The Vancouver Canucks added quite a few players to their forward group when free agency opened on July 13 but left the defence relatively untouched. Save for minor leaguers Wyatt Kalynuk and Christian Wolanin and the professional tryout contract (PTO) extended to veteran Danny DeKeyser, they really did nothing to improve the defensive group that was criticized by president Jim Rutherford when he took over.
Instead, after failing to make any trades or free agent signings in the offseason, Allvin surprisingly gave a ringing endorsement to his defence corps heading into the 2022-23 season.
I’m happy with the defence group we have. I think when everybody’s healthy, I think we’re a very competitive team.
Now that there will likely be no further changes unless someone comes across the waiver wire or an interesting player is available through trade, the Canucks will run it back with the same players they had last season. That means Quinn Hughes will be tasked with generating the offence from the back end while the others will try to keep the high-danger chances to a minimum – easier said than done, especially with how they struggled with that last season.
However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be battles for roster spots, especially when you get past the top-four and into the bottom pairing and seventh/eighth defencemen. So, in the first of a three-part series looking at training camp battles, let’s start with the defence and dive into the different battles everyone will be watching throughout camp and into the preseason.
Players Who Are Expected to Make Up the Top-Four
Quinn Hughes – Luke Schenn
Even though Hughes told Rutherford that he would be willing to play on the right side (potentially with Oliver Ekman-Larsson), I believe new defence coach Trent Cull will end up sticking with the tried and true pairing of Hughes and Luke Schenn. Since they were arguably the best pairing last season, why fix something that isn’t broken? Somehow both defenders bring out the best in each other with Hughes playing the rover and Schenn as the stop-valve defensively. Heck, even Schenn joined the party last season with his best year points-wise since 2011-12 when he was the same age Hughes is right now.
Despite Schenn being a sixth or seventh defenceman on most other teams, he is rightfully on the top pairing alongside Hughes because it works. Don’t ask why, don’t ask how, it just does. Chemistry is a funny thing, and Hughes and Schenn have it in spades. Until the Canucks can find their young stud his own Devon Toews, the grizzled veteran will do just fine for the time being.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Tyler Myers
Out of all the defence pairings last season, Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers saw the most time together logging an insane 982:45 of ice time at even strength. Despite many fans and pundits criticizing both blueliners throughout the season – mostly due to their combined $13.26 million cap hit – they actually had decent underlying numbers. Yes, their Corsi-for numbers were below 50 percent at 48.47, but their on-ice save percentage (oiSV%) at even strength was .935, which means their goaltender stopped 93.5 percent of the shots that were taken when they were on the ice. Now, that might have something to do with Thatcher Demko’s brilliance last season, but it’s still an impressive stat nonetheless.
Unfortunately, when there’s good, there’s bad, and that comes in the form of high-danger chances and shots. When the pair was on the ice, they gave up 181 of the former and 542 of the latter. If they hope to be an effective pairing this season and help quell the concerns everyone has about the Canucks’ defence corps, they have to be better at shot suppression and eliminating high-danger chances in front of Demko. Increasing their Corsi-for percentage (CF%) to around 50-55 would also help, as that means they are controlling the play more often than not.
Players Battling For Spots on the Bottom Pairing
Signed to a two-year contract in the offseason, Jack Rathbone will be looking to win a spot on the bottom pairing out of training camp and play his first full season in the NHL. While he did half of that with nine games at the beginning of last season, he was sent down to the American Hockey League (AHL) where he proceeded to put up career numbers with 10 goals and 40 points in 39 games.
Rathbone should get every chance to stay in the NHL in 2022-23. Sent down primarily because of his still-developing defensive game, he needs to show Bruce Boudreau and the rest of the coaching staff that he is well-rounded enough to play a regular shift on the back end. For a team that lacks defencemen that can quickly transition the puck out of the zone, he will be a valuable commodity if his game has come full circle.
Reportedly healthy coming into training camp after struggling with headaches towards the end of last season and into the offseason, Tucker Poolman will most likely take one of the spots on the bottom pairing. Signed to a three-year contract by former GM Jim Benning that pays him $2.5 million in average annual value (AAV), he will need to have a bounce-back season to show everyone that he was worth spending the money on.
Before injuries struck, Poolman was having a pretty decent season and surprisingly finished fourth in blocked shots (73) despite playing only 40 games. He also had a decent 49.2 CF% and threw 33 hits. Not usually known for his offensive game, he could be a good partner for Rathbone or Travis Dermott if he is indeed healthy enough to play a full season.
The first wild-card of this bunch is the aforementioned Dermott, the man the Canucks got from the Toronto Maple Leafs for a 2022 third-round pick at the trade deadline last season. While he would have to play his off-side alongside Rathbone or beat him out for a spot, he is the type of defenceman Vancouver needs more of – that being a quick skater who is good in transition. Drafted in the second round by the Maple Leafs in 2015, he is just entering his prime at 25 years old and could be one of the keys to making this defence corps a formidable one this year.
Finally, there’s the newest contender in the battle royale that is the bottom-pairing, former Detroit Red Wing Danny DeKeyser. Signed to a PTO on Sept. 10, he will be trying to make a comeback to the NHL either as a member of the Canucks or another team that sees what he can do in the preseason.
A veteran of 547 games – all with the Red Wings – the undrafted free agent is a 6-foot-3 left-hander that could potentially help the penalty kill or just provide depth for a Canucks team that usually struggles with injuries to their blue line. If nothing else, he will provide more competition for the likes of Rathbone and Dermott to fight harder to impress the coaching staff.
Players Battling for the 7th/8th Defenceman Slot
One of the surprises out of training camp last season – and throughout the season for that matter – Kyle Burroughs is back to do the same thing ahead of 2022-23. Still one of the only purely physical defencemen on the Canucks roster, he finished with 122 hits in 42 games which ranked him fourth behind Myers (145), J.T. Miller (172) and Schenn (273). If the Canucks want physicality in their lineup, he is definitely their man. Heck, he might dress in favour of Rathbone or Dermott versus bigger teams like the St. Louis Blues just so the defence is scarier to play against. If I was a betting man, I would say he’s definitely earning a spot as the seventh/eighth defenceman.
One of the only newcomers on defence, Kalynuk could be an interesting option as an extra, or at the very least, the first call-up from Abbotsford. Still only 25 years old, he was squeezed out of Chicago in their scorched earth rebuild and left as an unrestricted free agent for the Canucks to sign. He has shown flashes of being a good NHL defenceman, especially back in 2020-21 when he scored four goals and nine points in a 21-game cup of coffee with the Chicago Blackhawks. Since then, he has only played five games in the big leagues but has been solid in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs posting seven goals and 27 points in 52 games.
The former University of Wisconsin star has offensive upside and could be a part of the solution in Vancouver if he can show well in the preseason. Lauded by scouts for his two-way game and ability to jump into the rush, his style matches what Allvin and Rutherford have said the Canucks need more of to succeed in the high-flying modern NHL. In fact, he might just be the dark horse of all the defencemen fighting for a spot in training camp this year.
Don’t look now, but we are less than a week away from the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton and shortly after that, Canucks training camp in Whistler and finally, the preseason where all of these battles will take center stage. So, buckle up, Canucks fans, hockey is just around the corner!
Look out for the next article in this series where I will look at the battles that will be waged in the bottom six.
Matthew Zator is the assistant managing editor at THW and a writer who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.