For a team with so much money allocated to its defensive group, the Vancouver Canucks just don’t have very many quality defensemen.
Quinn Hughes is a star in this league and is being paid accordingly. Travis Dermott is relatively young and has shown some promise. Jack Rathbone has shown he can dominate in the American Hockey League.
On the other end, Tyler Myers is a $2 million guy being paid three times that. Luke Schenn is a cheap third-pairing guy. Tucker Poolman makes far too much and might not be ready to start the season.
Hughes is talented enough to elevate basically any partner, and Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin has third-pairing defenders coming out of his ears. But what the Canucks sorely lack on the back-end is a capable counterpart for Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
In an ideal world, Ekman-Larsson would anchor the left side of a two-way defensive tandem to alternate with the Hughes pairing against top opponents.
Ekman-Larsson had a solid, if unspectacular, debut season in Vancouver, scoring five goals and 29 points in 79 games while largely erasing the major defensive deficiencies that plagued him in his final years with the Arizona Coyotes.
The 31-year-old Swede still makes far too much money, even at the reduced annual rate ($7.26 million) the Canucks pay for his services, but there’s reason to believe he can be a capable No. 3 defender (or even a No. 2, in a pinch) on a playoff team.
Are the Canucks a playoff team? Does management even know? Even with JT Miller’s future decidedly uncertain, the Canucks have largely elected to tread water in the weeks since the 2022 NHL Draft signaled the unofficial beginning of the off-season.
Allvin was smart to add Ilya Mikheyev and Andrey Kuzmenko to his group, but it hardly seems like enough given how aggressive some of the other Pacific Division teams have been this summer.
Yes, the 2021–22 Canucks allowed the eighth-fewest goals in the National Hockey League, but that had significantly more to do with Thatcher Demko’s stellar play than the contributions of the team’s defensemen.
Ekman-Larsson spent the vast majority of his first Canucks season playing on a pairing with Tyler Myers. In fact, the two veterans formed the team’s most common defensive duo, spending 982:45 together during five-on-five play.
Were Ekman-Larsson and Myers particularly good together? Uh, not really. They barely started shifts in the offensive zone (37.63 OZS% together) and posted a 48.88 on-ice expected goals percentage. The saving grace: Demko, Spencer Martin, and Co. posted a sparkling .935 save percentage with OEL and Myers on the ice.
Myers is paid like a top-pairing defenseman, but he doesn’t offer much at this point that separates him from the majority of NHL rearguards making within $1-1.5 million of the league minimum salary.
While Myers would probably be a great No. 5 defender for this team, it’s difficult to rationalize paying him $6 million to play 16 minutes per game and, quite frankly, the Canucks don’t really have many better options. That’s just the reality of this roster.
Rathbone is a lefty. So is Dermott, although he has experience playing on the right side. Even so, Dermott has been a bottom-pairing guy for his entire career. While Hughes might be able to elevate him in a top-pair role, OEL probably needs to play with somebody who has a better track record of two-way success.
Right now, the Canucks just don’t have that guy. They’ve done very little this summer to address their defensive group, and it’s resulted in a situation where Myers will likely remain the best candidate to play with Ekman-Larsson.
An OEL-Myers pairing doesn’t offer a ton of upside, but it’s probably the best second pairing this Canucks team can put together. Is that good enough to compete in a division where rivals are putting together middle pairings of MacKenzie Weegar and Chris Tanev or Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb? Probably not.
It’s not as though good defensemen haven’t changed hands this summer. Weegar moved from Florida to Calgary; Montreal traded Jeff Petry for Mike Matheson; John Marino went from Pittsburgh to New Jersey; Carolina acquired Brent Burns and Dylan Coghlan.
Instead of getting in on the action, the Canucks are entering the 2022-23 season with the same mediocre defensive group they trotted out last season. It’s certainly not the worst defensive group in the league, but it’s emblematic of the Canucks’ current directionless nature.
The clock is ticking on Miller. Pettersson and Hughes won’t be young forever. If the Canucks are serious about trying to win with this group, they should show it by making significant moves to address the major deficiencies still present in their roster.
Otherwise, they’d just be better off just moving Miller now.