Vancouver Canucks: 2018 success depends on defence

VANCOUVER, BC - NOVEMBER 21: Christopher Tanev
VANCOUVER, BC - NOVEMBER 21: Christopher Tanev /

The Vancouver Canucks do have the youth and talent to surpass expectations in 2018, but their success will come down to the performance of the blue line.

If you look at stats, you’ll notice that the Vancouver Canucks have owned one of the worst defensive units in the NHL for some seasons now. Over the last four years (2014 to 2017), they’ve ranked 15th, 17th, 24th and 24th in goals against per game.

Fans shouldn’t really be all that surprised. Veterans Kevin Bieksa (traded to the Anaheim Ducks in 2015), Dan Hamhuis and Alexander Edler all regressed quicker than expected — not exactly looking like the players that took this team to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

Though Chris Tanev has morphed into one of the league’s top defensive blueliners, he doesn’t quite have that ability to take over games like Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban or Drew Doughty.

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The Canucks undoubtedly need more from their blueliners in 2017-18. There is a good mix of experienced veterans and speedy youngster.

But if the defence doesn’t make significant progress this upcoming season, then Vancouver will have problems improving from a dismal 2016-17 campaign.

General manager Jim Benning stuck to the rebuild plan and didn’t make a huge splash in free agency.

The main difference on the blue line is Michael Del Zotto (signed to a two-year deal worth $6 million), replaces Luca Sbisa — whom the Vegas Golden Knights took in the expansion draft.

The Canucks are committed to keeping their defence fairly young, and filled with fast puck-movers like Troy Stecher, Edler (not fast, but can move the puck), Ben Hutton and now Del Zotto.

Defence looks leaky at best

But you can’t teach defence overnight. It’s a position where players have to develop the brains, skills and fundamentals to do it properly. Stecher is coming off his rookie season, Hutton is heading into year three and Erik Gudbranson has played 309 games — not exactly a veteran.

Though Edler and Del Zotto each have a ton of experience under their respective belts, neither of them are truly top-pairing defencemen. They’re No. 3 or 4 blueliners on most Stanley Cup contenders.

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We know Tanev is going to be sound and responsible in his own end. It’s too bad he doesn’t have that offensive upside, but you can only ask for so much. The Canucks would probably love to get prospect Olli Juolevi to learn from Tanev, but there’s a high chance he doesn’t crack the roster this season.

So you have some young, inexperienced players. You have some solid but not great veterans. The Canucks defence doesn’t look awful, but it’s far from great. There are definitely some concerns as to whether or not this blue line is actually ready for a big turnaround in 2018.

Blue line will make-or-break 2018

Yes, the Canucks do have a solid looking top-six that includes Bo Horvat, Markus Granlund, Sven Baertschi, Sam Gagner and Brock Boeser. But are they all going to become superstar scorers this upcoming season? No.

The Canucks aren’t going to score a whole ton of goals in 2018 — wait another year or two. As I wrote here, the goaltending situation is also filled with plenty of questions.

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If Vancouver is to fight for a playoff spot, they’ll have to transition into a defence-first/shutdown team under new head coach Travis Green. It’s plenty to ask for, yes. But if you are hoping to see progress from the Vancouver Canucks, then a big year from the blue line is their only hope of turning things around.

*All stats courtesy of Hockey Reference*