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What are the Canucks’ best defence pairings for the playoffs?

The Vancouver Canucks have one set defence pairing: Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek. But what are the ideal pairings behind them?
Where to play Ian Cole is a key question facing the Vancouver Canucks as they sort out their defence pairings heading into the playoffs.

The Vancouver Canucks are one of the best defensive teams in the NHL.

That’s stunning considering where they were last season: a defensive disaster that constantly gave up dangerous chances off the rush and cross-seam passes. This season, with an overhaul of the defence corps and a more defensively-detailed system under head coach Rick Tocchet, the Canucks are a brand new team. Only the Winnipeg Jets and Florida Panthers have allowed fewer goals against at 5-on-5 than the Canucks and it’s not just goaltending — they’ve also allowed the fourth-fewest shots on goal at 5-on-5.

While the Canucks have had some outstanding offensive performances this season, with J.T. Miller hitting 100 points and Brock Boeser scoring his 40th goal on Monday, it’s their defence that has been the biggest factor in getting them to a position to potentially win the Pacific Division.

It could also be the biggest factor in whether or not the Canucks make a deep run in the playoffs. That makes it essential that they get their defence pairings right.

The Canucks have just one set defence pairing

Aside from brief appearances from Akito Hirose and Cole McWard, the Canucks have used eight defencemen this season. In order of total time on ice with the Canucks, they are Quinn Hughes, Filip Hronek, Ian Cole, Tyler Myers, Nikita Zadorov, Noah Juulsen, Carson Soucy, and Mark Friedman. 

From those eight defencemen, 18 different defence pairings have spent at least 30 minutes together at 5-on-5. Ten of those pairings have spent at least 100 minutes together. Just one of them has played together for over 350 minutes this season: Hughes and Hronek.

What that means is the Canucks have a lot of different options for how to construct their defence pairings as they head into the postseason.

Here are the defence pairings the Canucks have used recently, including their win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday:

Quinn Hughes - Filip Hronek
Carson Soucy - Tyler Myers
Nikita Zadorov - Ian Cole

Much like how we looked at the forward lines earlier this week, we can look at the results the Canucks have had with each defence pairing on the ice to see if we can determine anything about which pairings make the most sense.

We’ll start with a sortable and searchable table so you can see the same basic data I’m working with from Evolving-Hockey. You can put a defenceman’s name in the search bar and isolate all the pairings with that specific player.

The statistics here are just time on ice together as a pairing at 5-on-5, shot attempts (corsi) for and against, expected goals for and against, and actual goals for and against. The data includes an adjustment for score. We’ll look at some other statistics as we go, but this is a starting point.

Who should play with Quinn Hughes?

We may as well start with what is, theoretically, the easiest question to answer: who should play on the top pairing with their number-one defenceman, Quinn Hughes?

The Canucks have dominated with Hughes and Filip Hronek on the ice, out-scoring their opponents 72-to-45 when they’re on the ice together at 5-on-5. No other defence pairing in the NHL has been on the ice together for more goals at 5-on-5.

Hughes is the primary driver of that success, but Hronek’s ability to complement Hughes’ game should not be overlooked. In Hronek, Hughes finally has a defence partner who can handle and pass the puck almost as well as he can and has excellent instincts in the offensive zone, which opens up more opportunities for Hughes to get creative.

Hronek has also gotten noticeably more aggressive and physical down the stretch run to the playoffs, improving in his defensive play, particularly along the boards in the defensive zone where he previously would lose a lot of battles.

“I think he’s trending up. I’ve really liked his game,” said Tocchet. “His defending has been really good the last couple of weeks closing in on people.”

But there are two other Hughes pairings that have performed even better by both the underlying analytics and goals for and against. Hughes and Ian Cole surprisingly have the best expected goal percentage (xGF%) together as a pairing, followed closely by Hughes and Tyler Myers.

Let’s be clear: these are small sample statistics. Hughes and Cole have never spent a full game together; Hughes and Myers have just a handful of games where they’ve been paired together for a full game. But when Hughes ends up on the ice with Cole or Myers, whether as part of a line change or a temporary pairing after a penalty kill or power play, it’s worked out well for the Canucks.

Consider that just something the Canucks can keep in their back pocket, that Cole’s stay-at-home defensive game can be a useful complement to Hughes in short stints and that Myers is an option as well.

Regrettably, Noah Juulsen has not been the fit with Hughes this season that he was in a brief stint last season. That pairing just hasn’t been effective this season. The Canucks should also avoid playing Nikita Zadorov on his off-side with Hughes — they’ve had a disastrous 39.60 xGF% together, albeit in a very small sample.

But let’s be real: however other players have performed with Hughes, the top pairing is going to be Hughes and Hronek in the playoffs.

Do the Canucks have a shutdown second pairing?

The second pairing is where things get interesting.

The Canucks arguably have four defencemen who are capable of playing on a second pairing in Soucy, Myers, Zadorov, and Cole. Their minutes this season illustrate that, as all four are hovering around 15 minutes per game at 5-on-5, with Myers at the high end at 15:49 and Soucy at the low end at 14:48.

What would be ideal is if the Canucks had a second pairing that can play shutdown minutes matched up against the best forwards on the opposition. As much as Hughes and Hronek are perfectly capable of playing head-to-head against tough opponents, it would be nice to free them up from that duty from time to time in the playoffs.

So, who’s the best fit for that role? Let’s start with who isn’t: Nikita Zadorov. 

If we look at Zadorov’s pairings this season, not one has been above 50% in expected goals, even if the Canucks have still outscored their opposition in those minutes. The Canucks have a very high .933 save percentage with Zadorov on the ice at 5-on-5, which is not something they can necessarily count on in the postseason.

In addition, Zadorov hasn’t been trusted to play against top competition and for good reason. If we look at PuckIQ’s quality of competition data, only Juulsen and Mark Friedman have played a lower percentage of their minutes against elite competition. No other Canucks defenceman has a worse corsi or dangerous fenwick percentage (DFF%) against elite competition than Zadorov. 

If we look purely at defensive numbers against elite competition, two names rise to the top: Cole and Soucy.

Cole and Soucy have performed the best against elites in dangerous fenwick against (DFA/60), which is a shot quality metric from PuckIQ. The only defenceman with a better rate of shot attempts against (CA/60) than Cole and Soucy when facing elite competition is Quinn Hughes.

Intriguingly, when we look at the pairing data, the same two defencemen show up with the best expected goals against (xGA/60), a shot quality metric from Evolving-Hockey: Cole - Soucy.

Cole and Soucy have the third-best xGF% among Canucks pairings behind two other Cole pairings: Hughes - Cole, who haven’t played a full game together, and Cole - Friedman, who were significantly sheltered early in the season as a third pairing. Cole also has solid xGA/60 numbers with Juulsen, though, like his pairing with Friedman, they were sheltered in a third-pairing role.

The Cole - Soucy pairing, on the other hand, has faced tough opponents and shut them down pretty effectively across 95.8 minutes at 5-on-5. That’s not a huge sample but it’s enough to suggest this pairing deserves a longer look.

It’s worth noting that Cole and Myers have performed well together overall with a 54.00 xGF% but they’re a high-event pairing than the Canucks would like in that role and have been out-scored at 5-on-5. 

So, why have the Canucks strayed away from using Cole and Soucy together? One reason might be those other Cole pairings I’ve mentioned. The Canucks have liked putting Cole on the third pairing with the likes of Juulsen and Friedman to help them along with his steady defensive game.

That leaves the current pairing of Soucy and Myers, who have essentially broken even by each of these metrics, with a 50.74 CF%, 49.28 xGF%, and 53.05 GF%. While it would be better if this pairing more regularly won their matchups, they are a much lower-event pairing than Cole and Myers, which leads to less stress on the hearts of the coaching staff.

Who fits best on the Canucks’ third pairing?

A third pairing needs to be steady and reliable, as well as contribute on special teams. In the match-up chess of the playoffs, the third pairing also needs to be able to hold their own against tough competition when the situation calls for it.

If we go solely by their numbers together as a pairing, the Canucks’ best option for a third pair is Cole and Friedman. They have a sparkling 58.13 xGF% together in nearly 122 minutes at 5-on-5. 

There’s some context necessary for that, of course. They were given sheltered minutes together, with the coaching staff avoiding elite competition for Friedman at all costs. That’s not sustainable in the regular season, let alone the playoffs, so it’s understandable why Friedman has ended up as a healthy scratch for most of the season.

It makes sense: Friedman’s minutes against elite competition this season have been high-event minutes, with the highest rate of shot attempts against (CA/60) and goals against among Canucks defencemen.

The pairing of Cole and Juulsen, on the other hand, is more realistic as an option. 

Among Canucks pairings who have spent at least 100 minutes together at 5-on-5, the Cole - Juulsen pairing has the lowest xGA/60 and the second-lowest GA/60. But it’s not just their defensive performance: they have a 53.89 xGF% as a pairing, which means the Canucks have out-chanced their opposition with them on the ice.

Juulsen’s numbers against elite competition haven’t been as good, however, which could be a concern. 

A Cole - Juulsen third pairing also leaves out Zadorov. That might be justifiable looking at the underlying analytics for Zadorov’s pairings, which are not great. 

On the other hand, only Soucy has been on the ice for a lower rate of goals against than Zadorov, so maybe something isn’t quite being captured by the analytics here. 

So, if Zadorov is going to be on the third pairing, then Zadorov - Cole has the best underlying numbers of any Zadorov pairing, with a 48.60 xGF% and averaging 2.21 xGA/60, the third-best xGA/60 among CAnucks pairings with at least 100 minutes together at 5-on-5.

Both of these potential third pairings feature Ian Cole. The only non-Cole option would be Zadorov - Myers, which happens to have the worst xGF% of any Myers pairing. To be fair, that duo played as a second pairing together against tough competition, so perhaps they would perform better in a third-pairing role.

What are the Canucks’ ideal pairings?

There are no perfect answers here for how to arrange the Canucks’ defence pairings after Hughes and Hronek on the top pair. But there are two distinct options that could make sense.

One option is exactly what they currently are using. After going through this data, it's pretty understandable why they have landed on these pairings:

Quinn Hughes - Filip Hronek
Carson Soucy - Tyler Myers
Nikita Zadorov - Ian Cole

Soucy and Myers are far from an ideal second pairing but they’re the Canucks’ best option if they want to use Cole on the third pairing. 

That third pairing could be replaced by Cole and Juulsen — there’s certainly a statistical argument to be made for it — but the Canucks are likely to go with the defenceman who’s been on the ice for fewer goals against between Zadorov and Juulsen.

The other option would mean going back to the very effective Cole and Soucy pairing behind Hughes and Hronek:

Quinn Hughes - Filip Hronek
Ian Cole - Carson Soucy
Nikita Zadorov - Tyler Myers

Myers’ best xGF% this season, by the way, is with Mark Friedman but that again falls into the same issue as Cole with Friedman: on a sheltered third pairing, Friedman can play a successful high-event game, but in the playoffs where sheltering a pairing is a lot harder to do, Friedman isn’t quite steady enough.

That leaves Zadorov with Myers and the hope that in a lesser role than what they played earlier in the season, it could work out better. 

Let’s be completely clear: even if there is no perfect arrangement of pairings here, there aren’t that many bad options. 

Just two defence pairings that have spent at least 30 minutes together at 5-on-5 have a rate of expected goals against above three and they’re pairings that are unlikely to see the ice at any point in the playoffs.

The one concern is that those two pairings both feature Filip Hronek. The pairings of Hronek - Myers and Cole - Hronek have been the Canucks’ two most suspect pairings defensively. Part of the issue with putting together ideal pairings is that Hronek hasn’t been able to carry a pairing away from Hughes, which is why they’re left trying to find the right fit with their remaining defencemen. 

While that might cause some concerns when it comes to Hronek’s contract, those are concerns for after the playoffs. Until then, the Canucks have enough good options available to put together a solid defence corps for a playoff run.