When the Vancouver Canucks take the ice to open the upcoming season, we know that Quinn Hughes will lead the first defensive unit, but we don’t know who will pair with him.
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Last season, Hughes’ excellence earned him runner-up for the Calder Memorial Trophy as the dynamic left-handed shooter spent most of the season paired with Chris Tanev, who has left the Canucks to join the Calgary Flames. With Tanev’s exit, this leaves an opportunity for someone to earn a role on the Canucks top defensive unit next to the sophomore stud.
The Canucks defense will also be without Troy Stecher, who has signed a two-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings, and the team has yet to re-sign unrestricted free agent (UFA), Oscar Fantenberg.
With three of the six rotating starters no longer with the team, it’s worth asking if this defensive departure will leave the Canucks inexperienced and depleted, or will it allow someone else to step into the starting unit and shine?
Let’s find out who pairs with Hughes and how the Canucks build their defense around him.
The New Guy
On Monday night, the Canucks acquired Nate Schmidt from the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for a third-round pick in the 2022 NHL draft.
“Nate has been one of the top defencemen in our division in recent years,” said Canucks general manager Jim Benning. “He’s a dynamic player who competes hard all over the ice. I think he will be a really good fit in our group.”
The 6-foot 29-year-old gives the Canucks some much-needed depth on the blueline and further enhances their scoring opportunities too.
Last season, the left-handed shooter scored seven goals and 31 points in 59 games, and it will be exciting to see if he can surpass those numbers with the Canucks. Because of Schmidt’s offensive talents, I expect to see him on the second or third pairing while providing an extra scoring touch to the second power-play.
Leading the way of the remaining d-men set to return is old-reliable, Alexander Edler. The well-known 34-year-old left-handed shooter no longer possesses the speed to keep up with the Canucks top lines but has the experience and awareness to play on the second or third defensive pairing and see time quarterbacking the second power-play unit. Due to the speed of today’s game, expect Edler to pair with Hughes sporadically in more of a mentorship role than a complementary one.
Along with Edler, the Canucks have another left-hander shooter north of 30 in Jordie Benn.
Benn, who has one-year remaining on his contract, is a fiery competitor who will likely see more time on the third-pairing and penalty kill than the top unit. This is by no means a slight on Benn, who may see top-line opportunities with Hughes, but I do not expect that to become the norm.
What I do expect to see, is Hughes paired with the lone right-handed shooter on the Canucks defensive unit, the towering Tyler Myers.
Because of his shooting preference, the 6-foot-8 30-year-old is the logical choice to pair with Hughes, and when you consider his size and presence on the ice, Myers makes sense to replace the bruising ability of Tanev on the top unit.
As the Canucks roster is today, it seems fair to assume that head coach Travis Green unveils the pairing of Myers and Hughes early in the season, but will it be effective?
Last season, the similar playing styles of Hughes and Myers complemented the contrasting height differences on multiple nights, including five straight games where the duo helped the Canucks out-score their opponents 7 to 1 at even-strength. (from ‘Quinn Hughes and Tyler Myers have more similarities than differences,’ Vancouver Courier, 12/09/2019) Therefore, it remains within the realm of possibility that the duo replicates that success throughout the upcoming season.
Projecting Myers and Hughes to play together on the top defensive pairing, leaves the three-left handed shooting defensemen, Schmidt, Edler and Benn, to either play together on the second or third unit or next to someone new. If that’s the case, who will they play with?
The Canucks could bring in a few options, such as restricted free agent, Erik Cernak of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The 23-year-old is a strong 6-foot-3, 230-pound defenceman who the Canucks could offer up to $4.363 million, which means they’d only have to give up a 2021 second-round pick if the Lightning cannot match.
Whether or not the Canucks make that offer, they still have a collection of talented defensemen who are ready to make the jump to the NHL and fill the reaming roster spot.
Waiting in the wings are a few men who could become regulars on the ‘Nucks blueline this season. To begin, let’s discuss the most controversial of the prospects, Olli Juolevi.
Why controversial you ask?
The left-handed shooter was taken fifth overall in 2016 before Matthew Tkachuk (CGY) and two impressive defensemen, Mikhail Sergachev (MTL) and Charlie McAvoy (BOS). All have become studs with impressive playoff performances, while Juolevi has appeared in one playoff game, and has yet to appear in a regular-season game.
However, Canucks general manager Jim Benning believes that Juolevi is ready to play next year.
If Juolevi can come through on Benning’s projection, I expect the young Finn to pair with Edler on the second unit.
In 2017, Benning decided to continue stockpiling defenders by selecting Jack Rathbone in the fourth round.
Since then, Rathbone has improved and the Canucks rewarded him with a three-year entry-level contract in June 2020.
“Jack is a dynamic player,” said Benning. “He has the ability to transition the puck from the defensive zone, brings good offensive instincts and plays with an edge to his game. We are pleased to have Jack join our roster.”
If Benning’s praise is any indication of what’s to come, I could see Rathbone getting the call to join the Canucks and pair with Schmidt or Benn. I foresee Rathbone eventually playing alongside Juolevi, once the two have assimilated to the pace of the NHL, and creating a dynamic tandem outside of Hughes and Myers.
Along with Juolevi and Rathbone, Benning has a few other talented defencemen to call upon in Brogan Rafferty, an undrafted free agent right-handed shooter who has been compared to Tanev.
Another player worth getting excited about is Jett Woo. Now Woo may not be as NHL ready as Rafferty, but I expect to see the right-handed shooter with an awesome name get a shot at cracking the Canucks roster this season, and if there are fans in the stands, expect to hear some “Woooooo” chants that’ll make you nostalgic for Roberto Luongo.
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Rounding out a talented trio of defensive pairings, Rafferty and Woo will enhance the Canucks talented defense that’s being built around their young sophomore stud, Hughes.