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The draft day mover

by Jeff Angus / Vancouver Canucks
Although he is just 24 years old, Luca Sbisa has already been involved in two blockbuster draft day trades. He’s hoping to find some stability in Vancouver.

Prospects are full of nerves on draft day. NHL players, not so much. Sbisa doesn’t fit this formula though, as the former Flyer and Duck has now been traded for both Chris Pronger and Ryan Kesler at the NHL Draft – from Philadelphia to Anaheim in 2009, and from Anaheim to Vancouver in 2014.

As already mentioned, Sbisa is a young veteran at 24 having appeared in 266 NHL regular season games. The 19th overall pick from 2008 possesses great size at 6-2 and 210 pounds. He is a solid skater. The physical tools are all there. The 2008 NHL Draft boasts one of the best groups of defensive prospects in draft history, with Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Erik Karlsson, John Carlson, Zach Bogosian, Justin Schultz, Slava Voynov, and Roman Josi all hearing their names called (just to name a few). Sbisa hasn’t lived up to expectations relative to many of his draft peers, but there is still time for him to get his NHL career back on track.

After a brief professional career in Switzerland as a teenager, Sbisa joined the Lethbridge Hurricanes in 2007 at the age of 17 and was playing in the NHL for the Philadelphia Flyers only a year later. Although he was born in Italy and developed as a hockey player in Switzerland, Sbisa didn’t need any time to adjust to the physicality of North American hockey.

Even though he was returned to the WHL by the Flyers, the fact that Sbisa held his own as an 18-year-old against the world’s best players confirmed the upside that Philadelphia saw in him as a solid two-way defenseman. Former Flyer teammate Danny Briere was a fan of Sbisa’s from the get-go:

“What impresses us the most is his composure and poise. He doesn’t throw away the puck like many young defensemen are prone to do.”

Sbisa didn’t stay very long in the Flyers organization though as the club shipped him off to Anaheim at the 2009 NHL Draft. He established himself as a lineup regular for the Ducks in 2010-11, suiting up for 68 games. His best NHL season came just one year later. He finished 2011-12 with five goals and 24 points in 80 games, also leading the Ducks in hits that year with 186. While hits have started to generate mixed opinions in analytics circles due to a negative correlation with puck possession, there is still something to be said for a defenseman willing to take the body on a very consistent basis.

His golf attire choices may be a work in progress, but Sbisa brings a lot to the table as a depth defenseman for the Canucks.

Untapped Potential

Outside of 2011-12, injuries have derailed Sbisa’s progress as an NHL defenseman. Last year alone Sbisa had a Sami Salo-like run of injuries. He battled a high-ankle sprain in the preseason, and later in the season he tore a tendon in his right hand and missed close to 30 games because of it.

Sbisa was a member of the Swiss team that played in Vancouver at the 2010 Winter Olympics, but he was left off of the Sochi squad in 2014 (due in large part to the aforementioned injury issues). He can skate and make plays offensively, as evidenced by this end-to-end goal against the Los Angeles Kings:

Sbisa has the look of a top-four blue liner (an opinion shared by Jim Benning). He’s performed well at each level of developmental hockey. He can skate, shoot, make a crisp first pass, and throw his weight around.

Slotting Him In

Sbisa is still very much a work-in-progress. So where does he fit in on Vancouver’s blue line? He is slated to earn $2.175 million this season leading into restricted free agency next summer. He became expendable in Anaheim largely because of strong play from rookies Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen. In Vancouver, Sbisa will be competing for a third pairing spot with Ryan Stanton and Frankie Corrado (and perhaps another player or two who joins the club between now and training camp). His salary and experience will give him an inside shot at cracking the roster, but he will have to earn his minutes from Willie Desjardins. And there is a small level of familiarity with coach and player, as Desjardins coached against Sbisa in the WHL. Medicine Hat and Lethbridge are about 150 kilometers apart, and Sbisa learned quite early on what that rivalry was all about.

At the very least, his physicality will be welcomed in the Pacific Division.

There is still time for Sbisa to still develop into the defenseman that the Flyers and Ducks expected him to become. He has a one-year audition to impress the Canucks coaching staff and front office if he wants to stick around for the long term. The tools are there. Can Sbisa use the Sochi snub and another trade as motivation to get his career back on track?

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