In many ways, the hellacious showing over the last two games for Erik Gudbranson best illustrates how the game has changed for NHL defencemen.
The numbers don’t lie: Gudbranson have been on the ice for seven of the last nine goals conceded by the Vancouver Canucks. His defensive partner, Ben Hutton, has been on for five.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be for the big blue-liner. When he was drafted third overall in 2010 by the Florida Panthers, the plan was he would become a stopper, the kind of defenceman whose defensive game was his calling card, who didn’t need to be a big offensive contributor.
But that hasn’t been the case for Gudbranson, who the Canucks picked up from the Florida Panthers in 2016 for young centre Jared McCann.
There’s just no getting away from the big picture: since Gudbranson’s arrival in Vancouver, of every three goals scored while he’s on the ice, two have gone into his own team’s net.
There may be goals against you can quibble with here and there, but the scoring trend that covers 123 games is difficult to ignore. You can’t just do one or two things anymore.
“Adapt or die,” Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane was quoted as saying by Michael Lewis in Moneyball.
The guy who would construct a force field around his own team’s goal, making life difficult for attackers, has faded into memory, just like the photo-negative style of defenceman, the guy who had exceptional puck skills but who was a nightmare in his own end.
The emphasis on high-tempo hockey that’s emerged over the past decade means the successful teams dress defencemen who can skate, move the puck well and be adept at keeping the puck away from the opposition. Defencemen who don’t meet all three criteria are now liabilities.
In other words, the best defence is to not let the other team have the puck.
“It’s all about body position,” Arizona Coyotes’ head coach Rick Tocchet said before Thursday’s 4-3 overtime victory at Rogers Arena about the most essential talent defenders must master.
Tocchet was a power forward in a different era, one where the type of defencemen that Gudbranson was hoped to be thrived.
“When you get body position on a player … you can dictate, because you can’t hook, you can’t hold, you can’t cross-check,” Tocchet said. When he played, defencemen did all of those things to hinder opposing attackers from getting to the net.
And then you have to be able to move the puck, he added.
Canucks Army’s Darryl Keeping tracks data of Canucks’ defencemen, with a strong focus on how much success blue-liners have in preventing opponents from entering the Canucks’ zone as well as how much success they have in exiting the zone with puck possession.
Keeping notes that while Gudbranson has had his moments this season on the former metric, he’s done poorly. Against Arizona, for instance, a full one-third of his attempts at getting the puck out were “failures” — in other words turnovers, icings, or penalties in the defensive zone.
It’s a gap in his game that surely motivated the partnership with Hutton, who is adept at moving the puck up the ice with control.
(As a side note, given his obvious physical talents, you are left wondering why coaches didn’t spent more time working with him on his puck skills when he was younger.)
Gudbranson has had one partner who he’s had some success with when we look at the shot-attempts battle over the past two seasons.
In 162 minutes with Derrick Pouliot over the past two seasons, the two blue-liners are in the positive when it comes to counting simple shots for and against.
They still yield too many scoring chances, but given the lesser shooters third-pairing defencemen face, that’s manageable.
Asked after Thursday’s game if the rough week for Gudbranson meant a change of partners was in the plans, Canucks coach Travis Green acknowledged that Hutton and Gudbranson need to be better.
“I know they’re worried about it. They don’t like it,” the bench boss said. He then said a change might be in the offing.
“We’ll see where we go from there as far as the pairings go.”
Florida Panthers at Vancouver Canucks
4 p.m., Rogers Arena, SNETP, SNET 650 AM
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