The Canucks biggest need on defence isn’t a power play quarterback

Canucks defence had serious issues exiting the defensive zone in 2016-17.

Pass it to Bulis

As the Canucks finally embark, seemingly in earnest, on a long-awaited rebuild, their team needs are many. The two biggest concerns are at centre, where they still lack a true heir apparent for Henrik Sedin on the first line despite Bo Horvat’s ascendance, and on defence, where the Canucks significantly struggled in all aspects last season.

With those two areas of need in mind, it’s not surprising that Jim Benning suggested they will be looking to draft a “playmaking centre iceman” or a “power play defenceman” with the fifth overall pick.

The Canucks biggest need on defence, however, is not for a power play defenceman, despite their struggles to convert with the man advantage. Between Alex Edler, Troy Stecher, and Ben Hutton, the Canucks had options on the blue line for the power play. I suspect the issues had more to do with systems and stubbornness than available personnel.

No, the Canucks biggest need is defencemen who can reliably and consistently transition the puck out of the defensive zone.

We’ve seen for years now how important a mobile, puck-moving defence corps is essential for success in the NHL. These playoffs has truly highlighted that fact, as Nashville has made it to the Stanley Cup Final thanks to the strength of their superb top-four, while Ottawa went far deeper into the playoffs than expected almost entirely on the back and broken ankle of Erik Karlsson.

The key to so much of the best teams in the NHL is their ability to quickly transition from defence to offence thanks to defencemen who can reliably get the puck out of the defensive zone with possession.

Looking at zone exits is a key component of evaluating defencemen — just think of how often a defenceman’s scouting report mentions a “good first pass” — but they’re also difficult to track. They need to be tracked manually and it is painstaking, time-consuming work.

Thankfully, someone has already staked that pain and consumed that time. Corey Sznajder watches an insane amount of hockey and tracks microstats like shot assists, zone entries and exits, and scoring chances.

Alas, Sznajder is but one man and has only tracked 10 Canucks games from last season, but that’s enough to get a picture of which Canucks defencemen can get the puck out of the zone effectively and which ones cannot.

Player GP Attempts Exit % Possession % Fail % Icing % Fail+Ice %
Troy Stecher 3 30 83.33% 46.67% 13.33% 3.33% 16.67%
Christopher Tanev 8 71 81.69% 46.48% 15.49% 2.82% 18.31%
Ben Hutton 9 108 80.56% 41.67% 15.74% 3.70% 19.44%
Luca Sbisa 10 84 69.05% 36.90% 30.95% 0.00% 30.95%
Alex Edler 10 101 75.25% 33.66% 15.84% 8.91% 24.75%
Philip Larsen 9 65 69.23% 29.23% 24.62% 6.15% 30.77%
Nikita Tryamkin 3 25 64.00% 28.00% 28.00% 8.00% 36.00%
Erik Gudbranson 8 73 58.90% 23.29% 32.88% 8.22% 41.10%

Let’s quickly define some terms, so that the chart makes a bit more sense.

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  • “Attempts” = attempted zone exits.
  • “Exit %” = percentage of successful zone exits
  • “Possession %” = percentage of zone exits with possession of the puck
  • “Fail %” = percentage of attempted zone exits that fail to get the puck out of the zone
  • “Icing %” = percentage of attempted zone exits that result in an icing
  • “Fail + Ice %” = combined percentage of failed exits and icings

All of these numbers are at 5-on-5. For greater context, in general an exit with possession percentage above 50% is good and above 60% is elite. If you’re below 30%, you’re in the bottom tier of defencemen in the league.

Yes, it’s a bad thing that three of the Canucks defencemen were below 30% last season. It’s a particularly bad thing that Erik Gudbranson, who is in all likelihood about to sign an extension with the Canucks for far too much money, is at the very bottom. It’s also a bad thing that the Canucks’ best defencemen at zone exits still don’t crack 50% at exiting with possession.

But let’s start with the positives.

Oddly enough, despite missing just 11 games last season, Stecher only played in 3 of the games that Sznajder tracked, giving us a pretty small sample size for the rookie. Still, his results in those three games were encouraging. While his zone exits with possession are only slightly above average among NHL defencemen, that places him right at the top on the Canucks.

The most encouraging sign is elsewhere in the data that I didn’t include above: he was the best among the Canucks defence at transitioning the puck from a zone exit to a zone entry at the other end of the ice.

Next up is Chris Tanev and this highlights why he’s such a valuable defenceman. Not only is Tanev exceptional defensively, he can effectively move the puck up ice. It should be noted that most of the games tracked had Tanev on a pairing with Edler, since Stecher was out of the lineup. As a result, his exit attempts are lower, as Edler was primarily responsible for moving the puck up ice.

As you can see, that may not be the best option. In the games tracked, Tanev was far more reliable at getting the puck out of the defensive zone, with or without possession. Edler also had the highest frequency of icings in those 10 games.

Edler actually comes in below Luca Sbisa in zone exits with possession, but there’s a pretty big caveat: look at Sbisa’s failure percentage. Sbisa fails to get the puck out of the defensive zone nearly twice as frequently as Edler and is actually second worst on the Canucks in that metric.

From the data, it appears that Sbisa regularly tries to get the puck out with possession, even when that may not be the safest play, leading to numerous turnovers. Does that sound familiar?

An encouraging sign for the future is that Ben Hutton, despite his sophomore slump, was a reliable option for exiting the zone. There is every indication that he can be a good second pairing defenceman in the years to come.

Then we get to the bottom of the chart. On the plus side, two of the three defencemen below 30% in possession exits will not be on the team next season. On the negative side, one of those is Nikita Tryamkin, who only has three games worth of data. I have to wonder if that small sample size is an accurate reflection of Tryamkin’s abilities.

Philip Larsen was expected to be a power play defenceman, but he didn’t quite meet those expectations. But his bigger failure was at even-strength, where he was one of the Canucks’ worst defencemen in exiting the defensive zone.

But Larsen was still better than Gudbranson in the games tracked, who sits at the bottom of the list and it’s not even close.

Gudbranson attempted to exit the defensive zone 73 times in 8 games that Sznajder tracked. He failed to get the puck out 24 times and he iced the puck another six times. Over 40% of the time, Gudbranson failed to get the puck out. That lines up with the eye test, where he and his defence partner regularly got hemmed into the defensive zone for long shifts, unable to get the puck over the blue line.

His zone exits with possession place him in the bottom tier of NHL defencemen in that category. While it’s true that he’s never been billed as a puck-moving defenceman, but his inability to get the puck out of the defensive zone hurts the team. Even if he’s an effective shutdown defenceman, an inability to exit the zone shuts down your own team as well.

On defence, then, the Canucks need an influx of puck-moving defencemen who can spark the transition game with their ability to exit the zone. Does that mean drafting someone like Timothy Liljegren, Miro Heiskanen, or Cale Makar? Not necessarily: top-end defencemen regularly come from outside the first round, while first-line centres rarely do.

If they don’t take a defenceman at fifth overall, however, they’ll likely need to hit a home run on a defenceman with the 33rd overall pick.

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