As it stands, the Vancouver Canucks are a team with four very good defensemen, but also a team without a top-level blueliner.
For the first time in years, the team is virtually set up front. With a Hart and Art Ross trophy winner in Henrik Sedin leading the way, he has a strong supporting cast in Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler, both of whom are among the top forwards in the NHL. Behind them is swashbuckling scoring pest Alex Burrows, who led the team in goals last season, and 25-goal men Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond. And with Cody Hodgson and Jordan Schroeder knocking on the door for opportunity, scoring goals is no longer a problem on the West Coast.
For those very reasons, the club’s decision to part ways with young Michael Grabner and the inconsistent Steve Bernier in addition to their 2010 first-round selection wasn’t exactly shocking, but made sense given the team’s desire to win a Stanley Cup right now. Ultimately it appears, at least on paper, that they’ve found a fit with Keith Ballard, who came back the other way in the team’s deal with Florida.
Ballard offers a few intangibles that the current group of Canucks defensemen don’t yet possess. His uncanny ability to hip check opponents while being a force on the powerplay and penalty kill is something the team hoped they had in Kevin Bieksa but haven’t quite yet received.
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Assuming the team has not made any ground-breaking acquisitions over last weekend, today’s flock of blueliners are as follows: Alex Edler, Christian Ehrhoff, Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Andrew Alberts, and Shane O’Brien. That group by itself has a nice combination of speed, skill, special teams ability, defensive awareness, and physical presence, but not one of those six defensemen truly stand out above the rest.
No, what the Vancouver Canucks lack to this day is a true number one defenseman. They have no elite-level defenseman, just a bunch of good ones.
If mimicking the Stanley Cup finalists is the hot trend in the NHL (and it always is), the Canucks and its management would be wise to look at what it was that the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers had that the Canucks did not. All three teams had impressive forward depth and at the least, adequate goaltending. But what separated the Cup competitors from Vancouver was their blueline.
Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Sopel, Brian Campbell, and Nick Boynton suited up for the Hawks in their Cup-winning clash with the Flyers. On the other side of the ice were Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, Lukas Krajicek, and Oskars Bartulis.
Aside from noting that the bottom pairing for both teams were not overwhelming difference makers in the final, do you notice a trend between the two teams?
Duncan Keith and Chris Pronger are true and legitimate number one defensemen, the kind who coaches put out with one minute left in a game, whether they need to score a goal or prevent one, and the kind that scoff at playing just 30 minutes a game.
For the Cup finalists last season in Pittsburgh and Detroit, the two teams’ bluelines were led by Sergei Gonchar and Nick Lidstrom respectively, both top-flight defensemen who can change the momentum of a game within moments.
Perhaps it’s no secret that in order to win a Stanley Cup, a team requires a number one defenseman. But the fact of the matter is that at this point in time, the Vancouver Canucks do not yet possess a true top blueliner.
With slim pickings remaining on the free agent market, it appears the club will not fill that void via free agency, and chances are slim the team will be willing to part with any more assets and go through the trade route to land one, either.
The team’s best hope of getting an elite defender lies solely within their own system, and those hopes may rest squarely on the shoulders of young Swedish defenceman Alexander Edler, who is still teeming with potential.
The 24-year-old has made steady improvements in points production in the four years he has been with the team (3 to 20 to 37 to 42) but for some unknown reason has yet to take his game to the highest level.
In the playoffs, Edler showed flashes of the brilliance that he can do on the ice. His big-time hit on Drew Doughty in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings was a physical statement for the 6’3’’ specimen, and he got close to 29 minutes a game on some nights versus the Blackhawks. But whether it be a lack of killer instinct or grit, Edler hasn’t quite yet reached elite status.
Right now, Christian Ehrhoff is the team’s best defenseman at both ends of the ice. His offensive presence is ahead of Edler’s and his +36 rating during the regular season show that he can play in his own end, too. But at 28 years old how much better does Ehrhoff’s game get?
Lost in all the hype surrounding Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis is the fact the club still does not have a top-level defenseman. Of course, the hope is at least one of the current blueliners can step out above the rest. And maybe, just maybe, the Canucks will finally have their elite defenseman and help them get past the playoff hump that is the second round.