The Orca Defence Corp: Analyzing the Vancouver Canucks’ Blueline

With the Shea Weber dream over, the off-season must go on for the Vancouver Canucks. Seeing home-town BC-boy Weber in a Canucks’ uniform would have been an amazing sight for Canucks fans but it always seemed like more of a pipe dream than a possibility, considering Weber’s cap hit and expected salary.

The Canucks’ defensive group as it stands consists of:

Kevin Bieksa-31 years old-Right

Dan Hamhuis-29 years old-Left

Alex Edler-26 years old-Left

Jason Garrison-27 years old-Left or Right

Keith Ballard-29 years old-Left

Chris Tanev-22 years old-Right

Andrew Alberts-31 years old-Left

In the system:

Yann Sauve-22 years old-Left

Kevin Connauton-22 years old-Left

Derek Joslin-25 years old-Left

Patrick Mullen-26 years old-Right

From the team that won their second straight Presidents’ trophy last season, the Canucks have lost veteran Sami Salo, signed to a 2 year, $3.75 million per year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning and depth defenseman Aaron Rome, signed by the Dallas Stars. The only top 6 defensive acquisition remains BC-born Jason Garrison, signed off free agency after a record-breaking season for the Florida Panthers in 2011/12.

Jason Garrison Panthers
Jason Garrison (Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

If the name Sami Salo could be added to the above list, most fans would say that the Canucks, with 8 NHL ready defenseman, would have enough depth on the blueline for another season. Unfortunately, the team was unwilling to give Salo the 2 year deal forcing the 37-year-old to sign in Tampa and leave the club he has played for since 2002/3.

While the loss of Salo will be a blow for the Vancouver team, a top 4 defensive unit of Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler and the newly acquired Jason Garrison looks as good as any top 4 group currently in the NHL today. While the Canucks do not have a franchise defenseman such as Shea Weber or Zdeno Chara, they do have a solid top four which in true Mike Gillis style, not one player has a cap hit over $4.6 million a season.

Whether Hamhuis and Bieksa stay as the top pairing remains to be seen but it seems the combination of left sided defenseman Alex Edler and Jason Garrison, who has the ability to play both left and right, will at least start the season on the same line. Edler and Garrison will both be expected to lead the defensive point production and see plenty of power-play time, with both coming off record points seasons, Edler registering 11 goals and 49 points and Garrison with 16 goals and 33 points last regular season.

While the top 4 defenseman look to be set, the bottom pairing is the cause of most discussion in Vancouver hockey circles. Keith Ballard, Chris Tanev and Andrew Alberts will be battling for the final 2 places with Ballard and Tanev expected to pair the majority of games due to playing well together in the past.

Keith Ballard Canucks
Keith Ballard (Icon SMI)

Keith Ballard was acquired at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and has had an up-and-down time in Vancouver so far. First he fell out-of-favor with Alain Vigneault, seeing some press box time and often being left out of the line-up during the 2010/11 playoffs. Ballard bounced back with a good start to the 2011/12 campaign until being placed onto the long-term injury list after a concussion in early February.

Ballard returned to action in the final games of the Canucks’ season and was arguably the best Vancouver defenseman during the LA Kings first round finals series loss. The biggest issue hanging over the head of Ballard since joining Vancouver has been the justification of his $4.2 million cap hit, an issue which is slowly becoming less relevant with the large contracts signed during this summer’s free agency.

Chris Tanev is the type of player every team could benefit from. Overlooked at the draft, Tanev was signed by the Canucks in May 2010 after playing for the RIT Tigers college team. Tanev was a consistent performer on the ice for the Manitoba Moose, known as a very smart hockey player who remains steady under pressure. Tanev has now played a total of 54 regular season games and 10 playoff games for the Canucks and while his offensive game still needs some seasoning, he remains a viable option for a full-time Canucks role next season.

Andrew Alberts has been with the Canucks since March 2010 and has been used sparingly, playing around 40-50 games a season and used mainly against teams that are physical, putting his 6’5, 220 pound frame to good use. Alberts will be expected to see both ice and press box time this season as the big defenseman will not likely to be sent down to the Chicago Wolves but play when teams such as the Boston Bruins come to town and when injuries occur.

The loss of Salo and Rome also gives the opportunity for a roster spot to up-and-coming Wolves defensemen Yann Sauve and Kevin Connauton. Both have performed well in the AHL, Sauve already called up to the Canucks for 5 games in 2010/11 and Connauton arguably the club’s best defensive prospect, registering 33 points in 73 games for the Wolves last season.

While the Canucks’ defence looks solid and has some depth, fans in Vancouver know all too well that an injury or two can change things very quickly. While the current free agent pool of defenseman is small, the best option for the Canucks to add one more player to the defensive ranks may come through the inevitable trade of Roberto Luongo. There has recently been talk that Dale Tallon, GM of the Florida Panthers may be willing to part with his 3rd overall draft pick from 2010, Erik Gudbranson.

If the Canucks could acquire a player such as Gudbranson through a Luongo trade, this would solidify the Canucks’ blueline for not only next season but years to come. The 6’3, 200 pound defenseman is just the right-sided player the team needs to build from in the future, with a great opportunity to become the franchise player Vancouver has been looking for. While still a long-shot, a Luongo for Gudbranson trade does not seem so far-fetched, with the Panthers getting a franchise goaltender in return for the highly-touted player.

Time will tell for the Canucks and while the current defensive group has the skill to get the job done, look for GM Mike Gillis to pull another joker out of his magician’s hat before the end of summer.

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