The way Kevin Bieksa sees it, the Vancouver Canucks should be attacking with four skaters every time they skate toward the opponent’s end.
Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis formed one of the NHL’s best defensive pairings last season, but they were quickly split when the Canucks got off to a slow start in 2011-12. Bieksa now teams with the like-minded Keith Ballard, who similarly shines at skating into the rush and joining forwards deep in the offensive zone.
Christian Ehrhoff, a free-agent loss to the Buffalo Sabres, brought 50 points last season by doing likewise, and leading Vancouver’s power play. This year, the team needs to replace Ehrhoff’s production from the blueline, and for Bieksa, that means he and Ballard have green lights.
“It seems like one of us is always up in the play and it’s been a lot of fun,” Bieksa said. “Between the two of us, at least one of us should be in the rush every single time. That’s the way we feel.
“We both like to skate, we both like to get up there. So, one guy has been going every shift, and it has worked out well for us. It has generated a lot of chances.”
While Bieksa highlights the upside, there remains a downside involving too many odd-man rushes against because one of them is caught in enemy territory. He and Ballard are a combined minus-12 on the season, although that has more to do with defensive zone coverage.
“Sometimes it’s easier to play together when you think the same,” Ballard said. “Both of us are good enough skaters to get back, and when you can do that, you can get up in the play.”
Should these pairings pay off, than Bieksa and Ballard would likely be the No. 2 unit, with Hamhuis and Alexander Edler commanding the heaviest minutes.
In one respect, their partnership is one of the steady-eddie Hamhuis and the would-be steady Eddy. Hamhuis is the team’s best defensive defenceman, while Edler has the most all-round upside. At times, he is the full package. Other times, he seems out of sorts.
He has been moved to the right side of the ice, which may seem subtle, but comes with adjustments. The Canucks are challenging Edler, while giving him a security-blanket partner in Hamhuis, the team’s best stay-at-home type.
“I think [Edler]is more comfortable on that left side, but I’m liking the balance with those defensive pairs right now,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “Hopefully, as he gets more experience on the right side, he might get better.”
Edler has dabbled on the right side, but he played almost exclusively on the left flank last year. Last Thursday, in a 5-1 victory over the Nashville Predators, the 25-year-old Swede looked tentative and unsure of his position, even in a two-point night.
“When they’re coming down on the rush, on the left side, you have the stick out to shut off the middle a little easier,” Edler said. “There are a lot of things to get used to on the right side ... [but]a lot of times, when you get the puck in the offensive zone, you have your stick on the ice and are pretty much ready to shoot every time.”
Edler said Hamhuis’s reliability should allow him to explore more offence, and if it all gels, then a big beneficiary will be 37-year-old Sami Salo. The Canucks talked about managing his ice time this season, but he has five points in eight games and his booming point shot, which scored the game-winning goal Saturday in a 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild, is still a big weapon to a power play that must replace Mikael Samuelsson on the right point.
Serving on the third pair limits Salo’s even-strength shifts, and allows him to log more minutes on special teams. The Canucks traded Samuelsson, who played on the first power-play unit, and winger Marco Sturm to the Florida Panthers for left wing David Booth Saturday, so Salo will be counted on to fill Samuelsson’s power-play role.