Earlier this week, Jim Rutherford joined CHEKTV’s Donnie & Dhali – The Team to discuss the state of the Vancouver Canucks ahead of training camp in Whistler later this month.
When asked about the lack of changes to the right side of their defence, Rutherford stated his belief in the team’s current personnel, citing Kyle Burroughs’ performance while pushing Travis Dermott and Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s ability to play on their off-side if needed. Additionally, Rutherford revealed that Quinn Hughes pitched the idea of playing on his right side to management.
Rutherford’s public confidence in the team’s defence appears to be a considerable shift from his perception of it back when he joined the Bob McCown Podcast in late July.
“Our defence right now is good enough to win, but there’s question marks there. We’ve got Rathbone, who’s a young player that’s tracking in the right direction, deserves the opportunity to be in Vancouver this year. If he comes in and plays the way he did in the American League last year, and stays healthy, that’s going to improve our defence.”
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This offseason, the Canucks’ have been economical in rounding out their left side depth, acquiring Christian Wolanin, Wyatt Kalynuk, and PTO Danny DeKeyser as free agents. The fact that the Canucks did not go big-game hunting for an LD piece in free agency heavily indicates that the team expects Rathbone to be a full-time NHL feature for them this season.
So what exactly would Quinn Hughes moving to his off-side do to the structure of the Canucks’ current defensive pairings? Folks may forget, but during his NHL debut, Hughes lined up on his off side for several shifts on a pairing with Alex Edler!
For this exercise, we’re going to assume, based on Rutherford’s comments, that Jack Rathbone will start the season in the NHL and Danny Dekeyser will not return after his PTO expires.
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With that, here are a few hypothetical defence pairings the Canucks could go with as they head into the 2022-23 season.

The Basic Model

The simplest pivot that Canucks fans could see would be an OEL-Hughes first pairing. While it wasn’t a large sample, the two shared some ice-time last season at 5v5, where they adequately controlled shot attempts while outscoring their opponents.
The shift would allow Jack Rathbone to earn third-pairing reps with effective “young guy insulator” Luke Schenn. Additionally, loading up with OEL-Hughes on the first pair allows Travis Dermott to stay on his natural side. More importantly, splitting OEL-Myers would enable the team to smooth out the tough minutes that previously fell onto OEL-Myers’ workload. The split will also free up their third pair to play softer matchups.

The Trust the Kids Model

When Bruce Boudreau took over head coaching duties, there was a noticeable shift in deployment philosophy. The skilled forwards started taking on tougher matchups, more minutes, PK gruntwork, and closeout time. This hypothetical defensive setup is unlikely to happen. But, a pairing of Rathbone-Hughes could result in an effective blend of new and old coaching philosophies.
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Rathbone and Hughes have little NHL experience together, playing less than two minutes together during the 2021-22 season at 5v5. However, if following the Boudreau mentality of trusting the kids, then a Rathbone-Hughes pairing makes complete sense. This structure would retain the OEL-Myers pairing, giving the team a reliable veteran pair to continue handling tough matchups, while Rathbone-Hughes take softer matchups to flex their offensive muscles.
Rathbone’s defensive game is still a work in progress, but you’re not putting him with Hughes to be a defensive stud. The Canucks’ would be utilizing their two best skaters to create dynamic offence with their A+ edgework and skating. Rathbone possesses a high-quality one-timer from the point and has shown no hesitation in using it at the AHL level. Hughes’ bread-and-butter as a crisp playmaker would work wonders with Rathbone’s ability to find space along the line for his shot.
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The Platoon Model

The Platoon Model would be neat as it gives Trent Cull and Bruce Boudreau plenty of options to work with in games. However, the Canucks might feel they cannot risk negatively affecting the value of their bottom-six forwards through healthy scratches via this model. The model would fix one of the Canucks’ most glaring issues: puck movement.
A roster that includes all of OEL, Hughes, Dermott, and Rathbone across different pairings gives the Canucks plenty of looks and flexibility to transition the puck throughout the game.
Trent Cull had plenty of experience working with platoon-style defensive units in Abbotsford last season. During a brutal COVID outbreak, the team ran five-man and seven-man defensive units, where the team posted a 2-2-1-0 record. During his time as AHL head coach, Cull never shied away from innovative special teams. Through his AHL tenure, Cull utilized five-forward power play units, all-rookie PK units, and the always exciting “goalie pull” during mid-period powerplays while trailing. Though this will be his first year behind an NHL bench, his willingness to attempt different tactics could pay dividends for a Canucks team running it back with the same personnel.
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Though the sample sizes are relatively small, the analytics are heavily on the side of this platoon approach. Travis Dermott and Tucker Poolman’s solid 5v5 goal-differential and glowing share of expected goals-for is encouraging for this approach. If the goal is to get Rathbone going as an NHL defenceman, then having a slew of options for him on the right side would go a long way to bringing him along.

The Alternate Platoon Model

While this approach follows the same principles as the first Platoon Model, this one arranges pairs based on their highest expected goals for percentages (xGF%) at 5v5 from last season. On paper, having three pairings carry shot control (CF%) and expected goal shares above 50% throughout a full season would be ideal. However, these stats don’t factor in the quality of opponents, so there is no guarantee that these glowing stats are replicable over 82-games.
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We felt the need to factor Kyle Burroughs into the hypothetical defensive constructions. While he isn’t an offensive dynamo, Burroughs brings a much-needed edge with his gameplay. Luke Schenn can’t be relied upon to be the only “in-your-face” defenceman of the Canucks this season. While it seems old hat to suggest Burroughs play based on his toughness. It is worth remembering that one of the areas of improvement identified by Jim Rutherford was their need for more sandpaper in the lineup. Burroughs brings the grit and could see plenty of ice time this year if the team chooses a platoon approach.
Despite bringing back the same personnel, the Canucks will have options to shake things up by Hughes pivoting to play on his off-side. However, despite the possibilities granted by Hughes playing on his off-side, this management group may view the pivot as too risky for how pot-committed they are toward winning now.
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