One of the biggest issues for the Vancouver Canucks last season is that they didn’t have a true shutdown defence pair.
The season before, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers managed to hold their own as a shutdown pairing, buoyed by exceptional goaltending behind them. That wasn’t the case this past season, as both veteran defencemen got lit up at 5-on-5.
Myers was on the ice for the third-most goals against at 5-on-5 among NHL defencemen, while Ekman-Larsson would have been right up there with Myers if he had played the full season — he was on the ice for the third-highest rate of goals against among NHL defencemen who played at least 40 games.
The trouble for the Canucks is they didn’t really have anyone else to use in that role, which is a big part of why the Canucks overhauled their defence over the past several months.
Putting their WoodMoney where their WoodMouth is
The Canucks badly need a defence pair that they can reliably send out against the best forwards in the NHL — guys like Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Jason Robertson. Do the Canucks have defencemen that can manage that task?
One way to look at this is to use a statistic developed by PuckIQ that they call WoodMoney — named after the two analysts who came up with the statistic. WoodMoney is a quality of competition metric that separates players into three tiers: the elite, the middle class, and the gritty forwards that make up fourth lines around the league.
This type of binning of data is sometimes frowned upon — after all, you’re throwing away information that could be handy — but if we’re trying to find out if there’s a difference between how a player performs against first and fourth-line forwards, it’s a necessary evil. It can be useful for figuring out if a player thriving in a lesser role might be able to handle a bigger role against tougher competition or if the only reason they’re thriving is that they’re being sheltered.
Most of the Canucks' defence struggled against elite competition
Let’s take a look at how the Canucks’ defencemen performed last season against elite competition using the WoodMoney metric.
The columns are coloured according to how they compare to league average. Gold means better than league average, red means the opposite. You want to be gold. Also, here is a quick glossary:
- TOI vs Elite = the amount of ice time at 5-on-5 a player spent against elite competition
- TOI% vs Elite = the percentage of a player’s total ice time spent against elite competition
- CA/60 = corsi (shot attempts) against per 60 minutes of ice time
- CF% = corsi for percentage, aka. the ratio of shots for and against
- DFA/60 = a shot quality metric, dangerous fenwick (unblocked shot attempts) against per 60 minutes of ice time
- DFF% = dangerous fenwick percentage, aka. the ratio of shot quality for and against
Seven Canucks defencemen spent at least 100 minutes at 5-on-5 against what WoodMoney determined to be elite competition. Only two of them are still with the Canucks — Quinn Hughes and Tyler Myers — though Ethan Bear’s fate remains up in the air.
The issue should be immediately apparent. The two defencemen who spent the highest percentage of their ice time against elite competition, Ekman-Larsson and Myers, had absolutely dreadful results against elite competition. The Canucks were soundly out-shot and out-chanced when Ekman-Larsson and/or Myers were on the ice against the top forwards in the NHL, far more than league average.
Should the Canucks bring back Bear?
Just one defenceman put up above average results against elite competition: Ethan Bear. While Bear has flaws in his game, he didn’t falter when facing tough competition, likely aided by his excellent mobility and puck retrieval game.
There’s an argument to be made that Bear should have been used more in a shutdown role, something he had previously done with the Edmonton Oilers. At the very least, he couldn’t have done worse on the right side than Myers, who put up the worst results against elite competition.
Perhaps the Canucks should explore bringing back Bear, who went to free agency after the Canucks didn’t qualify him. Bear has said he still hopes to return to the Canucks.
“I would love to come back to the Canucks. I would love to,” said Bear to Postmedia’s Patrick Johnston. “But that’s how the business goes. I was talking with Patrik [Allvin] and he told me himself ‘we have to clear some cap space.’”
At least Quinn Hughes put up slightly below league average results against elite competition, though one might hope a number one defenceman could outplay elite competition rather than just treading water. Perhaps a better defence partner could help in that regard.
Canucks' new defencemen can handle elite competition
Speaking of, what about the Canucks’ new arrivals on the blue line? How did they perform against elite competition last season?
Keeping in mind that these results are going to be somewhat team dependent — defencemen who regularly play with stronger teammates will put up better results — these are some positive numbers.
Both Ian Cole and Filip Hronek played a lot against elite competition last season and had strong defensive results, particularly with the shot quality metric of dangerous fenwick. It’s easy to imagine Cole and Hronek together on a second pairing in a match-up role and holding their own against tough competition next season.
The results for Carson Soucy are interesting. He wasn’t used anywhere near as much against elite competition but, when he did face top forwards, he put up strong results, with a 51.6% corsi. In other words, the Seattle Kraken out-attempted their opponents when Soucy was on the ice against elite competition at 5-on-5.
Soucy’s dangerous fenwick results aren’t quite as strong, suggesting there might be some shot quality issues, but they’re still around league average.
At the very least, this suggests that Soucy should be able to handle a larger role than the third-pairing minutes he’s played thus far in his career. Whether that means Soucy belongs on a shutdown second pairing with Hronek or riding shotgun on the top pairing with Hughes remains to be seen.
There’s another option: Cole and Soucy could potentially play together as a shutdown pairing, leaving Hughes and Hronek as a more dangerous offensive top pairing. Cole and Soucy played together with the Minnesota Wild, so there’s some familiarity there.
It’s far more likely that the Canucks split up their two best puck-movers in Hughes and Hronek across the first and second pairings, but it’s an option.
Finally, there’s Matt Irwin, who had the worst results against elite competition of the four new additions to the lineup. Tellingly, Irwin’s “worst results” are roughly equivalent to how Hughes performed against elite competition last season. Considering Irwin is likely to be the team’s seventh defenceman and will likely only play sheltered minutes on the third pairing, his results are just fine.
Causes for concern and reasons for optimism
Let’s be clear: the Canucks didn’t sign any elite shutdown defencemen in free agency. No one’s anywhere close to someone like former Canuck Chris Tanev, who had a 59.9 DFF% against elite competition for the Calgary Flames last season.
Another concern is whether the defencemen they signed are simply a product of their environment. Cole and Soucy had solid results on very good teams — can they bring similar results to the Canucks or will they flounder in a different environment?
That's less of a concern for Hronek, who performed well for the thoroughly mediocre Detroit Red Wings. It should be noted that Hronek's two most frequent defence partners, Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta, seriously struggled against elite competition last season. Chiarot's 41.3 DFF% and Maatta's 38.0 DFF% were roughly equivalent to that of Ekman-Larsson and Myers. Hronek's solid results against elite competition came in spite of his defence partners, not because of them, and he could potentially perform even better with a stronger partner.
Ultimately, he Canucks’ additions on defence and, more importantly, their subtractions should give the Canucks a better chance against top forwards next season. Theoretically, between Soucy, Cole, Hronek, and perhaps a re-signed Bear, the Canucks should be able to put together a capable shutdown pairing.
At the very least, they should be better in that role than Ekman-Larsson and Myers.