The biggest overhaul of the offseason for the Canucks came on defence. Half of their starting six are new to the team this season, apart from Quinn Hughes’ five-game stint at the end of last season. Even their seventh defenceman, Oscar Fantenberg, who just got sent down to the Utica Comets on a conditioning stint, is new to the team.
That means they’ve moved on from a number of other defencemen from last season, some of which were with the team for years, while others for just a couple months.
So far, the revamped defence is working out well for the Canucks, aided by some fantastic goaltending (apart from the third period against the Washington Capitals). At 5-on-5, the Canucks are middle-of-the-pack in shot attempts against, shots on goal against, and goals against, which may not sound like much, but it’s a big improvement over last season.
There are some red flags surrounding the Canucks’ defensive efforts ten games into the season — they’ve allowed a higher than average rate of scoring chances against and expected goals against according to Natural Stat Trick — but overall the results have been thoroughly positive. Quinn Hughes has been a revelation, particularly on the power play. Tyler Myers has been far better than expected, as he and Alex Edler have the 10th best corsi percentage among defensive pairs that have played at least 50 minutes together at 5-on-5, despite playing in a matchup role. Jordie Benn has locked down a third pairing with Troy Stecher that arguably deserves a lot more ice time.
It’s tough to know what to expect out of the Canucks’ defence for the rest of the season. Injuries, along with some regression from the Canucks’ goaltenders, could expose some flaws in their blue line, or the new pairs could continue to develop chemistry and get even better as the season progresses.
For now, at least, it looks like the Canucks’ defence corps is significantly improved from last season. But what about the defencemen the team moved on from: how have they fared this season? Let’s take a look at a few former Canucks defencemen from last year.
The departure from Vancouver has worked out quite well for Ben Hutton, who has found himself playing big minutes, albeit on a pretty terrible Los Angeles Kings team that sits last in the Western Conference. While his team hasn’t been good, Hutton has been, leading the Kings in ice time at 5-on-5 and playing a big role on the penalty kill.
Hutton has been bumped up to the top pairing with Drew Doughty, but looked particularly good alongside Sean Walker, who has been the Kings’ top defenceman this season. Among pairings that have played at least 50 minutes at 5-on-5, Hutton and Walker lead the NHL in corsi percentage and shot share: the Kings have out-shot the opposition 39-to-11 when they’ve been on the ice together at 5-on-5.
Maybe it’s Hutton’s lot in life to be a good defenceman on a bad team, but perhaps someone will realize that if he can be a top-four defenceman on a team at the bottom of the standings, he can likely be a good third-pairing defenceman on a contending team.
When the Canucks traded Erik Gudbranson to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Tanner Pearson, both teams had to know they were getting a reclamation project. The difference between the two is that Pearson was trying to bounce back from one bad season, while Gudbranson had several bad seasons under his belt.
The initial results for Gudbranson seemed good in Pittsburgh, but the bloom soon came off the rose, to the point that he was a healthy scratch for several games early this season. They moved on from Gudbranson a lot faster than the Canucks did, trading him to the Anaheim Ducks for Andreas Martinsen, who might spend the whole season in the AHL, and a 2021 seventh-round pick.
That’s a long way from his trade value when the Canucks acquired him.
In Anaheim, Gudbranson has been reunited with former Canucks teammate Michael Del Zotto. In Vancouver, Gudbranson and Del Zotto who were one of the worst pairings in the entire NHL by corsi percentage and the early returns in Anaheim don’t look promising.
come for Nic Roy's first NHL goal— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) October 28, 2019
stay for his 14/10 board jump 😆 pic.twitter.com/yrrijcJWsE
Michael Del Zotto
Speaking of Michael Del Zotto, the Ducks traded him to the St. Louis Blues at the trade deadline last season after the Canucks traded him to the Ducks earlier in the season for Luke Schenn and a seventh-round pick. As a result, he got his name on the Stanley Cup, despite playing just seven regular season games for the Blues and no playoff games.
So, getting traded from the Canucks worked out pretty well for him.
In the off-season, Del Zotto re-signed with the Anaheim Ducks on a one-year contract for $750,000, a near-minimum deal that maybe makes his defensive foibles a little easier to swallow. Del Zotto hasn’t been particularly good this season, but their entire defence is a bit of a mess.
Getting paired with Gudbranson for any length of time won’t help. The two seem to exacerbate each other’s worst tendencies.
When the Canucks acquired Luke Schenn in the Del Zotto trade, it’s unlikely they were planning on him playing in the NHL, but a series of injuries led to a call-up and he ended up playing 18 games for the Canucks. Schenn earned himself some fans in Vancouver in those 18 games with his physical brand of hockey, throwing some big hits and mucking it up in scrums after the whistle.
Was he particularly good in those 18 games? Not really, but neither was he terrible, and expectations were pretty low at the time. He provided enough grit and intangibles that some wanted the Canucks to bring him back this season, and the Canucks did explore re-signing him to a one-year contract.
Instead, Schenn signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Schenn was sent down to the AHL to play for the Syracuse Crunch, but there’s a chance he gets a call-up to play for the Lightning at some point if the team has enough injuries. Like Del Zotto, he could end up with his name on the Stanley Cup if all goes well.
Schenn is on a one-way contract with the Lightning, meaning he’s paid $700,000 per year whether he’s in the NHL or AHL.
Alex Biega is back in a familiar place: the press box. The Detroit Red Wings quickly called up the veteran defenceman from the AHL after acquiring him for ECHLer David Pope, and he played two games, including one against the Canucks.
Now, however, Biega is back to being press box depth. It seems certain that he’ll get more opportunities to prove himself with the Red Wings this season, either due to injuries or because the Red Wings’ defence is very bad and he’s better than several other defencemen currently in the lineup.
When the Canucks acquired Derrick Pouliot a couple years ago, he was an intriguing acquisition. Pouliot had gone from being a top prospect with the Penguins to trade bait, but his underlying possession numbers looked good and he had intriguing upside. For the price the Canucks paid — Andrey Pedan and a fourth-round pick — he seemed like a reasonable gamble to make.
Early on, it looked like the gamble might pay off, as Pouliot showed some of the smooth skating and skill that made him the eighth overall pick in 2012. Eventually, however the warts began to show, with questionable defensive reads and poor decision-making. Even with opportunities on the first power play unit, he couldn’t do enough offensively to make up for what he gave up on the defensive end, and the Canucks decided not to give him a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent.
In the off-season, Pouliot was unable to secure a one-way contract with any team and settled for a two-way deal with the Blues. Signing with the defending Stanley Cup champions isn’t too bad, but Pouliot was sent down to the AHL to play for the San Antonio Rampage.
Will Pouliot get a chance with the Blues this season? He’ll have a tough time climbing the depth charts, with three great right-side defencemen at the NHL level in Alex Pietrangelo, Justin Faulk, and Carl Gunnarsson, along with Robert Bortuzzo as the seventh defenceman. They also have 23-year-old Mitch Reinke likely ahead of him for a call-up on the right side.
Pouliot might spend the entire season in the AHL.