By: Brayden Fengler / January 25, 2021
It’s hard to know where to begin with the Canucks defence right now. Imagine you’re in a police station viewing a criminal lineup, but the people in the lineup keep shuffling in and out of the room. That’s what it feels like to try and identify the problem that exists with the current Canucks defence core.
The Canucks lead the league in both total goals against and average goals against per game played. Their current goals against total is 33, a whole 10, count em’ 10, ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins, who currently each sit with 23 goals against. The Canucks average goals against is also the league’s highest at 4.67. Their goals for percentage is at 2.83. It doesn’t take a lot of processing power to look at those two numbers and realize, that a trip to the playoffs would not be in the cards for long, should those numbers not improve.
The Canucks have found themselves extremely flat-footed seven games into this NHL season. There was hope that Travis Hamonic would easily replace what was lost in Chris Tanev. As well as hopes that Nate Schmidt would become an immediate difference-maker on the blue line in the absence of veteran goaltender Jacob Markstrom. However, due to many factors, some outside of their control, It seems like the Canucks haven’t been able to overlook the reality of the depth that they lost in Free Agency.
The Black and Blue Line
The Canucks started the season without access to vetrain blueliner Jordie Benn due to covid protocol. When dressed on the teams blue line, his presence is never that of a Quinn Hughes or an Alex Edler, so this wasn’t exactly a gut punch. Although, being handcuffed in any way when drawing up lines, is never something a coach hopes for before the first puck drop.
The Canucks opened the season with these pairings:
If this doesn’t look familiar to you, that would be understandable. Both inept performance and unfortunate injury have caused the blueline to be a game of musical chairs.
Travis Green opted to keep the opening night pairings consistent throughout the Canucks first loss to the Edmonton Oilers, and back to back losses against the Calgary Flames. Only switching the Edler-Schmidt and the Hamonic-Hughes lines back and forth between being first and second pairings. It wasn’t until the Canucks first contest with the Montreal Canadiens that Green decided to make Olli Juolevi watch from the press box and have Jalen Chatfield dress in his place.
Chatfield’s initial outing would’ve likely not been enough to keep him in the lineup under normal circumstances. However we all know that the Canucks blueline has not been fortunate enough to be operating under normal circumstances.
Both Hamonic and Edler sat out Thursdays loss to Montreal, due to injury. This allowed Chatfield to remain in the lineup, in addition to being joined by Olli Juolevi and Brogan Rafferty. Sadly this young Canucks defence squad didn’t help breathe life into the blue line. Thursday night’s game against Montreal was the team’s worst blowout yet at 7-3.
Travis Green tried to shuffle up the lines ahead of Saturday’s third meeting with Montreal. However even with Alex Edler and Jordie Benn back in the fold, in place of Rafferty and Chatfield, the Canucks could only hold the Canadiens to a five goal production in that game, resulting in their 5-2 loss.
All this is to say, that yes, the Canucks have taken their licks with recent defensive injuries, and have not been able to roll their ideal roster in the past few games. Yet as the saying goes, “even a broken clock is right twice a day.” You would think that with the amount of defensive lineup iterations this team has seen so far this year, surely one combination would have stuck by now? Right?
What Part Do the Goalies Play in This?
Unfortunately it isn’t enough to stick Edler in front of the opposing team, and have him block every shot. This is where Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko need to come in. For the first time in his career, Demko has a real opportunity to step in and really make a claim for the starting spot. However, with three games played, and not a win to show for it, the early signs of him being a bonafide starter are not there yet. Additionally, while Braden Holtby brings more experience to the Canucks crease, he is sadly no single hand replacement for Jacob Markstrom.
Canucks fans got to see first hand what they were missing in Markstrom, as he helped the Flames hold both leads against the Canucks in each of the recent contests.
This is the kind of goaltending that the Canucks defence needs to remember that they no longer have. So many times last season, Markstrom was the difference maker in games that could’ve easily gone the other way. The Canucks no longer have a Vezina caliber goalie in the crease, and they need to stop playing like they do.
In the biggest blowout game against the Canadiens, nothing summed up the Canucks defence quite like the “Goaltender Interference” goal, that was in fact a legal goal, along with being completely self inflicted. In an act of desperation Rafferty pushes former Canuck Tyler Toffoli directly into the chest of Demko, momentarily handicapping him, and gifting Joel Armia an easy goal.
That goal, along with many others like it this season, will unfairly affect the look of Demko’s game on paper. When in reality, the poor performance from both him and Holtby is more a result of the nearly countless turnovers and giveaways they are being forced to deal with thanks to their teammates.
How Do the Canucks Move Forward?
The Canucks face a multitude of problems right now, with no clear solutions. They can’t rely on their goaltenders to single handedly win them games anymore, the path forward is for the elite and seasoned players on the Canucks defence, to really pick up their game.
Quinn Hughes has helped the Canucks on the scoreboard with six assists, but his defensive game has been lacking. He sits with the lowest +/- on the team at -7, and has been on the front lines of some poor Canucks turnovers already this season.
Hopefully though, with Alex Edler back in the lineup, and Hamonic ideally not too far behind him, the Canucks can rebuild some consistent blue line pairings. This thanks to almost every player having tested their chemistry with multiple different blue line partners.
The harsh reality is, if the Canucks don’t walk away with positive outcomes from their upcoming games against the Ottawa Senators, their entire season will be in question. Ottawa currently sits at the bottom of the standings in both the Canadian Division and the entire league. No one in the Canucks organization is going to look good, If they can’t win a series against one of the few teams that has a worse record than they do.