Through all of the Canucks’ roster changes and line juggling this season, there’s been one constant: the defence.
Apart from one game where Quinn Hughes was injured, the Canucks have used the same defence pairings all season: a top pairing of Alex Edler and Tyler Myers, a second pairing of Hughes and Chris Tanev, and a third pairing of Jordie Benn and Troy Stecher.
Each of those three pairings has played over 220 minutes at 5-on-5 for the Canucks this season. No other pairings have played even 50 minutes together, and that’s mostly just been a minute or two per game when different defencemen are on the ice together after a power play or penalty kill, in the midst of a line change, or after an injury takes a defenceman out of the game.
At Thursday’s game day skate in Nashville, however, the Canucks made a change on their defence. They’ll go into their game against the Predators with two completely different defence pairings.
Along with a couple other lineup changes at forward — Zach MacEwen draws into the lineup in place of Sven Baertschi and Tyler Graovac in place of Loui Eriksson, to start — the Canucks have switched up the first and third pairings. Edler will skate with Stecher, moving Myers to the third pairing with Benn.
That leaves Hughes and Tanev as the only intact defence pairing, which makes sense: they were clearly the Canucks’ best pairing on Tuesday. When Hughes and Tanev were on the ice together at 5-on-5, the Stars didn’t get a single shot on goal and out-scored the Stars 1-0. In a 6-1 game, that’s pretty impressive.
Edler and Myers, on the other hand, have struggled in recent games after a very strong October where they were legitimately one of the best defence pairings in the NHL. Over the last four games, however, the Canucks have been out-chanced 49-to-25 when Edler and Myers have been on the ice at 5-on-5, nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.*
One issue is that Edler might be fatigued. The Canucks have a balanced defence corps, with a third pairing in Benn and Stecher that has shown the ability to play big minutes in the past. Despite that, Edler has racked up big minutes, averaging 24:52 per game.
In early November, those minutes spiked during games where defencemen were injured, and he played 30:25 against the Anaheim Ducks and 29:18 against the San Jose Sharks. Those are significant minutes for a 33 year old with an injury history like Edler’s.
Stecher, meanwhile, is averaging just 13:45 per game, after averaging 19:55 per game last season. This has become a pattern for Stecher, as every season he starts at the bottom and works his way up.
Pairing Edler, the team’s leader in minutes, with Stecher, who is averaging the fewest minutes among Canucks defencemen, could shrink the gap between the two of them. Edler and Stecher certainly have plenty of experience playing together; Edler has been Stecher’s most frequent partner during his career, with over 1400 minutes together at 5-on-5.
In response to The Athletic’s Thomas Drance, Green suggested that part of the reasoning behind switching up the defence pairings is to distribute ice time a little more amongst their defencemen — “We want a different look tonight. Part of it is some minutes might get cut.” — but it wasn’t the primary reason.
“Sometimes it’s good to change things up when you lose,” he said.
Some of the impetus for changing up the pairings might have been revealed when TSN 1040’s Jeff Paterson asked Green about goaltending and coming back with Jacob Markstrom after he gave up six goals on Tuesday in Dallas.
“I just think that last game, we didn’t give up a lot of chances, but we gave up some Grade-A chances,” said Green.
Perhaps Green feels that pairing Edler with Stecher and Benn with Myers will limit some of those Grade-A chances. It did seem in Dallas that Myers was having trouble with some of the odd-man rushes created by the Stars.
The opening minutes provided a particularly stark example. Though the goal was disallowed on an offside review and you can certainly criticize Brock Boeser for losing Justin Dowling in the neutral zone, note how Myers doesn’t shoulder check even once, never picking up the onrushing Dowling, even as the backchecking Elias Pettersson was on the puck carrier.
That’s not to throw Myers under the bus — most of the team struggled on Tuesday — but perhaps that plays into moving Myers to the third pairing with Benn. Baertschi had a bad backcheck on Tuesday that likely played a role in him getting scratched for Thursday’s game, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest similar struggles for Myers resulted in a bit of a demotion.
In any case, the Canucks owe it to themselves to see if they can find some other effective defence pairings. Given they’ve won just one of their last eight games, it seems like a good time to try something new.
*Statistics via Natural Stat Trick.