Canucks Stuck in Defensive Limbo for 2023-24 Season

The Vancouver Canucks 2022-23 season may have fizzled out, ending up in the 22nd position in league standings, but there were signs of hope. Finishing 12 points back from the second wild card position held by the Winnipeg Jets, some better fortune and health could have made all the difference. Despite the Canucks’ stretch of poor showings, a light at the end of the tunnel is visible with the collection of younger players and assets through trades, including the departure of Bo Horvat.

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While Vancouver’s depth at the forward position contains promising young players, the uncertainty on the blue line may be something to watch heading into next season. Barring any major wheeling and dealing from general manager Patrik Allvin, the Canucks are strapped for cash with very little wiggle room under the salary cap, which could lead to a quiet summer in Vancouver. As a result, the blue line could be in trouble if injuries affect the team once again.

Hughes, Ekman-Larsson Lead Top Four

Quinn Hughes made excellent strides in improving his play on the defensive side, which thankfully did not hinder his ability to pile up points. Beyond breaking the 70-point barrier, the 23-year-old demonstrated signs of being a natural leader on a relatively young defensive core. Head coach Rick Tocchet recently joined the Missin Curfew podcast, hosted by Shane O’Brien and Scottie Upshall, and highlighted Hughes’ development last season. “He wants to be the best. He thinks he can be one of the best players to ever play the game, I love that swagger.”

Ethan Bear Quinn Hughes Vancouver Canucks
Ethan Bear and Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Alongside Hughes, Oliver Ekman-Larsson joins the team’s top four, but his health will be something to watch out for. He appeared to be a step behind and struggled with puck management, so it came to nobody’s surprise when his ankle injury flared up and landed him on the team’s long-term injury reserve. At 100 percent, Ekman-Larsson can be one of the most effective puck-moving defensemen in the league, and his presence in the top four, at the level he’s capable of, is what the Canucks hope to rely on next season.

Canucks’ Third Pairing Up for Grabs

Once Vancouver’s top four shapes up, several notable names will be itching to earn their spot on the bottom pairing. It will depend on who meshes well with their partners and whether management is comfortable with having Tyler Myers and his $6 million contract on the third pair or trusting him to hold his own in an elevated role. Guillaume Brisebois can also make a case for himself after a strong showing during his 17-game stint.

Related: Canucks Prospects Report: Hirose, Woo, Lekkerimaki & More

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If Tucker Poolman can return with a clean bill of health, there will be a log jam at the position, especially considering the amount of restricted free agents on expiring deals. Ethan Bear, Travis Dermott, and Akito Hirose all await new contracts, creating healthy competition and possibly pushing out players that fall behind the Canucks’ speed game.

Vancouver’s Prospect Pool On The Blue Line

Another restricted free agent further down the depth chart, Jett Woo is an entertaining option to receive a look at the NHL level. It’s been five years since his selection at 37th overall, yet the 22-year-old blueliner hasn’t seen a glimpse beyond the American Hockey League (AHL). Jack Rathbone, who played stretches with Woo in the AHL, appeared in 11 games last season and is another appealing name to throw into the mix.

Noah Juulsen Vancouver Canucks
Noah Juulsen, Vancouver Canucks (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Beyond those names, Kirill Kudryavtsev made tremendous improvements with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, while Elias Pettersson — not that one, the other one — stepped up in the Swedish Hockey League as a 19-year-old defenseman and excelled in his role with Orebro HK. While these two won’t necessarily make any noise in the 2023-24 season, their futures with the club can come hand-in-hand with the purge of older defensemen when the time is right.

There will be decisions during this offseason regarding how the team will look on the back end, but those signings will likely be limited to internal returnees. Myers and Hronek enter the final year of their deals, signaling a new look is on the horizon after next season.