Canucks need to find impact defencemen outside the first round of the draft

Stanley Cup Finalists have been bolstered by undrafted and late-picked defencemen.

Pass it to Bulis

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One year ago, the Washington Capitals scored their way to the Stanley Cup, putting to lie the old adage that “defence wins championships.” They weren’t the worst team defensively, but their biggest strength was obvious: potent offence from elite scoring talent like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom.

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This year, however, it’s back to the blueline for the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues, the two teams in the Stanley Cup Final. Sure, the Bruins and Blues can score — the Bruins dropped seven goals on the Blues in Game 3 — but the strength of both teams lies in their defence.

During the regular season, the Bruins and Blues, were two of the stingiest teams in the league. The Bruins allowed the third fewest goals against and the Blues allowed the fifth fewest.

Part of the reason for that stinginess came from their goaltending, but it also has a lot to do with the quantity and quality of shots given up by the skaters in front of them. The Bruins and Blues were second and third in expected goals against at 5-on-5 in the regular season, according to hockey analytics site Natural Stat Trick, and that has nothing to do with their goaltending.

What’s intriguing, with the 2019 NHL Entry Draft less than a month away, is where the Bruins and Blues’ top defencemen were drafted.

The Blues are led by Alex Pietrangelo, who was drafted fourth overall: a minute-munching number one defenceman with 15 points in the playoffs. But they also have Colton Parayko, drafted in the third round in 2012, who has been just as important as Pietrangelo, if not more so, given the way he’s helped shut down opposing forwards all playoffs.

Apart from the aging Jay Bouwmeester, who was picked by the Florida Panthers 3rd overall way back in 2002, the rest of the Blues defence is from outside the first round: Joel Edmundson and Vince Dunn were second-round picks, Robert Bortuzzo was a third-round pick, and Carl Gunnarsson was a seventh-round pick.

As for the Bruins, they have just one first-round pick among their regular defenceman: 2016 14th-overall pick Charlie McAvoy, who leads the Bruins in ice time. But their top-scoring defenceman, Torey Krug, went undrafted. Zdeno Chara was a third-round pick way back in 1996. Brandon Carlo, anchoring the second-pairing with Krug, was a second-round pick, Matt Grzelcyk was a third-round pick, and Connor Clifton was a fifth-round pick.

That’s a lot of very good defencemen that came from outside the first round, which is reflected by other teams around the NHL. The league’s top-scoring defenceman in the regular season, Brent Burns, was a late first-round pick, but the second-highest was Mark Giordano, who went undrafted. Among the other top scorers, Roman Josi was a second-round pick, Kris Letang and Tyson Barrie were third-round picks, and Keith Yandle and Erik Gustafsson were fourth-round picks.

A surprising number of the best defencemen in the NHL were selected outside the first round, especially when you compare that to forwards. The majority of top forwards, barring a few noteworthy exceptions like Nikita Kucherov, Brad Marchand, and Johnny Gaudreau, come from not just the first round, but the top half of the first round. 

This should be readily apparent to the Canucks. Their top-four defencemen last season were a third-round pick (Alex Edler), a fifth-round pick (Ben Hutton) and two undrafted college free agent signings (Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher). That’s about to change with the addition of seventh-overall pick Quinn Hughes, but the Canucks badly need to find more quality NHL defencemen at the draft, particularly with Edler and Tanev succumbing to age and injuries.

Since Hutton, the Canucks have found just two NHL-caliber defencemen outside of the first round: Nikita Tryamkin and Gustav Forsling, both in 2014. Unfortunately, neither are playing for the Canucks; Tryamkin bolted for the KHL, while Forsling was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for Adam Clendening.

Most of the defencemen the Canucks have picked outside the first round, like Kristoffer Gunnarsson and Matt Brassard, they've chosen not to sign. That's far from unusual — late round picks frequently don't get signed — but it's still hurt their progress that they haven't added much to their defence at the draft. They still rightfully have high hopes for Jett Woo, Jack Rathbone still has potential, and it’s also possible that Guillaume Brisebois or Toni Utunen could play a few games in the NHL, but are they going to have the impact of someone like Parayko or Krug? That needs to be the aim for the Canucks as they continue to rebuild their defence.

This is particularly true at the 2019 Draft, where picking a defenceman at tenth overall just doesn’t make sense given the quality of forwards that will be available. The Canucks need to find an impact defenceman in the following rounds.

Stick-taps and Glove-drops

A tap of the stick to Zdeno Chara, who took a puck in the face during Game 4, but returned to the bench. He wasn’t cleared to play, but wanted to be there for his teammates. Now he's back at practice with a broken jaw and might not even miss a game.

Big Numbers

4 - The Blues have allowed the most shorthanded goals in the playoffs, giving up four so far. However, they’ve won all four games in which they’ve given up a shorthanded goal.

5’10” - The two leading scorers for the Stanley Cup Finalists are 5’10” or shorter. Jaden Schwartz (18 points) for the Blues is 5’10”, while Brad Marchand (21 points) of the Bruins is 5’9”. The top defenceman among those two teams? 5'9" Torey Krug, with 16 points. It's been a heavy, hard-fought series, with the Blues in particular playing a very physical style, but there's clearly room for smaller players.



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