The unlikeliest stories usually start in the unlikeliest ways.
If I had told you at the beginning of the Vancouver Canucks’ 2018/19 season that, by the end of the year, Luke Schenn of all people would be challenging Elias Pettersson and Jacob Markstrom for the title of biggest surprise of the year, you could hardly be blamed for thinking I was insane. Luke Schenn? Really? The guy who endured an unbelievable fall from grace after such a promising start to his NHL career?
And he was supposed to have an excellent NHL career.
The Toronto Maple Leafs entered the 2008 NHL Entry Draft with the 7th overall pick and a desire to pick up a quality defenceman.
“The top four defencemen are all special and we knew we had to act to get one of them,” Said GM Cliff Fletcher at the time.
With a package including their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round draft picks that year, Fletcher was able to convince the New York Islanders to give up the 5th overall pick and move down two spots. The Maple Leafs beat out at least 15 other teams trying to convince the Islanders to do the same deal with them.
“What became evident is that he has leadership skills,” said Fletcher. “You won’t see him do too many end-to-end rushes but he’s a very good shutdown guy, very physical, makes a great first pass and has a good shot.”
For a team desperate to turn their luck around, the Maple Leafs believed they had acquired a guy who was future captain material. Fans were elated. Schenn even graced the cover of The Hockey News, with the tagline reading “Toronto’s Poised Prize Leads Sick Teen Invasion.”
Unfortunately, the turn of the decade saw the NHL begin to transform into the speed and mobility NHL we see today. Schenn had a few moments of personal success in Toronto, but overall his tenure there was marked primarily by inconsistency and a failure to live up to expectations. He had all the tools to be a great defenceman in the NHL, only a decade too late. The game had passed him by.
In the summer of 2012, he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for James van Riemsdyk. The Maple Leafs were trying to upgrade their forward group, and it was thought in Philadelphia that Schenn could benefit from a change of scenery. The Flyers also thought Schenn would benefit from playing alongside his younger brother, Brayden.
Struck by more misfortunate, Luke’s time in Philly went more or less how his time in Toronto did. Inconsistent play on an underperforming team is not a good combination if you want to stick around, and Schenn was eventually traded to Los Angeles along with Vincent Lecavalier in exchange for Jordan Weal and a 3rd round draft pick.
His time with the Kings was short lived, however, as he signed with Arizona that offseason. After two less than successful years with one of the worst teams in the NHL, the Anaheim Ducks took a flyer on Schenn in the 2018 offseason. After playing 8 games for the Ducks in between 10 healthy scratches, and at 29 years old, Schenn was demoted to the AHL for the first time in his career.
Schenn contributed 10 points in 22 games for the San Diego Gulls before being traded to your Vancouver Canucks along with a 2020 7th round draft pick in exchange for Michael del Zotto on January 17th. He was immediately assigned to the Utica Comets.
It can’t be emphasized enough how little an impact this deal made on fans at the time. Other than a stretch from the end of October to the beginning of December, during which the Canucks mostly did a lot of losing, Del Zotto was a frequent healthy scratch. When an uptick in the club’s play coincided with Del Zotto’s absence from the ice, the writing was on the wall.
“It just didn’t work out this year,” said Canucks head coach Travis Green. “A lot of it was just based on timing… We started winning some games when he came out of the lineup and we kinda stuck with that lineup.”
Del Zotto simply did not factor into the team’s present or future. Most fans understood that and expected him to be moved out without expecting a lot back in return. The name Luke Schenn definitely raised a few eyebrows, but the move was not considered meaningful for the big club considering the general downward trajectory Schenn’s career was on.
“AHL depth. Great. Oh well, couldn’t have expected much for Del Zotto.” That was basically the sentiment at the time.
After contributing 5 points in 7 games with the Comets, Schenn was called up in response to injuries the Canucks were dealing with on their back end. He made his debut against the team that had traded him, the Anaheim Ducks, on February 25th at Rogers Arena.
And something strange happened:
Just over a period in, and Luke Schenn is already a huge upgrade over Guddy. #Canucks
— Mike Kermode (@mikekermode) February 26, 2019
It's only one game, but I like the play of Schenn. Known for his sub-par skating, but he looks pretty good out there.
Schenn > Guddy#Canucks
— Jin-Jin (@Jin_TM) February 26, 2019
— Randip Janda (@RandipJanda) February 26, 2019
Damn Schenn ain’t playing half bad. #Canucks
— Canucks Golf Szn (@MyPavelsBured) February 26, 2019
I'm digging these Schenn shots from the point #Canucks
— Gabrielle (@i_love_canucks) February 26, 2019
Schenn can stay. #Canucks
— Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog (@Johnny_Canuck_) February 26, 2019
— Pass it to Brind'Amour (@passittobulis) February 26, 2019
That’s right. Luke Schenn was… kind of a revelation.
He was certainly sheltered, and at 15:07 didn’t have all the ice time in the world, but his positioning was pretty spot on for most of the night. He seemed to understand his limitations and, as a result, kept his game within the bounds of what he’s capable of. He made a good first pass, showed off his big (if not entirely accurate) shot from the point, and even brought some unexpected aggression to the game. There were a handful of instances throughout the night where he was clearing the front of his own net the way fans were told for the longest time that Erik Gudbranson would. He battled hard, and Canucks fans definitely noticed and appreciated the effort.
While certainly a positive story throughout the night, most fans tried to keep things in perspective. He’s slow. He’s 29. His career has been defined by his failure to adapt to the new NHL, even if it wasn’t his fault that he is what he is as a player.
It couldn’t last. Could it?
Narrator: “It did.”
From his debut against the Ducks, Schenn played all 18 remaining games for the Vancouver Canucks. What was only supposed to be a temporary fix during an injury crisis became a story of a guy who spent every single shift making it harder and harder for Travis Green to take him out of the line up.
With 81 hits in 18 games, Schenn averaged 4.5 hits per game for the Canucks. One particularly stand-out effort was a game against the Blue Jackets where he recorded a monstrous 12 hits. Clearly willing to hit anything and everything that moved, Schenn also continued to show a willingness to make life difficult for players taking liberties in front of Jacob Markstrom, as well as giving the Canucks the kind of modest physical deterrent they’ve been lacking for a while now.
Another unexpected benefit of having Schenn in the line up came when star prospect Quinn Hughes made his debut near the end of the season. Hughes is a small guy, and avoids physical contact from larger players by using his speed and agility to “roll” off of hits. That being said, we’re talking about a rookie who has a million things he’s trying to focus on and do at the same time. The conversation around who Hughes should play with was focused on finding him someone who played a similar game as him. Quick, mobile, and able to make a good pass.
How ironic it would be for Luke Schenn to end up being the guy who fit best with him.
Having known the Hughes family from years ago, Schenn was able to play the role of the tough big brother. Not only was he able to provide much needed physical protection and safety for Hughes, but the speedy rookie was able to return the favour by compensating for Schenn’s below average speed, passing, and ability to exit his own zone with the puck.
While obviously receiving sheltered minutes against low quality competition, Luke Schenn has vastly outperformed expectations in his short time here. While not a typical example of a modern day NHL defenceman, he seems to be highly motivated to find a way to stay in the league, and his play has demonstrated that he has learned how to play within his abilities. He will never be a game breaker, but he doesn’t have to be. He just has to contribute in a positive, meaningful way, without hurting the team. I think that he’s shown that he can do that. An unrestricted free agent this summer, general manager Jim Benning has already expressed an interest in re-signing Schenn, and I think that would be a great move.
There was a lot of chatter throughout the end of the season that excitement over Schenn’s play does nothing but demonstrate the lowered expectations fans in Vancouver have because of how bad the Canucks defence has been in recent years. I think there’s some validity to that, but I also think that it’s okay for fans to celebrate small wins. It’s good to have a guy on the team who can play the role of a 6th or 7th defenceman well, as supporters of Alex Biega can attest. Having only made $800,000 this year, Schenn can likely be re-signed for $1 million over one year.
Considering he brings all of the things that Erik Gudbranson promised for almost a quarter of the price, I think that’s a deal worth making.