Initial indications are that less is more for the Vancouver Canucks’ blueline in this lockout-shortened National Hockey League season. Then again, there are signs that more is more.
Increasing the roles of depth defencemen Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev and using them regularly and in most situations these days has eased the burden on the likes of Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler, and newcomer Jason Garrison.
As a result, the Canucks’ defence, top to bottom, has been one of the strengths of a hockey club that won seven of its first 11 games and held opponents to just five goals on a recent five-game win streak.
While the goaltenders continue to garner the bulk of the attention from all corners of the hockey world, they are being helped on a nightly basis by a defence corps that isn’t leaning on its top four to shoulder a heavy workload. Much of that is due to the fact that Ballard and Tanev have been up to every challenge that’s come their way.
In the past, Ballard has had trouble escaping the coach’s doghouse, but so far this season he seems to have had the slate wiped clean. And he and unflappable youngster Tanev have managed to play low-risk, high-reward hockey in their own zone.
“I think you can kind of redefine our group as a top six,” veteran Bieksa tells the Georgia Straight in an interview after a recent practice at Rogers Arena. “Ballard and Tanev have been playing really well for us. The coaches have said they don’t hesitate to put them out against any line, and we feel the same way. If they’re out there against the other team’s top line, we’re not looking for a change. We let them play against the other team’s best players. They’re playing well defensively and we have full confidence in them, and they’re playing some of their best hockey.”
Through the first 11 games of the season, Bieksa’s average per-game ice time is down almost a minute and a half compared to his season average a year ago. Edler and Hamhuis have seen their minutes reduced as well. In fact, no Canuck is among the top 35 defencemen in the league in terms of ice time so far this season. By playing slightly less, the guys the Canucks lean on in the crunch should be fresher late in games and should be able to avoid situations where fatigue leads to penalties.
Over the course of a compressed schedule, spreading the minutes should also help the Canucks when they get into runs of three games in four nights or four in six. It’s also allowing defencemen to jump into the rush and contribute offensively, with Ballard the only blueliner without a goal a month into the new season.
And it’s not just on the ice that this balanced deployment has benefited the Canucks. The added contributions from the bottom pairing have also helped the defence corps with bench communication.
“We don’t have to panic too much back there about matchups and can just roll through our pairs,” Hamhuis explains. “With Ballard and Tanev, they can handle big lines too. You’re not double- and triple-shifting guys just to get a matchup. If it happens [that] they’re out there against a top line, we don’t worry about it because they can handle it. I just think it creates better flow on the back end.”
Right now, the Canucks are going with that flow and reaping the rewards of a blueline depth that’s almost unrivalled in the NHL. One of the most underrated factors that helped Los Angeles win last spring’s Stanley Cup was the Kings’ use of the same six defencemen in all 20 of their playoff games. There were no injuries or changes needed due to poor performance. The same guys showed up and stepped up night after night, getting better as they advanced through the postseason.
It’ll be months before the Canucks get another chance to prove themselves in the playoffs, but right now they’re seeing how continuity and familiarity are able to produce the desired results. And the strong play of the blueliners isn’t going unnoticed by the team’s last line of defence.
“We’re very fortunate to have three very strong pairings on the back end,” says netminder Cory Schneider. “As a goalie, there are teams I have played on when you’re a little nervous when certain guys are on the ice, but not this team. Every pairing they roll out there does its job and plays the right way. As goalies and defencemen, we have learned so much from each other and learned how to play together that you can tell what to expect from each guy and they know what to expect from us. That symmetry shows itself on the ice in the fact we’re not giving up many chances.”
Aside from an opening-night meltdown when the Anaheim Ducks chased Schneider and clobbered the Canucks 7–3, opponents have struggled to score against Vancouver. Only one of the next 10 teams the Canucks faced managed to put more than a pair of pucks in the net.
In today’s NHL, holding opponents to two or fewer should result in victories, and so far, for the most part, that’s been the case for the Canucks. Their hope is that the bottom pairing can keep up its strong play and that the top-four blueliners continue to benefit from the slightly reduced workload.
Without a doubt, there will be some bumps along the way, but right now it’s hard to argue with the results. And much of the success stems from the play of the Canucks defencemen, who, to a man, have settled into their roles—whether that’s more or less than they thought it would be.