Analyzing which defensive pairs give the Canucks the best chance of winning

Mar 3 2020, 5:44 pm

The Vancouver Canucks appeared ready to make the NHL postseason for the first time in five seasons.

That was before they lost their starting goaltender and blew their cushion in the standings.

Despite Thatcher Demko and Louis Domingue feeling the heat for their recent subpar performances, it’s clear to anyone who watches this team with one eye open that the defence is the Achilles heel of this team.

On the season, the Canucks have given up the second-most shots and the fourth-most scoring chances at even strength. This could be a problem for de-facto starting goaltender Demko, who has struggled this season.

The problem still falls back on Travis Green, Nolan Baumgartner, and the Canucks’ defence to figure out how to best prevent chances. That might come from analyzing which defensive pairs perform best.

Here’s are some options for the Canucks.

Some notes on the projected defensive pairs

1. Can Quinn Hughes just play 60 minutes of hockey? Of the 12 defensive combinations on the Canucks who have played more than 50 minutes at even-strength, the three combos that use Hughes have the first, second, and fourth-best overall Corsi.

2. Neither Jordie Benn and Oscar Fantenberg have been all that good this season. However, Fantenberg’s possession numbers are slightly better than Benn’s so he gets the nod in this mock-up.

3. Although there won’t be many adjustments this season, the door is certainly open next season for someone like Olli Juolevi or Nikita Tryamkin to slot into the lineup instead of Benn or Fantenberg.

4. Although it was tempting to slot in defenders on their opposite side, I tried to stick with pairs that had actually seen some time together on the Canucks this season.

5. Injuries could impact the decision of the coaching staff, with Hughes and Tyler Myers reportedly day-to-day right now. Nonetheless, these projections were made with the thought that the defence remains healthy.

6. For reference, the stats below are even-strength time on ice (EV TOI), Corsi For percentage (CF%), and expected goals for percentage (xGF%).

The “Safe Decision” Defensive Pairs

Quinn Hughes – Chris Tanev

EV TOI: 663:19
CF%: 49.2%
xGF%: 50.1%

This represents a small adjustment to the two bottom pairings, while keeping together the fairly effective duo of Hughes and Chris Tanev.

No pair has played together more than Hughes and Tanev this season, and you can see the logic. Tanev is the wily defensive veteran who can play that stay-at-home game while Hughes works his magic offensively.

Of course, Hughes has been so much more than that. The defensive part of his game has been dangerous at times, but he’s often been very effective at closing gaps in the neutral zone. In general, Hughes is a star who plays well with everyone, so he’s not the player to be concerned about.

Alex Edler – Tyler Myers 

EV TOI: 385:12
CF%: 52.4%
xGF%: 49.2%

Only three of 12 Canucks pairings to play more than 50 minutes together this season were above 50% Corsi. The only one of those pairs that didn’t Hughes, was Alex Edler and Myers.

The duo was split up during the November struggles despite their surprising dominance early in the season. This still stands as one of the best pairings that the Canucks could utilize, as Myers has struggled mightily when not playing with Hughes or Edler.

Of late Myers has been playing with Fantenberg on the third pairing, and they’ve been on the ice for five even-strength goals over the last five games. Reuniting him with Edler gives the Canucks a solid second pairing that can be trusted at both ends of the ice.

Oscar Fantenberg – Troy Stecher 

EV TOI: 72:40
CF%: 47.3%
xGF%: 41%

It’s a bit of a turtle race to decide who plays with Troy Stecher on the third pairing, but the slight nod goes to Fantenberg. Benn and Stecher had their struggles together, while this suggestion has less of a track record together.

Some of the defensive numbers aren’t great, but it’s worth noting that the pair hasn’t been on the ice for a goal against. They’re both good puck movers and they’ve allowed fewer scoring chances than all the Canucks pairings that don’t include Hughes.

The “Risky Business” Defensive Pairs

Quinn Hughes – Troy Stecher 

EV TOI: 57:58
CF%: 62.1%
xGF%: 57.7%

This idea has been floated (mainly by fans and pundits), but Green has never really given this a shot. It’s easy to understand the hesitance. While the potential chemistry is there and the underlying numbers are good, is this duo really to be trusted with game intensity wrapping up? Could they really handle their own physically?

I’m skeptical of that myself, but it might also be time to give this a shot for a few games. Seriously, the Canucks defence can’t get much worse. They bleed chances at an extremely high rate, and this pairing has the hockey IQ, compete level and puck-moving ability to make this a viable option.

Alex Edler – Tyler Myers

EV TOI: 385:12
CF%: 52.4%
xGF%: 49.2%

We’ve been over this. It’s time to reunite the Canucks’ two highest-paid defencemen.

Oscar Fantenberg – Chris Tanev 

EV TOI: 79:00
CF%: 41%
xGF%: 40.6%

This pairing hasn’t played much together this season, and the numbers above don’t look pretty, so why suggest this pairing?

This really comes down to the fact that Myers needs to be off of the bottom pairing. Going back to his time in Winnipeg, he always struggled with replacement-level players, but he played well with good defencemen.

Expecting Myers to perform in a bottom-pairing role isn’t a viable strategy. There’s more hope for Tanev to succeed in this spot. It’s also worth noting that Tanev and Fantenberg have a goals-for percentage of 66%.

The bottom line is, there’s no perfect solution with the Canucks current make-up. What the team really needs is a reliable third-pairing defenceman. Benn was supposed to be that guy, but since he’s not, there aren’t any other viable options to turn to, unless the team trusts Juolevi enough for a call-up.

Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.