In the 2009-2010 playoffs, key shutdown defender Willie Mitchell was missing with a season ending concussion (thanks to Evgeni Malkin) and he was sorely missed.
Veteran Sami Salo didn’t miss a playoff game, but he was clearly hobbled after taking a crippling slapshot to the groin and almost losing a testicle. (ouch!)
Alex Edler, perhaps their best all-around defender, also was playing with an injured back and didn’t finish the final and deciding Game 6 against Chicago (Edler would eventually have back surgery to repair the nagging problem in Jan. 2011).
General Manager Mike Gillis decided to address this lack of defensive depth during the offseason. Keith Ballard was brought in via a draft day trade with Florida and Dan Hamhuis was signed as a free agent on July 1st.
Gillis also signed Lee Sweat (previously drafted by Chicago but unsigned) and Chris Tanev (undrafted), as well as picking up Ryan Parent off of waivers to bolster the depth on the farm team. Graduating major junior players Kevin Connaughton and Yann Sauve also joined the Manitoba Moose of the AHL to give the Canucks a nice stable of young defensemen to call up in case of injury.
And injuries did happen. Starting with Sami Salo bursting an Achilles tendon while training in the offseason, the Canucks were decimated by injuries on the blue line.
In the 2010-2011 season so far, the Canucks have used 13 different players at defense. No player will play the entire 82-game schedule. Nine players have dressed for at least 24 games.
At no point in the regular season so far have the projected top six defensemen (Alex Edler, Christian Ehrhoff, Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard, Sami Salo and Kevin Bieksa) all played in the same game.
But that might happen soon, as the Canucks battered blue line is rounding into shape at the right time of the year.
Currently healthy (knock on wood) and available to start tonight in game 80 against the Edmonton Oilers are Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Aaron Rome, Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev.
Alex Edler has recovered from his January back surgery, and is currently practicing with the team, but still wants a few more practices before starting a game. He is expected to start against the Minnesota Wild later this week, as well as against the Calgary Flames in the last game of the year.
Andrew Alberts is also practicing with the team after suffering a broken wrist and is expected to return for the last game or two of the regular season as well.
Dan Hamhuis suffered a concussion (his second of the season) against Columbus during the recent road trip, but is currently feeling healthy and is progressing through the concussion protocols so that he can be ruled eligible to play. Currently he is skating and practicing by himself, but he hopes to practice with the team later this week, and maybe start against the Flames on the weekend if all goes well.
Once everyone is healthy, that gives the Canucks nine NHL-caliber defensemen to call upon during the playoffs (Yes, I’m counting Tanev in that list, but given his play during his 29 games so far, I feel more comfortable seeing him on the ice than I did seeing Evan Oberg or Nolan Baumgartner during last year’s playoffs).
Six of those nine defensemen (Salo, Bieksa, Edler, Ehrhoff, Hamhuis, Ballard) could be the top four defensemen on most playoff teams in the league. The other three (Alberts, Rome and Tanev) could be used quite comfortably on a third pairing.
This depth on defense is frankly unprecedented in recent Canucks history. Usually, by the time the first round starts, the Canucks are scraping together a makeshift blue line that can’t sustain another injury without an epic collapse.
This year, thanks to Mike Gillis, the depth on the blue line might be the best asset the Canucks have in the playoffs, and that is saying something on a team boasting the best goalie tandem in the league along with an offense that boasts the Sedins and Ryan Kesler.