The Canucks’ defense is the NHL’s most aggressive on loose pucks
There was a time when the Vancouver Canucks were, bar none, the most entertaining team in the NHL to watch. They were also one of the most hated, as any team with the duo of Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows would be, but both their entertainment value and their hate-ability have dropped in recent years, so they don’t really come to mind when you picture aggressive teams.
However while going through Sportlogiq’s data, I found that the Canucks have remained an extremely aggressive team in at least one way, their defensemen go absolutely bonkers for loose pucks.
All of Vancouver’s top-six defensemen were within the top-21 in total loose puck recoveries across the league in a sample of over 140 NHL defensemen with a usable sample of time tracked, making the team a gigantic outlier, with the only other team that was close being the Detroit Red Wings, who had three defensemen in the same group.
However just generally looking at loose puck recoveries doesn’t tell us much about the way Vancouver’s system worked, just that their defensemen were extremely active, so let’s break it down further.
The Canucks weren’t an especially strong possession team last season, with a 49.7% score-adjusted shot attempt differential at even strength, so the first assumption might be that the defensemen were putting in extra work in their own zone, where most loose puck recoveries from defensemen occur.
As expected, every single one of Vancouver’s top-six defensemen were above league average in defensive zone loose puck recoveries per 20 minutes played, but not to the extent that would explain everything. Surely it’s an outlier, but not all bad possession teams see their defensemen recover loose pucks at anywhere near this rate.
Once again, every Canucks defenseman is above league average, with Kevin Bieksa over double the league average, indicating that he especially is aggressive in the neutral zone, which fits with his reputation as a defender.
Most interestingly though, it’s the offensive zone where the Canucks really stand out.
Generally speaking, defensemen don’t recover many loose pucks in the offensive zone, because most loose pucks are deep in the zone on cycles, forechecks, and dump ins. This is the same reason why defensemen are the ones who recover the most loose pucks in their own zone, it’s the nature of the position.
Yet here are the Canucks, each one of their top-six defensemen way above league average, and five of the six completing over double the league average loose puck recoveries in the offensive zone. In fact, of all the defensemen tracked by Sportlogiq, five of the top nine in offensive zone loose puck recoveries are Canucks.
Based on Vancouver’s results last season, it’s questionable whether this was a good strategy or not, but speaking to a couple of Canucks analysts, the impression I got was that this has been the norm in Vancouver ever since the Vigneault days, so it’s possible that they may have been even more aggressive in the past.
One result of the Canucks’ aggression on loose pucks from their defence, is that their defensemen are involved in more scoring chances per 20 minutes at the team level than anyone else in the league, with their defence generating an average of 3.7 scoring chances per 20 minutes played.
In Willie Desjardins’ second year behind the bench for the Canucks, this will be something to watch going forward. Is it an artifact left over from previous systems, or is Desjardins pushing his defensemen to be this aggressive for specific reasons?
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