After acquiring Keith Ballard on Draft Day and landing Dan Hamhuis on the first day of free agency, the Vancouver Canucks have an excess of quality NHL defensemen on their roster. In Hamhuis, they added a player who both the Flyers and Penguins traded for before free agency in hopes of luring the former #1 pick to Pennsylvania. In Keith Ballard, they added a guy who can play 20 minutes per game and help create offense from the blueline. Not only that, but fans can take solace in the fact that if Roberto Luongo is disappointing, Ballard will be there to smack the goaltender upside his head.
Truth be told, this was going to be an article about dealing from a position of power. But unfortunately, after some digging and analysis, we’ll have to save that point for another day. The Vancouver Canucks defense looks like it will serve to drive home another pillar of the business community: “Don’t lose focus.”
Imagine having plumbing problem at your house. You have a great house. It’s not the very best house on the block—but it’s certainly one of the best in the neighborhood. Right now, you’re sitting there in your great house with a sink that has a leak and your entire kitchen’s sitting in two inches of water. You run to the phone, pull the number of an independent contractor you know, and call begging for good plumber as soon as possible.
After waiting patiently for awhile, you finally hear a knock at your door. Finally, the plumber is here to come in and make everything better. Only it’s not a plumber. Instead, the contractor you called sent a carpenter. He’s one of the best carpenters in the city, but he’s still a carpenter. He could put mouldings all over your house, install bookshelves, and make you an awesome rack for your blu-rays—but the man does not know how to stop a water leak.
He doesn’t exactly give you what you need now, does he?
Say hello to the Vancouver Canucks and their current situation on the blueline. In landing free-agent prize Dan Hamhuis and trading for Keith Ballard at the draft, the common opinion is the Canucks significantly upgraded their defensive corps. It was thought that they’d join Sami Salo, Christian Ehrhoff, and Alexander Edler to improve their Top 4, with Kevin Bieksa, Aaron Rome, Shane O’Brien, and Andrew Alberts to battle it out for the last spot. Trade Bieksa away and the Canucks would even be able to free up a spot and use their blueline assets to help increase their forward depth. It sounds great, right?
Well, when opponents’ blogs are making fun of the moves, it might be time to stop and take pause:
“The only team in the league to rival the Flames in terms of “needless collection of excess NHL caliber defenders” is the Canucks. By adding both Hamhuis and Ballard (and re-signing O’Brien for some baffling reason), Vancouver now has 9 blue liners – although the predictable Sami Salo injury technically has that number down to 8. Even if they demote Aaron Rome to start the year, Vancouver will have 7 healthy defenders to start the year, five of which making $3M or more.” –Kent Wilson (Flames Nation)
This is where focus comes into play. With their upgrades on the blueline, have they really addressed the biggest weakness they had with their team last year? As Greg Wyshynski so eloquently put it, “Players like Dustin Byfuglien were setting up lawn chairs in front of Roberto Luongo in last year’s playoffs.” Honestly, that doesn’t really do the situation justice. Byfuglien was able to set up a lawn chair, put on sunglasses, read a book, drink little umbrella drinks, and throw those little umbrellas at Roberto Luongo before anyone touched him. Would either Hamhuis or Ballard be able to fix that glaring problem?
Even though the Canucks have a plethora of defensemen to choose from, they still don’t have a bona fide #1 shutdown guy. In fact, none of them would fill the void that was left open during last year’s playoffs by Willie Mitchell’s absence. Tom Benjamin clearly lays out Gillis’s plan:
“Both Ballard and Hamhuis are good players and I’ve decided I like the Gillis strategy in respect to the defense. There is no obvious number one guy, but the Canucks now have six top four defensemen.” –Tom Benjamin (Canucks Corner)
Benjamin thinks the Canucks have strengthened their blueline—and they have. But while it’s clear to see what Gillis is doing, there is still a fundamental flaw on their back-end that still hasn’t been addressed with their offseason additions. When they face the big bodies in the Western Conference playoffs, who will they use to shut down the opposition? It’s a question they were unable to answer in the Chicago series and was the main reason they were sent home by the Blackhawks for the second year in a row.
The common refrain from the most die-hard Canucks fans is that it would have been a different series if Willie Mitchell were healthy and in the lineup. That very well could have been the case given Mitchell’s role. Even though his body has seen more than its fair share of NHL abuse, he’s the kind of shutdown guy every Cup contender needs. As they sit on 8 defenders, keep in mind that Mitchell still isn’t one of them under contract.
Building a team through depth is a great idea when you’re talking about forwards. But when talking about a defensive unit, having 6 guys who are capable of playing 2nd pairing minutes might not be as great as it sounds. Think back to recent Stanley Cup finalists. Last year, the Flyers showed that defensive depth is important, but they were lead by Chris Pronger and his 30 minutes per game. In the finals, they were beaten by a team with two Team Canada Olympians and a Norris Trophy winner. The two seasons before, the Detroit Red Wings made it to the Cup Finals with Nicklas Lidstrom serving as their shutdown defender. On the other side of the rink, the Penguins featured Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill to shutdown their opposition.
Each and every one of these teams had #1 defensive pairs that were capable of shutting down the opposition’s top lines. It didn’t matter if the opposition wanted to play end-to-end pond hockey or grind down low with big bodies—they were the defensemen who were expected to shut them down. And judging by their ability to get to the Cup Finals, they were overwhelmingly successful.
In addition to the strong #1 pairings, each of those teams also had defensive depth. The Red Wings had Brad Stuart and Nik Kronwall playing big minutes as their 2nd pairing. Brian Campbell, Nik Hjalmarsson, and Brent Sopel played plenty of minutes for the Hawks, while Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen played big minutes for the Flyers. In Pittsburgh, they had both Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Orpik playing about 20+ minutes to augment their blueline.
It looks like the Canucks have learned half of this formula. With all of their good defensemen, they know that they will have a strong defensive corps to lean on for heavy minutes in the playoffs. They have 6 guys who can legitimately play 20 minutes without much worry.
But what about the other half of the formula? When push comes to shove in the playoffs and they need to shut down the opponent, who are they going to trust? Do they think Dan Hamhuis is magically going to become that guy? Because while playing behind Shea Weber and Ryan Suter in Nashville, he was never asked to be. Do they think Keith Ballard is going to turn into Duncan Keith? If that’s the secret answer, Canucks fans might be in for a rude awakening because last year Peter DeBoer gave 3 different defensemen more ice-time per game. Neither were shutdown guys before getting to Vancouver—it’s not really fair to expect them to become shutdown guys for a Cup contender.
“Adding some more size and grit up front certainly now must be the priority for Gillis. It won’t be easy given the team’s salary cap concerns and the injury to Sami Salo has complicated things. The plan was to trade Kevin Bieksa, either alone or in a package, to get some of that offensive bulk. Now that scenario is likely out the window as Bieksa figures to remain a Canuck at least until Salo is ready to play.” –Brad Ziemer (Puck World, Vancouver Sun)
All of this can lead back to dealing from a position of strength if Mike Gillis uses one of the team’s 147 defensemen to get a guy who can fill their immediate needs. As Ziemer said, the thought was that the Canucks would trade away one of the NHL-caliber defensemen for some grit/depth up front. But they might want to think about adding a little grit on the back-end first. The moves make the team stronger as a whole, but they still haven’t addressed the glaring hole that has cost them the last two post-seasons. And if Kevin Bieksa is to be the piece that is traded away, wouldn’t there just be more grit to replace on a blueline that already needs more? Unless they figure out a way to fix that, the rest is just window dressing.
I wanted to open this one up to all of the readers. Do you like the way the Canucks have built their defense or do you think they’d be better off having less depth and a stronger #1 guy? On that note, do you think Dan Hamhuis will be that #1 shutdown defensman? Let’s hear what you have to say…