When a team is winning, there’s a tendency to avoid making changes. Why mess with a good thing and risk ruining it?
Here’s the thing: a team can get good results and still have issues that need to be addressed. Success should never be an excuse for avoiding improvement.
The Canucks are well aware of this: despite winning the night before in Anaheim, they made changes heading into their Tuesday game against the Los Angeles Kings, making like Roseanne and replacing one teenager with another and hoping we wouldn’t notice. Pretty soon it will be like season 8 and we’ll see both Jared “Lecy Goranson” McCann and Jake “Sarah Chalke” Virtanen and they’ll have to make all sorts of meta jokes about it.
But while they’re shuffling the forward lines and getting different players in the lineup, one player will once again be left in the press box: Yannick Weber.The Swiss defenceman has had issues staying in an NHL lineup so far in his career, but seemed to have finally earned his spot last season with the Canucks, appearing in 65 games and working his way onto the second pairing.
It looked like that’s where he would stay. This past off-season, the Canucks jettisoned a series of other right-handed rearguards -- Kevin Bieksa, Adam Clendening, and Frank Corrado -- leaving Weber and Chris Tanev as the only right-handed shots on the Canucks’ blueline. But instead of having a spot sewn up, Weber has been on the outside look in apart from filling in for Alex Edler when he fell ill.
Where the Canucks really need Weber is on the first unit power play. While it’s certainly not time to panic, the Canucks’ only power play goal through four games has come from the second unit. The first unit has shown some excellent puck movement, but the finish is lacking, partly because there’s no credible shooting threat from the blue line.
It’s been shown time and time again that the Sedins thrive with a right-handed shot at the point on the power play, as that lends itself easily to one-timers. Last season, the power play thrived when Weber was added to the first unit.
While Edler has a bomb of a slap shot, as he illustrated with his even-strength goal against the Kings, he has been unable to use it effectively on the power play. With the Sedins’ passes coming from the right boards, Edler has to stop the puck as a left-handed shot, giving penalty killers time to fill the shooting lane and forcing Edler to use his far less effective wristshot.
But Weber also has a powerful and accurate slap shot. He led all Canucks’ defencemen with 11 goals last season, with his 5 power play goals tying for second on the team behind only Radim Vrbata.
There’s a trickle-down effect from putting Weber on the top unit as well: Edler can move to the second unit, replacing the less offensively-inclined Chris Tanev alongside Ben Hutton.
Weber would make an immediate impact on the power play, but he’s also no slouch at even-strength. He worked well as a partner with Dan Hamhuis last season, showing that he is capable of filling a top-four role.
Early in the season he was averaging 14-15 minutes per game, but was up around 20 minutes per game by the end of the season. He and Hamhuis put up solid possession numbers together, with a 52.2% corsi in over 370 minutes partnered together at even-strength last season.
The newly acquired Matt Bartkowski has struggled in that role early in the season, though it should be noted that he’s playing on his off-side. Jim Benning and the coaching staff seem to prize his speed for breaking out of the defensive zone and avoiding the forecheck, but Weber is a good skater himself and makes a good first pass. Putting Weber in the lineup should not hurt the Canucks’ transition game.
Nor should it hurt the Canucks' physical game. Though Weber is small, he showed last year that he can compete in puck battles against larger forwards. In any case, Barkowski hasn't shown any inclination towards being more physical than Weber.
The issue then is who should come out? Ben Hutton has played well and fills an important role on the second power play unit. He has been a boon to Luca Sbisa as well, taking on the bulk of the zone exits with either his skating or passing. Sbisa, for his part, has looked improved through the first four games of the season.
Instead, Bartkowski, who hasn’t looked like a top-four defenceman through the first four games, should make way for Weber, who can return to Hamhuis’s right side on the second pairing. There’s very little to lose in putting Weber back in the lineup and potentially a lot to gain.