If there was a glaring weakness on the Vancouver Canucks’ roster last year, it was that big black hole on defence.
Although Travis Green’s up-tempo style resulted in more offensive chances, the Canucks’ defence was more porous than that of the 2016-17 squad—not a dubious designation considering that the Canucks gave up the second-most goals in the league in 2016-17.
Alex Edler brought stability and Troy Stecher improved as the season went along. Chris Tanev was also a rock on defence, at least when he was healthy.
The rest of the group was mired with indifferent and sloppy defensive play. Derrick Pouliot started off strong before watching his play fall off a cliff. Despite good underlying numbers, Ben Hutton was in the coach’s doghouse from day one. Veterans Michael Del Zotto and Erik Gudbranson were pitiful in their own end by many metrics.
This has left Canucks nation wondering, this group can’t currently come back exactly as it was, could it? Each defenceman is under contract for next season aside from RFAs Stecher and Pouliot. Barring a trade or shake-up, this group is set to return as is.
The defence could also take a hit if Tanev or someone else ends up being dealt in the offseason. While he’s their most valuable trade chip, the Canucks can’t be married to anyone on this blue line.
If they were to acquire a defenceman, general manager Jim Benning would be wise to follow the Vegas Golden Knights model of looking at underutilized players. There was more selection in this previous exercise with centremen, since more talented players exist at that position. The Canucks will have to be diligent and savvy on the market if they want to unearth an undervalued defenceman.
After being drafted at 10th overall in 2012, Slater Koekkoek has never lived up to his draft status.
Because of injuries and because he plays with one of the best teams in hockey, opportunities have been few and far between for the 24-year-old defenceman. This season, though, he played in a career-high 35 games and potted his first NHL goal.
He put up a modest four goals and eight points on the season but did that while only registering 11:04 of average ice time. Koekkoek also registered all four of his goals at even strength. Despite playing in only 35 games, those four even-strength goals would have been second on the Canucks behind Michael Del Zotto’s five even-strength tallies.
Koekkoek is a classic example of a defenceman who can’t find any playing time on a stacked roster. He’s now waiver-eligible, which is why he spent most of the season in Tampa’s press box. The Lightning don’t want to lose him for nothing, but he’s arguably the ninth defenceman behind extras Andrej Sustr and Jake Dotchin. While not a world-beater, Koekkoek is a player who would come at a relatively low-cost, although it means rostering another player who hasn’t proven his NHL worth.
Damon Severson broke onto the scene in 2014-15 with 17 points in 51 games, but has he soured on current coach John Hynes?
Fast-forward to this year and offensively, Severson just enjoyed his most productive season. His nine goals and 20 points at even-strength were both career highs, but he saw his ice time drop below the 20-minute mark under Hynes. Among all New Jersey Devils defencemen, Severson had only the fifth-highest ice time. He was also a healthy scratch for the first game of the playoffs.
It’s troubling that the Devils’ current head coach seems to be souring on Severson, especially since he’s signed for the next five seasons. Although his skating ability and offensive instincts are good, there are questions about his defensive game. It seems unlikely that the Devils give up on Severson, but they do have younger defencemen such as Will Butcher and Steven Santini who are challenging him for ice time. His offence would be a welcome addition to the Canucks, and he’s a more proven (albeit more expensive) option than Koekkoek on the right side.
Chances are there are at least a few of you reading this who haven’t heard of Czech defenceman Jakub Jerabek. The 27-year-old was an under-the-radar signing of the Montreal Canadiens last summer after he enjoyed a successful season with Podolsk Vityaz in the KHL.
Prior to that, Jerabek spent eight seasons playing for Plzen HC in the Czech Republic’s top league. He posted modest point totals for the club before surpassing the 30-point mark in both 2014-15 and 2015-16, an impressive feat for defenders in that league.
He was able to make an impact for the Montreal Canadiens this season on a blue line depleted by injuries. That was before Marc Bergevin shipped him off to the Washington Capitals for a fifth-round pick at the trade deadline. He’s seen his playing time dip dramatically in D.C., as he remains on the roster as a depth option.
On a blue line that lacks offence, Jerabek is an underrated option to offer some blueline stability. Despite having only eight points in 36 games, his points-per-60 at even-strength paints a better picture of his potential. His 0.86 points-per-60 is 85th among 244 defenders to log more than 250 even-strength minutes. Three Canuck regulars—Troy Stecher, Erik Gudbranson and Ben Hutton—finished in the bottom 50.
Calvin de Haan
Although he’s the last defenceman on the list, he also remains the most likely one to become a Canuck. With his contract expiring, Calvin de Haan is a prime target for the Canucks this offseason.
The Ottawa native just endured an injury-riddled campaign which saw his season end in December because of a dislocated shoulder. He still managed 12 points in 33 games, with an even-strength points-per-60 of 1.15. That total was 35th among those 244 defenders. Although impressive, that total was career-high for de Haan. He did register 25 points in 82 games in the season before that wasn’t disrupted by injuries.
Playing on the left side, de Haan would help shore up an area of weakness for the Canucks. He sits just below the 50%-percent mark for both Corsi and scoring chance differentials. While that’s not perfect, it’s better than the likes of Michael Del Zotto on the left side.
Currently, the Canucks have Del Zotto, Edler, Hutton and Pouliot on their left side. If de Haan can stay healthy, he should give a boost in that area. Other than Edler, there are question marks for each player on that left side, and de Haan could provide some stability. He’s an unrestricted free agent this offseason and could be pushed out of New York if John Tavares decides to re-sign.
While these options are intriguing, there’s really no saviour out there on the market. Unless the Canucks swing for the fences for Erik Karlsson, this team has to stick to finding its next defensive core through the draft. Still, bringing on any of these options at a reasonable price could help bolster a bereft blue line.
KPU Journalism Graduate. Trevor has been writing for The Hockey Writers since October 2014. He has contributed articles related to the Ottawa Senators, Vancouver Canucks, and other issues/stories regarding the game of hockey. Trevor currently lives in White Rock, B.C.