s absence. In fact, the Canucks improved. In 2010-11, the Canucks got 157 points from their defence. This season, thanks to career years from Edler, Bieksa, and Hamhuis, as well as a mostly healthy season from Salo, the Canucks got 180 points from their defence. Just looking at points, the Canucks didn’t miss Ehrhoff at all.

There was one area, however, where the Canucks dearly missed Ehrhoff, and it happened to revolve around his deepest flaw: unpredictability.

I wrote a post on fan perception and flaws at the beginning of March, where I talked about how Ehrhoff’s defensive miscues were largely ignored when he first got to town, but became more and more visible, and more and more of an issue as Canucks fans saw him game after game. Ehrhoff was, in a word, unpredictable, and it frequently got him into trouble in his own end.

The concern about his defensive ability was probably overblown by the time he left town last summer, and one of the issues with focussing so much on how his unpredictability hurt the team is that it was easy to overlook how it helped. Ehrhoff’s unpredictability is both a flaw and a feature of his game. Where I think this had the most impact on the team was on the powerplay.

That’s not really a revelation: of course the Canucks powerplay missed a player with 28 powerplay points and averaged over 3 and a half minutes per game on the powerplay. It’s easy to look at the team’s powerplay struggles over the second half of the season and see that something was missing. But that wasn’t the case at the beginning of the season, where the powerplay was on fire and led the league. No one was thinking about Ehrhoff’s absence at that point.

Then, sometime in January, the powerplay began to stink.

Daniel Sedin has suggested that the reason the powerplay struggled is that he and Henrik became too predictable. While that is just like the twins to take responsibility on their own shoulders, the truth is that the entire team became too predictable on the powerplay.

The most obvious example of this is the drop pass in the neutral zone. Early in the season, the drop pass was incredibly effective for gaining entry into the offensive zone. One player, normally Edler, would carry the puck through the neutral zone with speed, backing off the defence, before slowing and dropping the puck to another player with speed, who would hopefully catch the defence flat-footed. It worked very well for half a season.

After that, it got far too predictable. The opposing penalty killers could tell immediately when the drop pass was coming and Edler would follow the script every time. The one time he didn’t, he blew through the defence and scored a gorgeous end-to-end goal. The reason that goal happened is because Edler is predictable to a fault. No one, especially the Blue Jackets’ defence, expected him to do that.

In the playoffs, the drop pass became a terrifying prospect. Anze Kopitar jumped on one in game two, leading to a Dustin Brown shorthanded goal. Edler is good at a lot of things: being unpredictable is not one of them.

On the other hand, that was the strength of Ehrhoff’s game: he was unpredictable, which paid off on the powerplay. Opposition penalty killers could never really be sure where Ehrhoff would turn up next and the Sedins, with their superb vision, were able to take advantage of this. It added a wild card to the powerplay that made it hard to predict and, thus, hard to shut down.

Take a look at every goal Ehrhoff scored last season: he scored from everywhere on the ice. Some were one-timers from the blue line, but he found his way into the slot, the crease, the backdoor, and everywhere in between.

If the Canucks want to experience consistent success on the powerplay next season, they will need to figure out how to be unpredictable on the powerplay without Christian Ehrhoff. The most obvious answer would be to find a replacement Ehrhoff, someone with his unpredictable nature and offensive instincts. The two candidates that spring to mind are Keith Ballard and Marc-Andre Gragnani.

Ironically, the issue with the two of them is that they are even more unpredictable in the defensive zone than Ehrhoff.

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36 comments

  1. Schneider's Teeth
    May 3, 2012

    I think they need to experiment next season with Gragnani. Tell him he’s free to try whatever he wants on the powerplay and see if it works. Maybe start him on the 2nd unit and bump him up if it’s working. He probably reminded a few people of Ehrhoff with his frequent trips around the opposition net. I definitely think he’d possibly be a great fit on the first unit eventually.

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    • Mack
      May 3, 2012

      “Tell him he’s free to try whatever he wants on the powerplay and see if it works.”

      You really think Vigneault let’s that happen if he’s still here?

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    • Nick
      May 3, 2012

      I think they need to experiment with the idea of moving Gragnani. If they are any takers. I’m sure the Sabres would be lining up to reacquire him … not.

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  2. peanutflower
    May 3, 2012

    Yup, a Ballard/Gragnani pair up on the PP. How much more unpredictable could you get? I’ve always thought that Ballard has got the short end of the stick, so to speak, with the Canucks. He makes actually — and I’m sure someone will either confirm or deny this with stats — less mistakes than Ehrhoff did, although some of them are possibly more egregious, he hits better than Ehrhoff, he’s a better skater than Ehrhoff. The only thing he doesn’t have is a bomb slapshot a la Ehrhoff. Or maybe he does. We might never know. I say give the two rovers Ballard and Gragnani a shot on the PP. It might work out and at the very least it would be unpredictable and interesting. Come on, AV, take a chance!

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    • akidd
      May 3, 2012

      AV?!? that lozenge-munching, favourtist, ageist(never gives the young guys a chance) maniac who juggles lines like kittens?!!? what does he have to do with anything?!?

      (sorry, just getting ready for the inevitable about-face as AV looks to be soon joining the band of canuck exes. this AV saga btw is conspicuously absent from pitb. make sure you guys don’t miss the speculation train.)

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      • Daniel Wagner
        May 3, 2012

        What is there to say about AV? The only thing that can be reported is that nothing is happening.

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        • akidd
          May 3, 2012

          my fault. should read, “make sure you guys don’t miss the speculation train:)”

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  3. Locky
    May 3, 2012

    I think a lot of people overstate Ehrhoff’s defensive miscues. He was not quite reliable, but nor was he errorhoff. I’d be interested to see how much of those points out of defence were secondary assists this year compared to last year.

    Ultimately I *think* not re-signing Ehrhoff was a mistake. We had no-one to replace him with. Ballard doesn’t have the shot or a tenth of the passing ability, although I will grant you unpredictability. Gragnani needs to be killed with FIRE. One can rant about salary structure, but we clearly had scope for similar to his Buffalo deal, maybe shorter with a higher hit.

    Thankfully here in Australia the hockey season is just starting, so I get to wail and gnash my teeth all over again.

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    • peanutflower
      May 3, 2012

      what do you mean, hockey is just starting? they play hockey in Australia? On ice?

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      • Yuri
        May 3, 2012

        Can’t be. He’s confused. Must’ve meant Water Polo.

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      • nee
        May 3, 2012

        It’s going into winter now in Australia…

        But also, maybe he’s talking about field hockey?

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      • Dane
        May 3, 2012

        http://www.theaihl.com/

        Us Aussies get to watch hockey all year round. Sort of. I hear the Sydney Bears are putting together an offer to snag Luongo. Maybe for every other player on the roster?

        We’re pretty good at ice hockey. Managed to Win the Div II group A world championships last year! Then we lost every game this year :(

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        • Fitzy
          May 3, 2012

          Come on, just “pretty good”?

          We have the Darwin Ice Hockey Club – undefeated world champions. I think Australian ice hockey deserves a little more street cred. :)

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        • Andre
          May 4, 2012

          Watch your salary cap!

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    • Nick
      May 3, 2012

      Well put Locky. Ehrhoff is definitely missed, despite Henrik’s dismissive claim about how his points were easily replaced by Edler and Bieksa. In the latter part of the season and in the playoffs we saw a D corps that struggled to move the puck out of their zone. And a power play that was a shadow of the one in the previous two years when Ehrhoff was on it.

      Also agree with you (and the ecstatic Buffalo fans) about Gragnani, except for the part about killing him. You can’t just take a forward with good wheels and expect that he’ll be qood, smart defensive player. I hope I’m wrong about Gragnani, but I don’t think he’ll ever be much to get excited about.

      And if there’s any chance that AV is not here next season, then I don’t expect the next guy behind the bench will give Gragnani nearly as much rope.

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  4. Colby
    May 3, 2012

    Give me big Willie any day, I still cant believe management let him walk. I know he doesnt help the PP but I think he is going to haunt the Canucks for years to come.

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    • Tom
      May 3, 2012

      yeah, it is too bad, I agree. If I recall correctly, they were wary of signing him before he had completely recovered. I do distinctly remember though that Gillis said that they `definitely` had the financial means of signing him.

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    • Brent
      May 3, 2012

      Ya I hope Gillis learned from this. It certainly seems like it. He doesn’t seem to have given up on Raymond, and hopefully not on Kessler. A big soild defenseman is something we really need. Maybe after Willie wins the stanley cup this year he will resign with us?

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      • Colby
        May 3, 2012

        That would be nice, I think we cashed in the “Home Discount” with him once already though. I think he has given up on raymond, cant remember who tweeted it but I believe he was offered straight up for Ott.

        Raymond should be traded to Calgary, if only for his own good, he can light the lamp in Alberta.

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      • peanutflower
        May 3, 2012

        Kesler. Kesler. K-e-s-l-e-r. Kesler.

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  5. Nee
    May 3, 2012

    This is totally off topic obviously, but PITB wins the internet!

    strombone1
    “@passittobulis: Hey @strombone1, Where did you watch the DAL/VAN 40T in 07?At home? At work?” I blacked out that night, too many appletinis

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    • Brent
      May 3, 2012

      I am starting to think I will need to get a twitter account just for this. I pick up some of it on the sidebar list, but it only shows recent ones.

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      • Nee
        May 3, 2012

        It’s actually a great tool to get hockey news quickly (and to see amusing hockey tweets of course). I would recommend getting twitter. I have never tweeted anything…I just use it to follow a bunch of hockey writers and a few players. The TSN guys (Dreger, Mackenzie, Friedman) usually have interesting or insightful tweets. And the Van Sun and PITB guys are good for Canucks centric hockey news.

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    • Colby
      May 3, 2012

      Luongo = Future in Broadcasting?

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  6. Mt
    May 3, 2012

    Good article. Offensive unpridictablilty is hugely under-rated. This is also what we missed with Samuelsson. This is what Kesler is lacking so far to get to the next level (or stay at the one he was at last year). Great offensive players always have options and don’t know what they will do until the moment before.

    Players offensive unpredictability is often overlooked (as you seem to be suggesting) if they are the same way defensively. Especially by coaches who tend towards desiring predictability in both ends (sometimes to their detriment).

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  7. A Blueliner
    May 3, 2012

    Ugh.. digging up old scars… honestly, Ehrhoff was my favourite player. I don’t care how much flack i get about his defensive plays, but to me, I just love the way he plays. Had he re-signed with us, I would’ve gotten his jersey =(

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    • Nee
      May 3, 2012

      Another thing he should get more credit for is is durability. Last spring we had that 3 month span (Jan to end of reg season) where practically all our defensemen were injured except Ehrhoff. He was the anchor on our blueline and took alot of extra minutes for a prolonged period of time to get us through that stretch.

      And despite those injuries, we had the lowest Goals Against that year. Pretty impressive. (though obviously our goalies had ALOT to do with that)

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      • Micheal
        May 3, 2012

        Yeah… he was the one constant on the blueline last season.

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  8. akidd
    May 3, 2012

    erhoff was hard to figure out. there were times, mid-season before edler got hurt, that the 5-man unit of erhoff, edler, sedins and burrows was pure magic. it was a cohesive unit that was almost like five forwards once they got into the offensive zone. erhoff was a key element the way he saw the ice, the way he passed and the way he got the puck on net.

    but he also seemed like a key part of the same unit that often got stuck in the defensive zone for long shifts without any apparent hope of winning the puck back. it was hard to figure out who the liability was there, the sedins? or erhoff and edler?

    of course when erhoff rejected the ‘bieksa money’ that gillis offered him then immediately he was expendable and his role downplayed. even the sedins who are so polite said flatly that he wouldn’t be missed. and the media pretended he was never here. just like with mitchell. it’s pretty weird how poor this franchise can be with its exes.

    again, i don’t think the gillis made much of an effort to replace erhoff because of the fatigue factor of the team and the low probablilty that they would have the gas to go deep into the playoffs again. he’d better replace him for next year though if he wants to win.

    erhoff may have been a little soft in his own zone but by holding the line and making the smart play to keep the action going in the offensive zone the team didn’t have to spend as much time in its own zone.

    and ballard and gragnani are not the mature players that erhoff is. ballard may never be and gragnani has a lot of learning ahead of him. not ready for primetime yet. gillis needs to bring in a ringer. i don’t need to re-post the name of my favorite candidate.

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  9. Lenny
    May 3, 2012

    Good article. You may very well be right. The Canucks are predictable. They carry the puck into the zone on the left side the same way every time, for instance. Where is the creativity?

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  10. Eric Blacha
    May 3, 2012

    Give Ballard an opportunity. He could work on his defensive work over this summer, but his offense isn’t something you teach.

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  11. Nick
    May 3, 2012

    Two years ago, there was a pretty long stretch where Ehrhoff was the only healthy top 4 D. Hamhuis was concussed, Edler destroyed his back hitting Benn, Salo wasn’t back from his achilles, and Bieksa was out with something.

    Ehrhoff performed really well, held things together, and the team kept winning.

    He is a good player who, it seems, is remembered most for the San Jose and Boston playoff series when he was really banged up and playing with a bad shoulder.

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  12. Nick
    May 3, 2012

    Good article Daniel.

    The irony of Henrik Sedin’s downplaying Ehrhoff’s departure is that the twins were probably affected by it more than anyone. Before Ehrhoff arrived with his puck moving skills, ability to run a good power play, and excellent stretch passing; the twins were point-a-game guys. Once Ehrhoff arrived, they became 100+ point guys and both won the Art Ross. Now, after his departure, it looks like the twins are back to being point-a-game guys.

    Paul Coffey had the same effect of Gretzky in Edmonton (200 point seasons with Coffey, and far less after his departure). The next season, when Coffey arrived in his Pittsburgh, Lemieux’s point total shot up considerably while Gretzky’s plummeted.

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  13. Nick
    May 3, 2012

    I think Ehrhoff’s contract negotiation is a textbook case of how Dave Nonis’ “sign ‘em early” approach would have been far better than Mike Gillis’ “wait till the last nanosecond” approach that he used with the Sedins.

    It seemed like Ehrhoff was happy here, wanted to stay, and could have been locked up early if Gillis was determined.

    The “wait ‘em out til the bitter end and they’ll cave” approach works well for agents, and presumably was a good strategy for Gillis when he was representing his clients … but I much prefer the “sign ‘em early and when they’re slumping” approach that Nonis used.

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  14. Andre
    May 4, 2012

    A follow up question, if your premise is correct, is: how could AV let our PP sink to such lows, if the only correction needed is “unpredictability” (or creativity)? Wouldn’t you think AV noticed that as the season wore on, and discussed it with his players? Wouldn’t he order PP drills to try and remedy the problem?

    I’ll admit the drop pass entry got to be pretty stale and ineffective after a while, so maybe the PP units have some responsibility to bear as well.

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    • Daniel Wagner
      May 4, 2012

      It’s really easy to say, “The Canucks powerplay needs to be more unpredictable.” That’s ridiculously difficult to implement. Obviously the players were aware of the problem – Daniel admitted it – but it’s easier said than done. To a certain extent, players are who they are. Edler can be predictable and that’s one of the flaws in his game. With Ehrhoff gone, he became the primary puck-carrier out of the defensive zone on the powerplay, which led to the Canucks’ powerplay breakouts becoming stale and predictable.

      I’m not sure it’s something that can be fixed with systems; it might need to be fixed with personnel.

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