Everyone knows the big names of J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat, Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson. They have been front and center for most of the 2021-22 season as the headliners of this Vancouver Canucks team who almost turned it around after an abysmal start to the campaign that saw them go 8-15-2 before Travis Green was fired in December. However, they weren’t the only ones that were responsible for the change in fortunes. Apart from Bruce Boudreau, they had contributions from a number of players that don’t have flashy names or are constantly on the scoreboard when it comes to goals and assists.
So, with the 2021-22 season seemingly lost and the 2022 Draft Lottery once again being an anticipated event for Canucks fans, I thought it would be nice to shine a light on some of the unsung heroes they have had this season. So without further ado, let’s take a look at three of them now.
Signed for the purpose of veteran depth in the offseason, Luke Schenn quickly became a top-four fixture early in the season and a key member of Boudreau’s defence corps when he took over in December. Praised constantly for his leadership and professionalism by the longtime NHL coach, he has solidified himself as an important piece of the defence moving forward.
The two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning as a seventh defenceman was a key part of the team even though he only played sparingly. John Cooper, who was his coach for those two championships, recognized that by saying, “He makes us an inch taller on the bench. He’s big, he’s physical and he plays hard against teams that have a little bite like the Islanders do…Schenner keeps them in check. You don’t see too many of their guys lined up to anywhere close to Schenner” (from ‘Lightning leaning on Luke Schenn’s toughness, tenacity and experience’, Tampa Bay Times, 9/13/20).
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Cooper’s words have rung true this season as Schenn is probably the most physical defenceman the Canucks have on their team right now. Without Kyle Burroughs in the lineup for almost the past two months, he was leaned upon to be the only deterrent on the backend. Currently leading the defence by a wide margin with 234 hits, the Saskatoon native has never met a hit he hasn’t liked and has often rocked opposing forwards in the open ice or along the boards using the force of his 6-foot-2, 226-pound frame.
Playing mostly with the more offensively-inclined Hughes, Schenn is the defensive conscience and the physical deterrent from players taking liberties on the young 22-year-old superstar. He has also shown off a bit of an offensive game himself with the most goals (4) and points (14) since he put up 16 split between the Philadelphia Flyers and Los Angeles Kings in 2015-16. The most he’s ever put up is 22 when he did it in back-to-back seasons in 2010-11 and 2011-12 with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Originally selected fifth-overall by the Maple Leafs in the 2008 NHL Draft, Schenn has gone through his share of ups and downs. Touted as a high-end top-pairing defenceman, NHL Central Scouting raved about his two-way game before the draft, comparing him to former Canucks star Ed Jovanovski.
A big strong defenseman who might compare with Ed Jovanovski. Has a tough edge and has the ability to, if caught up ice, work hard and get back in time to recover.
Schenn never developed into that type of star with the Maple Leafs or any of the other six teams he played for (Flyers, Coyotes, Kings, Ducks, Lightning, Canucks). In fact, he was almost out of the NHL completely until the Canucks acquired him in January of 2019 for Michael Del Zotto. Paired almost immediately with the 18-year-old Hughes who was just getting his feet wet in the NHL, he gained chemistry with him and ended up being a huge mentor for the former Michigan Wolverine.
Schenn left in the offseason to sign a two-year contract with the Lightning, win back-to-back Cups and of course, return to the Canucks as a free agent on July 28, 2021. The rest is history, as he has become one of the Canucks’ under-the-radar stars on the back end in 2021-22. So much so that the new management group led by Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin thought he was too valuable to give up in a trade at the 2022 Trade Deadline amidst a market with a lot of demand for a 32-year-old defender with a winning pedigree.
From one former King to another, Tanner Pearson has also been an understated star for the Canucks this season. The veteran of almost 600 games in the NHL and 207 with the Vancouver-based team has quietly put up a solid 14 goals and 34 points with only two of those goals being empty-netters. His previous high with the team was 21 in 2019-20 and six of those were scored with no goaltender in the net to beat. Basically, he only scored 15 that season. If all goes well the rest of the season, he could hit 20 with many of them being of the difficult variety.
Before Boudreau came to town, Pearson was always attached to Bo Horvat’s hip like he was superglued there. Green rarely separated the two; resulting in a little over 280 minutes of ice time together. Since Boudreau took over, the two have only seen 67:12 as linemates with Pearson seeing more time with the team’s top scorer, J.T. Miller. In fact, he’s played 483:16 with him and generated 273 scoring chances, 91 high-danger chances, and 15 high-danger goals alongside him.
Needless to say, Pearson seems to be more lethal offensively with a player like Miller than Horvat. Most likely because of the fact that he doesn’t have to play the matchup role with him as his pivot. The last time he looked this good was back when he was with Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli on the “That 70s Line” with the Kings. Carter, who is a hulking 6-foot-3, 219 pounds and plays a similar style to Miller might be the type of player he needs to play with to be effective as a top-six forward.
Regardless, Pearson has flown under the radar as a point producer and complement to Miller’s success this season. He does the dirty work along the boards, retrieves the puck for his linemates and gets open in front of the net for passes or rebounds off the goaltender. One of the interesting stats he has actually relates to rebounds as he is tied with Pettersson and Conor Garland for the second-most rebounds created at 5-on-5 (among forwards). He is also tied for the team lead for rush attempts and has the second-most shots at 5-on-5 behind only Garland.
All in all, Pearson has been quite impressive this season with many stats beyond just the normal goals and points. Not to mention, he is still relied upon to be the lockdown presence on the ice at the end of the game while protecting a lead. Pretty good for a guy a lot of people thought shouldn’t have been re-signed last season (including me). Hopefully, the injury he suffered against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday (April 7) isn’t too serious, because the Canucks will need him down the stretch if they hope to continue their improbable run to the playoffs.
Last, but certainly not least is Maple Ridge product, Brad Hunt. The undersized 5-foot-9 defender who was initially signed by the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Chicago Wolves to an amateur tryout contract (ATO) back in 2012 out of the Bemidji State University in the NCAA, has been a revelation on a Canucks blue line that has been ravaged by injuries all season. The former AHL All-Star has played 40 games for his hometown team and has three goals and 13 points, the most since he posted eight goals and 19 points in 59 games in 2019-20 with the Minnesota Wild.
Even though Hunt hasn’t been the best defensively, he has moved the puck well out of his own zone and contributed to the offence. On a team with one of the lowest production rates from its blue line, that’s a welcome sight. His positive personality has also been recognized in the locker room by Schenn, who was surprised by the greeting he got from him on the first day of training camp.
“The first day I showed up to training camp here and he came up to me and gave me a big hug and a ‘hey, Schenner, how you doing?’ and I’m thinking, ‘where did I play with this guy? How do I know him?’ and it was the first time I ever met him,” explains a smiling Luke Schenn. “You get 25 fist pumps a day from him saying ‘good job’ or whatever. He’s a positive guy to be around, we love having him and he’s playing really good right now, too.”
That type of personality lifts the locker room up during the grind of an 82-game season and is something a team needs to succeed and eventually win a championship. Boudreau, who also coached him in Minnesota, had similar things to say about him, praising his positive attitude no matter if he was playing every day or sitting in the press box for games on end.
His attitude has been the same no matter what…I sat him out twenty games in a row in Minnesota and he’d still say “Hi Bruce!” every morning. I mean, there’s never a bad day for Brad.
If only everyone in the world was as happy and positive as Brad Hunt.
Positives Can Still Be Taken From Seemingly Lost 2021-22 Season
Even though the 2021-22 season will most likely end with another trip to the golf course instead of the playoffs, the Canucks still had players not named Miller, Horvat, Hughes and Pettersson who put together solid seasons. Without the contributions from underrated names like Pearson, Schenn and Hunt, who knows where they would be in the standings. Here’s hoping they are around next season to do the same thing and we are talking about the team clinching a spot in the playoffs at this time rather than another potential early start to the offseason.