The Canucks did a major overhaul of their defence in the off-season, adding Tyler Myers, Jordie Benn, and Oscar Fantenberg, not to mention rookie Quinn Hughes.
At the NHL Trade Deadline, Canucks GM Jim Benning chose not to make any more tweaks to their blue line, despite rumours surrounding Troy Stecher and Tyson Barrie.
“I’m happy with our defence,” said Benning after the trade deadline. “We talked in different situations to different teams, but nothing really made sense. I didn’t think, for us, it was going to improve us drastically.”
According to Benning, the Canucks didn’t actively try to move Stecher, but plenty of other teams inquired as to his availability. According to Elliotte Friedman, the Leafs were interested in Stecher as part of a potential Barrie trade, but the Canucks didn’t have the right mix of picks and prospects available to make it work.
Numerous other defencemen were moved before the noon deadline — Mike Green, Brady Skjei, Erik Gustafsson, and Sami Vatanen, for instance — but the Canucks decided to stand pat.
That could be concerning. Jacob Markstrom’s incredible goaltending this season has masked a serious issue for the Canucks: they give up a ton of scoring chances.
At 5-on-5, the Canucks give up the third-highest rate of scoring chances in the NHL, according to Natural Stat Trick. The only two teams that allow a higher rate of scoring chances are the Chicago Blackhawks and New Jersey Devils, both of whom are near the bottom of the NHL standings.
It’s been evident from more than just the numbers, however. All you have to do is watch the games: the Canucks visibly give up a lot of chances from dangerous areas on the ice, but have been bailed out by Markstrom and, to a lesser extent, Thatcher Demko.
What exactly is the source of the problem?
Perhaps it might help to look at the Canucks’ defence pairings this season and see which pairings have worked well and which have not. To this end, I took each Canucks pairing that has played at least 50 minutes together at 5-on-5 and look at their rate of expected goals for and against.
Expected goals is a statistic that measure both shot quantity and quality by using a variety of elements, from shot distance, shot angle, shot type, rebounds, and other data. It measures the likelihood of each shot becoming a goal based on past probabilities. Expected goals is a useful statistic for this exercise as it provides more useful data in a small sample than just goals for and against, but also provides shot quality information that a shot-based statistic like corsi and fenwick do not include. So, a defenceman that is better at preventing scoring chances should do better by expected goals than corsi.
I took the expected goals for and against per 60 minutes for each Canucks pairing and compared them to the league average, represented by zero on each axis.
I’ve added some labels to each quadrant on the chart, but also a diagonal dashed line that represents 50% expected goals: being above the diagonal indicates that the Canucks are out-chancing their opponents when that pairing is on the ice.
What we see here is that the only three pairings above 50% xGF are the three pairings with Quinn Hughes. In other words, when Hughes isn’t on the ice, the Canucks are getting out-chanced by the opposition.
That’s not entirely surprising — Hughes is a game-changer for the Canucks — but it is concerning.
The two pairings that fall in the “good” quadrant are Hughes’ pairings with Tyler Myers and Troy Stecher, but that needs a little context. Hughes primarily plays with Myers when the Canucks are trailing and pushing for a comeback. They also get significantly skewed offensive usage — a whopping 86.87% of their non-neutral zone shifts have started in the offensive zone, highest on the Canucks by about 30 points.
Meanwhile, Hughes and Stecher almost never start a shift together: their 50+ minutes come almost exclusively on the fly, whether in the middle of a line change or as a temporary line juggle. Their excellent results together, however, suggest that maybe Hughes and Stecher should spend a little more time together, which might be something that was suggested a year ago by yours truly.
Hughes and Tanev, on the other hand, have faced tougher minutes than the other Hughes pairings, so their ability to stay above 50% xGF should be commended, even if they have been on the ice for an above-average rate of expected goals against.
The real trouble is all the other pairings.
Two pairings with Alex Edler — one with Myers and one with Stecher — are the closest to 50% xGF. All the others are in some troubled territory. Those are the third pairings with one of Jordie Benn or Oscar Fantenberg on the left side.
No one has looked particularly good with Benn or Fantenberg, with the Benn/Myers pairing going off the chart entirely. You can call the Benn/Myers pairing “way too fun,” like when Lord Zedd cast a spell on Rocky, the Red Ranger, that made him constantly have fun, to his own detriment. They are above average in terms of expected goals for, but give up a terrifying number of chances against.
If the Canucks can’t have three “good” pairings, it would be a lot less scary if their third pairing could at least be consistently “dull.” That means not creating much of anything offensively, but at least preventing the other team from creating dangerous scoring chances for the 15-17 minutes they play each game.
When it comes to third pairings, sometimes boring is a good thing. It would be better if the Canucks could control puck possession with dynamic, puck-moving defencemen creating chances on every pairing, but if that option isn't available, it's better to play some prevent defence.
What’s the solution for the Canucks? There isn’t one that’s readily apparent. The pairing of Fanteberg and Tanev is the closest to dull, but gives up more offensively than any other Canucks pairing. Still, it might be the Canucks’ best option.
That would mean shuffling the other two pairings as well, reuniting Edler and Myers to play in a matchup role, while giving a Hughes/Stecher pairing a chance to put up points. It would be a risky move, however, as Hughes and Stecher are relatively untested as a pairing. Are the Canucks willing to take that risk with less than 20 games remaining in the season?
If they’re not willing to mix up the pairings, the Canucks need to figure out a systematic solution to the chances they’re giving up with the third pairing on the ice.