Offence From The Blue
By Jeff Paterson
And after a night of number crunching, I think I've revealed one of the secrets to the Canucks recent success.
Let me start by prefacing all of this by saying, there's no question the offensive contributions the Canucks are getting from their blueliners starts with Roberto Luongo. His remarkable play since Boxing Day clearly gives the guys in front of him the boost of confidence they need to jump into the rush and perhaps get a little more creative than they would have earlier in the season knowing that Luongo will be there to bail them out if things go awry.
In the 10 games since Christmas, Canuck defenders have scored 10 of the team's 37 goals (27%) and accounted for 30 of the 101 scoring points (29.7%) amassed by the hockey club. Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo have each scored four times with Krajicek and Willie Mitchell also finding the back of the net, while Kevin Bieksa - who was on a goal-scoring tear in December hasn't found the back of the net during the streak, but instead has turned playmaker -- leads the blueline brigade with 11 assists in the past 10 games.
But it goes much further than just goals and assists from the defence corps.
In five of the team's 10 games since Christmas, defensemen have led the team in shots on goal with many of those shots coming on the power play either accounting for scoring chances on their own or creating rebounds for teammates to cash in on subsequent opportunities.
The added offence from the back end is showing up on the scoresheet in other ways, too. With the blueliners moving the puck better than they have at any point in the season, the forwards are now generating scoring chances off the rush. Many of those opportunities are coming with both teams at full-strength as evidenced by the fact Canuck defensemen are collectively +12 on this 10 game run.
Those numbers on their own certainly point to one of the reasons for the Canucks turnaround since Christmas. But they carry more weight when contrasted to the team's worst 10 game stretch of the season when they went 3-7 from October 23rd through November 14th.
In that span, Canuck defensemen scored just four of the team's 20 goals (20%) and registered just 15 scoring points. Now, both Willie Mitchell and Sami Salo missed significant portions of that part of the schedule with injuries and the Canucks were forced to fill out their line-up with rookies Luc Bourdon, Patrick Coulombe, Alexander Edler and even Nathan McIver for a night. Regardless, who was in the line-up, the Canucks defence was collectively -16 over those 10 games and blueliners led the team in shots on goal just twice during that time.
What does it all mean? Again, you have to go back to Roberto Luongo and start with his performance. But it's not all about the goaltender. One of the reasons for his inspired play of late has been the play of the guys directly in front of him. Willie Mitchell (when healthy) and Kevin Bieksa have done a tremendous job matching up against the other teams top lines and clearly Mattias Ohlund is benefiting from the slightly reduced workload. Ohlund has that uncanny ability to find the soft spot in the slot on the power play and when he gets his chances, he almost never misses (like on Saturday night when he opened the scoring in Toronto). And while many will look to the fact the forwards are scoring a bunch more goals than they were during that October-November drought, much of their production starts from the backend.
Canuck defensemen have scored in three straight games (Krajicek vs Montreal, Ohlund and Salo vs Toronto and Mitchell vs Minnesota) and d-men have found the back of the net in six of the 10 games on this run. And with 29 goals on the season from defensemen, the Canucks are tied with Los Angeles and trail only Montreal whose blueliners have contributed 30 goals.
The Canucks are obviously playing much better than they have at any other point in the season and there are plenty of reasons for the improvement, but one that has gone overlooked - but shouldn't any longer - is what the Canucks are getting from the guys who patrol the blueline. And for that, since Christmas anyway, it's safe to say the Canucks 'D' deserves an A.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org