With a new-look blue line, there is plenty of reason for Vancouver Canucks fans to be optimistic. But is it enough to qualify for the postseason?
2011 was the last time the Vancouver Canucks were a true contender. It wouldn’t be fair to say that this blue line can immediately compare to anything like the one they deployed when eight years ago, when the team won the President’s Trophy and fell just one game short of winning their first ever Stanley Cup championship.
But are the Canucks on the right track now?
In 2011, the Canucks utilized nine different defenders that played over 25 games each. Sami Salo, Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa, Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis, Aaron Rome, Andrew Alberts, as well as younger versions of Alex Edler and Chris Tanev all played various key roles in getting the Canucks within 60 minutes of glory.
Ehrhoff was a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman that was picked up via a trade with the San Jose Sharks. He had a career year in 2010-11 with 50 points and 14 goals. In two seasons with the Canucks, Ehrhoff fulfilled the power play quarterback role need that the Canucks had been searching for.
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Today, many hold out a lot of hope that Quinn Hughes can fill a similar void. It might not be immediate, but Hughes certainly has all the tools in his arsenal to fill even bigger boots Ehrhoff.
We were all able to catch a small glimpse of him at the end of last season, and it was absolutely mesmerizing. His hands and skating are at such an elite level that he has been compared to the likes of Hall of Fame defenceman Scott Niedermayer.
Bieksa was tough as nails, but provided more than just a strong physical presence from the blueline. Averaging around 22:28 minutes a night through the 2010-11 season.
Bieksa ate up minutes for Vancouver and though he didn’t produce much offence, he scored when it was needed most. This included the game-winning goal in double overtime of Game 5 against San Jose in the Western Conference Final — punching Vancouver’s ticket to the Stanley Cup.
Looking at career numbers thus far and keeping in mind that Tyler Myers has yet to lace them up for the Canucks, it seems that this is an easy role for the 29-year-old to fill. Eat big minutes, chip in offensively and play physical hockey. Myers does, however, bring more offence in his game and obviously size, so some may think this to be an upgrade.
Hamhuis was an excellent defender that brought stability not only to his pairing but to the entire line. Not afraid to step up and throw a hit (or his patented hip check), he was known for his defensive prowess.
Offensively, he contributed as equally as Bieksa which gave the Canucks well rounded scoring depth off their back end. Troy Stecher plays a similar role to this now despite his smaller stature. Stecher is a smart defender that has a knack for being in the right place. Both of those abilities allow him to gel his game to an offensive defenceman because he can switch sides and not be exposed while his partner roves.
Much of the Canucks current depth can be compared to the remainder of examples from the 2011 group with the exceptions to Edler and Tanev, who are still on the team but play more veteran style roles than they did eight years ago.
However, there is one more role missing: Sami Salo.
Salo was a weapon on the power play with his signature slap shot. The “Finnish MacInnis” victimized penalty killers who were already preoccupied with trying to contain Daniel and Henrik Sedin. A similar type player would be extremely effective today.
With the likes of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat, adding a threat from the top would further spread out penalty killers and force them to dial in less on guys like Pettersson since he now has more options at his disposal. As of this moment, Canucks do not have a guy to truly fill this role. Yes, they have guys that can shoot plus offensive-minded defencemen, but they don’t have that one guy that poses a big-time shot like Salo did.
There are two potential targets that general manager Jim Benning can try to acquire. The first, Rasmus Ristolainen of the Buffalo Sabres. Not known for his defensive game, the hulking 24-year-old Fin, imposes a legitimate threat offensively.
It is probable that he could be on the move after the Sabres have added a great deal to their right side with Henri Jokiharju and Colin Miller. Last season, Ristolainen finished with 43 points which would’ve been good for second-most among defencemen on the 2011 team. Putting Ristolainen in a sheltered role where he can be utilized for his offensive strength and have his defensive weaknesses reduced by either use or by whomever he is paired with, he could add a great deal to this young Canucks squad.
The second option is Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes. With plenty of depth on their blueline and young blue chip prospects Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury needing promotions to the NHL roster, there could be a way to pull the 27-year-old defender away from the Tar Heel state. Possessing a more well-rounded game than Ristolainen, Faulk isn’t as offensively prolific but he does still carry that bomb from the point.
Having a more rounded game makes him much easier to utilize without having to stress about defensive blunders or shortcomings. Ultimately, Faulk should be target No. 1, but Ristolainen is still a solid secondary option to fill this role.
Deploying either one of these defenders next to Hughes on the power play or letting them run a second unit would certainly assist the Canucks’ unit bounce back after a dismal showing in 2018-19.
In conclusion, the Canucks are well on their way to being a contender and a lot of that is thanks to the restructure of the defence this summer. That said, more work needs to be done if this team is to truly take the next step from playoff hopeful to playoff contender.