Until the NHL does away with the offside rule, defending the blue line will be a key part of a defenceman’s job. Because the players can’t enter the zone until the puck crosses the blue line, mounting a defence at the line is all-important: if you can stop the puck from entering the zone or force the opponent to give up clear possession by dumping it in, you’ve increased your chances of preventing a clear scoring chance.
About a month ago, I looked at the Canucks defence corps and their ability to defend the blue line against zone entries. Erik Gudbranson looked particularly good at preventing controlled zone entries and was also the most effective at breaking up entry attempts and creating turnovers. Meanwhile, Troy Stecher looked particularly terrible at preventing zone entries, like he was actively inviting opposing forwards over the blue line and offering scrumptious baked goods in the defensive zone.
There was one caveat: a small sample size. Stecher’s statistics came from just a few games, so it wasn’t necessarily an accurate picture of his abilities. In the month since publishing that article, Corey Sznajder has collected microstats from more Canucks games and, with the larger sample size, Stecher looks significantly better.
Sean Tierney has put together a data visualization of all NHL defencemen tracked by Sznajder. Here are the Canucks defencemen:
With the additional data, Stecher has gone from being worse than Luca Sbisa at preventing controlled zone entries to right around league average. Where he’s gone up significantly is his break-up percentage, creating turnovers at the blueline on 12.2% of the times he has been targeted with an entry.
The defencemen nearest to Stecher on the chart include Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dougie Hamilton, Justin Faulk, and Kyle Quincey.
As for the rest of the Canucks defence, Sbisa hasn’t moved much, still allowing controlled zone entries by the opposition over 73% of the times he was targeted. Alex Edler is in about the same spot as well, a little below league average in preventing controlled entries and break-up percentage.
Gudbranson still looks good in the larger sample, but he’s not longer the best Canucks defenceman in either statistic, thanks to a big jump up by Chris Tanev, who makes a lot more sense as the Canucks defenceman most likely to prevent a controlled zone entry by the opposition.
It’s important to note that his is just one component of defence and says nothing about each defenceman’s ability to defend within the defensive zone or their capabilities elsewhere on the ice. Not far from Sbisa on the chart is Mattias Ekholm and he is a shot suppression beast. Still, preventing controlled zone entries is, in general, better than allowing them.
There is another aspect to the blue line that we can look at using Tierney’s visualization, as the same tool includes a chart that combines preventing controlled zone entries with enabling controlled zone exits. Essentially, if a defenceman is in the top right quadrant of the chart below, they both prevent the opponents from entering the zone and also break out of the zone effectively with possession of the puck.
Chalk this up as another way that Tanev is the best defenceman on the Canucks. He leads the team in both preventing entries and enabling breakouts.
Ben Hutton is also above average in both metrics, which is a positive sign as he heads into his third season with the Canucks. The only other defenceman with above average zone exit numbers is Sbisa, whose issues with turnovers undercut his positive zone exit numbers.
Gudbranson is a concern. I’ve written about his struggles with zone exits before and he’s better than only Nikita Tryamkin in that category. The Canucks wound up spending long shifts in the defensive zone because of his inability to effectively exit the zone and it could once again be an issue in the coming season.