Why are right-handed defencemen so hard to find in the NHL?
The Vancouver Canucks could really use a top-tier right-handed defenceman to play on their top pairing with Quinn Hughes. Long-term, it might be the Canucks’ most significant need on their roster.
This past season, Luke Schenn found a home alongside Hughes and was easily the Canucks’ best option but that speaks more to the team’s dire need for a long-term fix. Schenn being a better option than Travis Hamonic and Tucker Poolman is clearing a pretty low bar.
The trouble is that great right-handed defencemen come at a premium in the NHL. That’s primarily because there are fewer right-handed defencemen in general. Approximately 40% of the NHL’s defencemen shoot right-handed, so it’s not an even 50/50 split between the two sides.
It’s an oddity that seems unique to hockey, as right-handed players dominate most other sports. About 5% of the golfers on the PGA Tour are left-handed. Only 8.5% of the NBA shoots left-handed. Tennis players skew slightly higher — approximately 15% of professional tennis players are lefties, with some suggesting lefties have an inherent advantage on the court.
Baseball has more lefties than those other sports, with around 25-29% of MLB pitchers throwing left-handed and up to 35% of MLB hitters batting left-handed.
Why so many right-handed hockey players shoot left-handed
Considering that only about 10-12% of the world population is left-handed, sports like golf, basketball, and tennis are closer to the global average. Hockey is the clear outlier with so many players shooting left.
That’s because hockey players are generally taught to use their dominant hand on the top of their stick, which provides more control for stickhandling and shooting. As a result, most hockey players will write right-handed, throw right-handed, and possibly even golf right-handed, but shoot left-handed in hockey.
Wayne Gretzky, for example, golfs and throws a baseball right-handed, but was a left-hand shot in hockey. The opposite is true for Alex Ovechkin, a right-hand shot in hockey. When he threw out the first pitch at a Washington National game, he threw left-handed.
It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, of course. There are plenty of right-handed hockey players that shoot right-handed. It might depend on the influence of other hockey players at a young age. If you had a parent that knew that using your dominant hand at the top of the stick was an advantage, they would be more likely to hand their right-handed child a left-handed stick at a young age. It could also depend on when you pick up the sport. If you start playing hockey after already learning to hit a baseball right-handed, you might be naturally inclined to use a right-handed stick too.
One of my favourite pieces of Canucks trivia is that Daniel and Henrik Sedin, though they may be identical twins, are different in one key way: Daniel is left-handed and Henrik is right-handed. Daniel writes with his left hand and golfs left-handed, while Henrik is the opposite.
That means that Daniel and Henrik are a variation of identical twins known as mirror twins. They’re matched not as if they are the same side-by-side, but as if they were looking in a mirror.
And yet, on the ice, both Daniel and Henrik were left-hand shots. Perhaps it was easier to buy matching left-handed sticks for the twins in bulk when they were growing up.
That might also explain why Henrik was the playmaker and Daniel was the goalscorer. With his dominant hand at the top of his stick, Henrik would have had a little bit more control for those finely-tuned backhand saucer passes, while Daniel would have had more power for shooting the puck with his dominant hand at the bottom.
Of course, they were both phenomenal playmakers, so maybe the difference it made was minimal.
NHL goaltenders, incidentally, skew things even further. Of the 119 goaltenders that played at least one game this past season, just seven “shoot” right-handed. That means they hold the stick in their left hand with their blocker and catch the puck with their right hand, something that is more natural for a left-handed person.
That means just 5.8% of NHL goaltenders are left-handed, much lower than the global average.
Right-handed defencemen can be pricey in free agency
Back to defencemen.
The big issue for the Canucks is that they haven’t been able to find a single homegrown option on the right side. All of the right-hand shooting defencemen on the Canucks roster last season were signed as free agents, including Hamonic, who was traded to the Ottawa Senators.
That hasn’t helped the Canucks’ salary cap situation. The Canucks paid the biggest price for Tyler Myers, who has two years remaining with a $6 million cap hit, but Tucker Poolman’s $2.5 million cap hit through 2025 also hurts given that he played at a third-pairing level when he was healthy.
Fortunately, they were able to get plenty of value out of Schenn and Kyle Burroughs, who each have another year on their contracts at near the league minimum.
The real issue with only finding right-handed defencemen in free agency is that you’re only able to pick from the defencemen that their previous teams were willing to let go. With quality right-handed defencemen coming at such a premium, the best ones rarely hit free agency.
Consider the 2010-11 Canucks, the best team in franchise history. They didn’t sign any of their right-handed defencemen in NHL free agency.
Kevin Bieksa was drafted by the Canucks in the fifth round. Sami Salo was acquired via trade. Chris Tanev was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the NCAA. Even Christian Ehrhoff, who was a leftie playing on the right side with Alex Edler, was acquired via trade.
Of course, the best way to get a top-quality right-handed defenceman is to draft them yourself.
All four conference finalists boast 1st-round picks at right defence
If we look at the four conference finalists in the playoffs this year, all four have a first-round pick playing on their right side and very few of their right-handed defencemen were acquired in NHL free agency.
The Colorado Avalanche drafted Cale Makar, of course, but Erik Johnson and Josh Manson were both acquired via trade. Johnson, a former first-overall pick, was part of a blockbuster deal that saw another right-handed defenceman, Kevin Shattenkirk, go to the St. Louis Blues. Shattenkirk was drafted by the Avalanche.
Manson came from the Anaheim Ducks for a second-round pick and prospect defenceman Drew Helleson, who also happens to be a right-handed shot. In other words, the Avalanche built the right side of their blue line by drafting right-handed defencemen, then trading two of them for other right-handed defencemen.
The Tampa Bay Lightning traded for one right-handed defencemen, signed another in free agency, and drafted a third. Zach Bogosian, at less than a million per year, wasn’t exactly a pricy free agent signing and Cal Foote has been a capable bottom-pairing defenceman after the Lightning drafted him 14th overall in 2017.
It’s Erik Cernak, who plays on the Lightning’s top pairing with Victor Hedman, who is more interesting. He came to the team in an incredibly savvy trade that saw the Lightning send Ben Bishop, coming off a season where he was a Vezina finalist, to the Los Angeles Kings.
The trade was simultaneously a sacrifice to the salary cap and a smart pickup of a very good defensive defenceman. Do the Canucks have a highly-lauded player that might need to be a sacrifice to the salary cap that they could move for a right-handed defenceman? Hm.
The New York Rangers unfairly have four right-handed defencemen playing for them right now. None of them were signed as free agents.
Adam Fox is a unique situation — he wanted to play in New York and had the flexibility to return to the NCAA for one more year and become a free agent to make that happen. Instead, the Rangers traded two second-round picks to the Carolina Hurricanes to get him a year earlier.
Jacob Trouba was a more traditional hockey trade, however, as the Rangers sent a first-round pick and Neal Pionk — another right-handed defenceman — to the Winnipeg Jets for Trouba’s signing rights as a restricted free agent. Pionk, like Tanev, was a signing out of the NCAA as a college free agent.
Justin Braun, playing on his off-side on the left, was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers at the trade deadline for a third-round pick. On his right side is Braden Schneider, who was a first-round pick of the Rangers in 2020.
The Edmonton Oilers are the exception, with two of their three right-handed defencemen signed in free agency, though I’m not sure the Oilers’ blue line is one to which the Canucks should aspire.
Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie were both signed as free agents, while Evan Bouchard was a first-round draft pick in 2018.
The Canucks haven’t drafted a right-handed defenceman in the first round since Brad Ference in 1997.
The real issue for the Canucks is they don't have anyone in the system that could be reliably expected to make the NHL. Jett Woo, a second-round pick, played a significant chunk of his season in the AHL as a forward. Viktor Persson has potential and there are those in the Canucks organization who believe in him, but he'as a long shot as a seventh-round pick. Jonathan Myrenberg had a solid season in Sweden's junior league, but was invisible at the SHL level. Brady Keeper missed the entire season with a broken leg.
Unless the Canucks add a blue-chip right-handed defenceman at the draft this year, trades might be their best option.