There’s little doubt that Quinn Hughes will be playing for the Vancouver Canucks in the 2019/20 season. The seventh overall pick in the 2018 Entry Draft has done everything he can at the college level and has demonstrated more than enough skill to jump into the NHL immediately. In fact, the Canucks reportedly considered signing Hughes following the 2019 World Junior Championships and starting his pro career midseason—which shows just how NHL-ready the organization believes him to be—and you can probably count on him getting a late-season audition if Michigan’s playoff run ends early.
With Hughes’ spot on the roster already pencilled in on the left side of the Canucks’ blueline, the question arises of who will be joining him on the right. There are plenty of options for Hughes’ future defence partner—both within the organization and elsewhere in the hockey world—but the choice will have to be made carefully. The quality of the defender Hughes ends up partnering with could go a long way toward determining how successfully he transitions into the NHL.
The In-House Options
If the Canucks hang on to Tanev through the 2019 Trade Deadline and offseason, it will be because they plan on partnering him with Quinn Hughes. In many ways, the ultra-steady, defense-first Tanev represents the perfect partner for an offensively-gifted rookie. That being said, Tanev is in the midst of a poor season, and the Canucks could end up cashing out on him while he’s still healthy and valuable—so he might not be around when Hughes joins the team.
Stecher has developed into a solid two-way presence on the Vancouver blueline, and his intelligent playstyle could prove to be a positive influence on the young Hughes. The downside to playing Hughes alongside Stecher, however, is their mutual lack of size. The league has changed—but it probably hasn’t changed enough to justify playing two miniature defenders together for an extended period of time in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference.
Even the most dedicated of Gudbranson stans probably don’t want to see this happen. Attaching the defensive anchor that is Gudbranson to Hughes’ rookie campaign would be the quickest way to ensure disappointing results and would severely cripple his ability to showcase his free-ranging skills.
The Canucks’ defensive prospect cupboard is currently rather thin on the right side, and Chatfield is the best of the bunch. A defence-only defenseman in the Chris Tanev-mould, Chatfield has been steadily progressing with Utica but hasn’t distinguished himself as a bonafide NHL prospect yet—to say nothing of being ready for big league action.
The Free Agency Market
If the Canucks are unsatisfied with their in-house options, the next-most direct method of finding a partner for Hughes will be the unrestricted free agency market. Unfortunately, it will be slim pickings for right-handed defensemen in the summer of 2019.
Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
Karlsson isn’t just the best right-handed defenseman on the free agent market, he’s the best player, period. If Karlsson does reach free agency, the Canucks will definitely have enough cap space to sign him and the draw of Elias Pettersson might be enough to attract him—but his probable $12 million or more contract would eventually cause problems.
Tyler Myers, Winnipeg Jets
Myers is the second-best right-handed defenseman on the market, and at 6’8” and 229 pounds he’d certainly make up for Hughes’ lack of size. The sheer amount of ice that Myers can cover would open up more space for Hughes to work his magic. Myers has played for a contender in Winnipeg the past few seasons and is just 28, so his experience in partnering with skilled defenders could come in handy for years to come—but he’ll be expecting an overpayment in this shallow UFA pool.
Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay Lightning
At 32 years old, Stralman wouldn’t represent anything more than a short-term solution as Hughes’ defence partner. However, if the Canucks do decide to move Chris Tanev at some point in the near future, the super-steady Stralman could step in on a two- to a three-year contract and provide ample defensive cover. Stralman has experience working with Victor Hedman, another enormously talented defenseman.
The Trade Targets
There are a handful of interesting players that have been put on the trading block this season that could potentially fit well with Hughes—and that wouldn’t break the bank to acquire.
Neal Pionk, New York Rangers
Pionk’s name has been raised in a handful of trade rumours this season, and it seems to be because his age of 23 years old puts him just outside the range of the Blueshirts’ current rebuild. Pionk has consistently put up a 0.5 points-per-game average across two NHL seasons, and his game has a physical element to it—making him a well-rounded potential partner for Hughes. The Rangers would almost certainly ask for picks and prospects in return.
Radko Gudas, Philadelphia Flyers
Gudas is one of the most physical defenders in the NHL, but he also possesses an underrated skill level. It feels like Gudas has been around forever, but he’s just 28—meaning he could serve as Hughes’ defensive anchor and personal bodyguard for years to come. With one year remaining on his contract, Gudas is seen as expendable in Philadelphia due to their influx of young defenders—but he still won’t come cheap.
Nikita Zadorov, Colorado Avalanche
Zadorov’s name has been added to the Colorado trade block of late, and he represents yet another physical force to potentially ride shotgun with Hughes. Zadorov is essentially Nikita Tryamkin with a mean streak—and with the ability to play the right side, despite his left-handedness. The contending Avalanche may be looking for a roster player in return for Zadorov.
The Long-Term Solutions
The Canucks’ best bet may be to seek out a long-term defence partner for Hughes—someone that’s also just embarking on their NHL career, and may be able to develop alongside Hughes for years to come. There are a handful of bluechip right-handed defence prospects around the league that may be available for one reason or another—their team’s contention status or defensive depth, primarily—and that the Canucks could target as a more permanent solution for the team’s future top-pairing.
Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs have reportedly made Liljegren available in their quest to build a Stanley Cup champion, and the Canucks should be very interested in the former 17th overall draft pick. There was once a time when Liljegren was the most-hyped player in his draft class and—although he’s having a tough sophomore season—he remains a top-flight prospect whose game would mesh quite well with Hughes’.
Adam Fox, Carolina Hurricanes
If Fox doesn’t sign with the Hurricanes during the upcoming offseason, he’ll enter his senior season with Harvard as a pending unrestricted free agent—and Carolina will be much more open to moving him. Fox and Hughes are the two more dynamic offensive defenders in the NCAA, and Fox could be interested in joining his World Junior teammate in Vancouver to form an extremely potent pairing.
Cal Foote, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are another team that is in full-on Stanley Cup contender mode, and so the likelihood of them moving notable prospects is significantly increased. Foote—the son of former NHLer Adam Foote—is a massive 20-year-old with a bit of offensive pop and most of a pro season already under his belt.
Dante Fabbro, Nashville Predators
Fabbro is another prospect who could become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020 if he does not sign with his drafting team. Hailing from New Westminster, Fabbro has major ties to the Vancouver organization and would be a logical target for the Canucks if Nashville does end up trading him—which is a distinct possibility thanks to their outrageous defensive depth. As a dynamic offensive talent with a strong work ethic, Fabbro could match the heightened pace of Hughes’ play.
Ethan Bear, Edmonton Oilers
Peter Chiarelli’s parting gift to the Oilers was a bounty of depth defenders, and that could make a prospect like Bear available at the Trade Deadline as Edmonton desperately tries to make the playoffs. He’s impressed in a couple of NHL auditions already and offers the kind of balanced two-way play that would make for a steady and reliable Hughes’ partner.