It was merely seconds into the first period of the Canucks’ game against the Anaheim Ducks on November 20th when Dan Hamhuis’ skate caught a rut in the ice in the offensive zone. Hamhuis went down and slid into the corner, taking a painfully long time to get up off the ice, requiring the help of teammates and team personnel. It took even longer for him to skate to the bench and get to the tunnel to the dressing room. The fact that Hamhuis could barely stand without help, that captain Henrik Sedin literally had to lift Hamhuis’ right leg for him as he entered the bench, and that two team personnel had to lift Hamhuis up over a step on the way to the dressing room were not good signs.
Now, with Hamhuis out until at least after Christmas with a groin injury, the Canucks’ defensive depth is being tested. Luca Sbisa, who sat out five games in November slotted back in the line up after Hamhuis’ injury to play alongside Kevin Bieksa and Frank Corrado was called up from the AHL Utica Comets (but did not play any games and has since been reassigned).
“I believe we have eight NHL defencemen on this roster,” GM Jim Benning told The Province after losing Hamhuis to injury. “This is going to provide an opportunity for guys to step up in the lineup. We still have seven good defencemen.”
Prior to Hamhuis’ injury, head coach Willie Desjardins ensured that ice time between defenders was fairly spread out, which is different from last year when defenders like Yannick Weber sometimes only played two to 10 minutes a game. Now, under Desjardins, Weber averages around 16 minutes a game. The workload has not been piled on to two or three players, and so the loss of Hamhuis (one of the Canucks’ top four defenders) has not meant that players need to readjust to take onto other roles. Because of their improved depth they are instead in a comfortable position to deal with an injury. The loss of one of their top four defenders has made something clear though: that Alex Edler and Chris Tanev have become the Canucks’ top defence pairing.
These two are not top scorers in any way; in 29 games Edler has three goals and six assists and Tanev has one goal and six assists. In fact, Edler has the same amount of goals and assists and Tanev fewer than they did this time last year (granted, Edler did miss most of December 2013 with an injury). The difference between their play this season so far and their play last season has not necessarily been in their ability to score goals and contribute offensively, but rather in their defensive game. The soft-spoken Swede looking to rebound from last year’s disastrous play and the calm and collected undrafted player waiting for his first long-term NHL contract are versatile players utilized in all types of defensive situations against top opponents. Over the past few months there has been a surge in the confidence and smart play of Edler and Tanev.
“A lot of his game is confidence,” Benning told The Province about Edler. “When a coach has confidence in a player and that player has confidence in himself, it can take you a long way. I think from Day 1, Doug Lidster has worked with him and done a really good job helping him regain him confidence. It’s helping him get back to where he was a couple of years ago.”
Of course, there have been slip-ups and some questionable positioning and decisions at times from all Vancouver defenders, not to mention the little offensive support they provide. However, Edler and Tanev work very well together, and the continuing redemption of Edler and positive development of Tanev have been highlights so far this season. It is especially encouraging to see Tanev perform well, as he is one of the Canucks’ youngest players and eventually the Canucks will need to turn to a new top defender as the careers of veterans like Bieksa and Hamhuis dwindle down in the future.
Both players also hold crucial roles on the penalty kill, leading the Canucks in shorthanded ice time. Tuesday’s game against Montreal contained some of their best penalty-killing moments yet. Tanev lost his stick while defending a 5-on-3, but did not let that stop him from doing what he could to kill the penalty, instead using his body to block shots and playing smart positionally. Tanev was awarded Sportsnet’s third star of the game against Montreal for one of his strongest defensive games this season; he led the team with 5:41 minutes on the penalty kill and six blocked shots. Edler is also the lone defender on the Canucks’ top power play unit. All three of his goals are power play goals.
“The message from me was just go play and don’t worry about anything else,” Canucks president Trevor Linden told The Province about Edler’s transformation in early November. “I think he got a little bit careful and when he started to get some criticism, that made it difficult to play with that freedom. We needed him to be the physical, dynamic player who plays with an aggressive edge. He’s a pretty dominant player when he’s at his best.”
And with the loss of Hamhuis and a team that is trying to turn itself around, a dominant Edler (and a dominant Tanev) are exactly what the Canucks need.