On paper, the Canucks have one of the top defense groups in the NHL.
After a long layoff and no training camp or preseason, the beginning of the NHL season has been more discombobulated than usual.
Players who didn't spend time in Europe or the minor leagues truly are "playing themselves into shape" this year. In many cases, we're seeing improvements on a daily basis.
The Vancouver Canucks' defense corps is normally one of the strongest in the league. So far, they're off to a bit of a bumpy start.
Let's take a look at their strengths and weaknesses of the six defensemen coach Alain Vigneault has used so far this season. Players are listed alphabetically and factors will include performance from past seasons as well as what each has brought to the ice this year.
Keith Ballard looks like he'll play a regular role in 2013.
So far this season, Keith Ballard has been a reliable workhorse on a third pairing with Chris Tanev. He's logging just over 18 minutes a game, up from 15:33 last year, and is a plus-one.
Ballard skates well and can play a physical game when required.
Before the start of the season, Ballard told Jim Jamieson of The Province that he has a clear understanding of what's expected of him this year:
For me, the role I'm in is just to play a consistent, reliable, simple game. From the feedback I got last year, I think I did a real good job of doing that...Everybody looks a lot better when the team has success. It was an adjustment from my first year here, trying to fit into that, but I got a lot more comfortable last year.
In his first season with Vancouver, Ballard's defensive lapses led to him spending some time in the press box as a healthy scratch. In the past, he has had a tendency to take himself out of position to make a physical play.
Ballard has been injury-prone during his time with the Canucks. He had hip surgery after being acquired in the summer of 2010, has suffered back and knee injuries and has sustained two concussions including a severe one last spring (from Ben Kuzma of the National Post).
Kevin Bieksa has been a physical force this season.
At his best, Bieksa is tough to play against. Surly and efficient, he's one of the NHL's best shutdown players, with a mean streak and enough offensive talent to make teams pay on the power play. In 2011-12, he contributed offensively with eight goals and 44 points.
After six games, Bieksa has as many penalty minutes as the other five defensemen combined—18. The Grimsby, Ontario native led the Canucks' D with 159 hits in 2011-12 and tops the list again this year, with 12 so far.
Bieksa's temper sometimes allows opponents to get the best of him as he puts himself out of position or takes an untimely penalty.
At times, Bieksa can play a high-risk game, which leads to giveaways. He led the Canucks' defensemen in 2011-12, with 68 giveaways in 78 games.
So far this season, Bieksa has yet to record a point and isn't showing the defensive consistency that fans expect when he's at the top of his game. He may still be shaking off the cobwebs from the lockout.
Edler's play has been strong but requires more consistency.
Alex Edler is a big body at 6'3" and 215 pounds. He uses his size well, ranking second among Canucks' defensemen in hits: 143 in 2011-12 and 10 hits in six games so far this year.
Edler has a powerful shot that made him Vancouver's best offensive defenseman in 2011-12, with 11 goals and 49 points, of which 22 came on the power play.
He tops the blueline standings so far in 2013 with two goals and five points. He's also the team's ice time leader, with 23:51 per game in 2011-12 and 23:38 so far in 2013.
At age 26, Edler should be entering his hockey prime. He received his first All-Star selection in 2012 and just signed a new six-year, $30 million deal that will make him Vancouver's highest-paid defenseman starting next year.
Edler has back troubles which may plague him throughout his career. He had surgery for a herniated disc in 2011 and spent three months of the lockout rehabbing a bulging disc, per Ben Kuzma of The Province.
The big Swede also has stretches of wild inconsistency, the worst of which happened during the 2012 playoffs. In five games against the Los Angeles Kings, Edler recorded a horrifying eight giveaways, several of which were promptly turned into goals by the opportunistic opposition.
So far in 2013, Edler is leading the team with six giveaways, including a gift to Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks on January 27th that set tongues wagging. Cam Charron of The Province's Legion of Blog argues that giveaways go with the territory for top defensemen. When Edler is at his best, he minimizes these mistakes.
Jason Garrison is expected to put up points for the Canucks.
Did you hear? Jason Garrison scored 16 goals last year. That was third among NHL defensemen, behind Erik Karlsson and Shea Weber. Garrison's nine power-play markers ranked him second overall, behind only Weber.
One season at that level, coupled with unrestricted free agency, earns a player a front-loaded, six-year, $27.6 million contract in today's NHL. That's how Garrison landed with the Canucks (per capgeek.com).
So far, he has yet to record a point, but Garrison is playing more than 22 minutes a game, mostly on the top pairing with Alex Edler. He's tied for the Canucks' lead in plus-minus, at plus-two. His defensive play hasn't been perfect as he adjusts to his new team, but it hasn't been bad.
Garrison's big contract leads to big expectations. He's performing acceptably, but he'll need to show more before he is embraced by fans in Vancouver.
It's impossible to ignore the lack of production. He was signed, in part, to replace Sami Salo's booming shot on the power play, but so far he has yet to spark the offense. Garrison and Edler are both left-handed shots, which makes the D-to-D one-timer setup on the power play difficult.
Like his partner Edler, Garrison was also guilty of an egregious giveaway in San Jose that led to a goal, but it has been his only recorded giveaway so far this season.
Garrison arrived in Vancouver with a chronic groin injury which he rehabbed during the lockout (per Ben Kuzma of The Province). So far, his health seems fine, but a nagging condition like this could lead to problems down the road.
Will the real Dan Hamhuis please stand up?
On the Canucks, Dan Hamhuis is Mr. Reliable. In his two full seasons in Vancouver, he has been plus-29 both years, playing 22 to 23 minutes a game.
Hamhuis' game is positionally sound, with a physical component and an element of offensive contribution. He plays a shutdown role with Kevin Bieksa, is a key penalty-killer and can contribute on the power play.
Nowhere was Hamhuis' importance to the Canucks more obvious than in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals.
The Canucks took a 2-0 series lead with Hamhuis in the lineup, allowing just two Boston Bruins goals. But Hamhuis' playoff came to an end when he was injured delivering a bodycheck on Milan Lucic in Game 2. With Hamhuis out of the lineup, the Canucks gave up 21 goals in Games 3-7 and handed the Bruins the Stanley Cup.
This year, Hamhuis hasn't looked like his usual self. He's worst among the Canuck defensemen with a minus-three rating. Factoring in special teams, Jason Botchford of The Province points out that Hamhuis has been on the ice for a total of nine goals against out of the team's 17—more than half.
Hamhuis is normally a rock-solid penalty-killer, but after six games the team currently sits 26th in the standings with a success rate of just 69.2 percent, having surrendered eight power play goals.
After the lockout ended, Hamhuis missed one day of camp with a tight groin, but told Cam Tucker of Metro that the decision was "just being precautionary," so he should be healthy. A little more time might be all that's needed for Hamhuis to regain his usual confident form.
Chris Tanev is taking on more responsibility.
While the Canucks have not had much success with developing their prospects over the past few years, Chris Tanev has been a pleasant exception to that rule.
Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010 after one year of college, Tanev has impressed with his steady, unspectacular game. He won't make big plays but he also won't put his team in trouble.
This season, Tanev put up 14 points and a plus-12 ranking in 34 games with the AHL Chicago Wolves. He's the only one of the Canucks defenseman who was playing regularly during the lockout.
In six games with the Canucks, he is tied for team lead with a plus-two, playing 17 minutes a game.
Tanev rarely puts his team in a hole. He has taken just two minor penalties in his 60 NHL games to date and has just one giveaway so far this season.
In the final year of his $900,000 deal, Tanev is a bargain, making less than a quarter of the salary of any of his Canuck defensive peers.
A late bloomer, Tanev is listed at 6'2" and 185 pounds. He is on the wispy side for a blueliner, but his history as one of the smallest players on his teams seems to have taught him how to protect himself on the ice.
Tanev is also limited offensively. Since signing with the Canucks, he has exactly one goal—with the Manitoba Moose during the 2010-11 season.
He doesn't have much velocity behind his shot, which makes him reluctant to use it. During the summer, Rory Barrs of the National Post reported on Tanev's work with trainer Gary Roberts in an effort to gain more strength and a harder shot.
In August, Roberts thought Tanev was simply in need of a little confidence:
I think he does have those abilities...He’s got great hands, moves the puck well and skates well. Once he gets a little confidence, I think that’s going to be big for him. To go to camp and see that he’s got that strength, and to see that he’s got that speed and that ability to compete with guys in the National Hockey League, I think that’ll really help him get off to a good start.
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