Blueline depth update: Canucks still lacking long-term second pairing options

Photo credit:© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
6 months ago
Few, if any, would argue that the blueline of the Vancouver Canucks has not improved in the two years since GM Patrik Allvin took the helm of the front office.
Want evidence to back that notion up?
Just look at the team’s performance on the ice.
Want more evidence?
Consider how the dialogue surrounding the blueline has changed in recent days. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Vancouver D corps was talked about as a page-one re-write. All discussions were about the badness of the organization’s defenders, but their goodness. Nowadays, folks have flipped all the way around to wondering how long it will take until the blueline is “good enough” to contend. They wonder how many “missing pieces” need to be filled in before the job is complete.
That change in perspective, in and of itself, is an accomplishment worth celebrating. But what Allvin and Co. do not have on their hands, quite yet anyway, is a finished product.
Following the acquisition of Nikita Zadorov, it seems like as fine a time as any to examine the short- and long-term depth of the refurbished Vancouver blueline, both in order to determine how far the roster has come…and how far it might still need to go.
There are a few different “counts” that can be taken when it comes to blueline depth. Due to what has frequently been an imbalance in talent between the left and right sides, Vancouver fans are most used to counting their defenders positionally; as in 1LHD, 2RHD, 3LHD, and so on.
That’s one way of doing it, and an important one, especially with a coach like Rick Tocchet who really likes to keep his defenders on their natural sides.
Another method, however, and perhaps a more integral one for the purposes of assessing overall depth and quality, is a simple one-thru-six count. It’s from this measure that we get terms like “number one defenseman,” and although all such measures are subjective, this one is at least fairly straightforward to lay out. A true “1D” is a player that is good enough to be the best defender on a playoff-contending team. A “2D” is one that is good enough to be the second-best defender on a playoff-contending team. And so on, and so forth.
So where does that leave the Vancouver Canucks?
Let’s tackle this slot-by-slot.
1D: Quinn Hughes
It wasn’t all that long ago that we heard constant arguments about how Quinn Hughes would never be a “true number one defender.”
We don’t hear many of those arguments anymore.
Hughes has taken over as the Canucks’ clear-cut best player and is currently neck-and-neck with Cale Makar for the 2023/24 Norris Trophy race. He’s tied for fourth in NHL scoring as of this writing, and is averaging a whopping 24:58 of ice-time a night with an above-average quality of competition.
There may not be a better blueline skater in the world.
With Hughes signed until 2027, the Canucks have their 1D locked in, and that’s really saying something. There’s a case to be made that Hughes is the only real 1D the Canucks have had in their franchise history, and they’ve got at least four more years of him on hand.
2D: Filip Hronek
It is true that some of the shine is starting to come off of Filip Hronek’s first full season with the Canucks. A few blemishes have started to appear in his defensive game, and he’s struggled a bit under the excessive load that the top pairing has been asked to carry in Vancouver.
That said, Hronek is still playing 24:35 a night, and he still has 25 points in 27 games as of this writing. He’s still been on the ice for a dozen more goals for than goals against, all the while playing a slightly higher quality of competition than Hughes.
And speaking of Hughes, Hronek is — warts and all — still by far the most complementary partner that the Canucks have been able to provide their 1D since he arrived in Vancouver.
All of which goes toward saying that Hronek is definitely a player of 2D quality. Some might want to see a full season of consistent play before anointing him “good enough to be a 2D on a contender,” but we’ve seen enough at this point to feel confident in making the assertion here and now.
It’s lower in the depth chart that the question marks start to appear.
3D: ?????
There’s an obvious gap at the 3D position in the Canucks’ blueline depth chart.
In terms of ice-time, it’s been Ian Cole thus far in the 2023/24 season, with Cole averaging a hair under 20 minutes per night with moderately heavy defensive deployment.
But while Cole is clearly doing his best, he’s not really built to be a 3D on a contending team. And even if he is capable of covering those duties in the short-term, he ain’t getting any younger, and so he absolutely cannot be considered a long-term option here.
Realistically, Cole is a 4D at best right now, and will be able to be counted on even less in years to come. Meanwhile, we’ve got question marks about the likes of Nikita Zadorov and Carson Soucy even qualifying for the 4D slot, so expecting them to be long-term 3Ds is almost certainly a bridge too far.
To fill out the 3D slot moving forward, it seems that the Canucks are going to either have to look for additions from outside the organization, or employ a little patience and wait for prospects within the system to develop.
All three of Tom Willander, Elias Pettersson II, and Hunter Brzustewicz would seem to have middle-pairing potential at this current stage in their development, at the least. But all three are probably multiple years away from playing a significant role in the NHL.
Can the Canucks afford to wait that long for a proper 3D?
Perhaps patience would be easier to come by if the 4D slot were fully secured. Alas…
4D: Ian Cole…for now
There’s a real case to be made that the Canucks are lacking an entire long-term second pairing.
For now, Cole works as a 4D. He’s been within the top-four of contending teams in the very recent past, including the previous two seasons with Carolina and Tampa Bay.
Those were both cases in which Cole was very clearly the #4 defender in a set of four, and both cases in which defenders one-thru-three were exceptionally strong. We’re talking cores of Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, and Brady Skjei, and Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak.
But either way, we can say that, technically-speaking and for the time being, Cole can qualify as a 4D.
As we said earlier, though, Cole isn’t getting any younger, and he’s only been signed for this one year. Filling the 4D slot in the long-term requires one of two things.
One path might be a similar acquisition or promotion-from-within as we described in the last section. Maybe the Canucks choose to acquire another top-four defender and develop one, or maybe they hope that two-of-three from Willander, Pettersson, and Bzrustewicz can make it.
Alternatively, they can put some hope into either Zadorov or Soucy proving to be capable of stepping up into the top-four and staying there.
In that regard, we’ve got a little more hope for Zadorov than Soucy, especially under the tutelage of Tocchet. Realistically-speaking, however, both currently belong a slot below, and hoping that they’re able to climb a rung up the ladder is just that at this point: hope.
It could definitely be argued that 3D and 4D are thus the two largest gaps in the Canucks’ long-term roster construction.
5D: Nikita Zadorov AND Carson Soucy
If the Canucks were able to fill at least one of those 3D and 4D slots with a long-term piece, they could probably take some solace in the fact that they’ve got not one, but two strong 5Ds on hand in Zadorov and Soucy.
As we stated above, Zadorov is the one with the greater upward potential left in him, and the one with the strongest claim to being “good enough to be 5D on a contender.” But Soucy’s own claim is solid after two excellent seasons in Seattle and a great start in Vancouver, so we feel confident anointing the both of them as “5Ds with a bullet.”
We can absolutely imagine a scenario in which the Canucks have Hughes as 1D, Hronek as 2D, a proper 3D, and then feel confident rolling Soucy and Zadorov out as some sort of 4/5D conglomeration. Of course, the hardest part of that scenario to achieve is the “proper 3D” part, but that’s out of Zadorov and Soucy’s hands.
It’s also worth noting here that, while Soucy is signed for two seasons beyond this one, Zadorov is a pending UFA. All indications are that he will be signing an extension in Vancouver, but until that happens, he can’t be called any sort of long-term option quite yet.
6D: Tyler Myers
We could definitely be talked into slotting Myers at least one rung higher, on the strength of the better half of his play this season and his ongoing ability to munch minutes. Realistically, however, Myers fits in as the sixth-best defender on a truly contending blueline, meaning he’s currently right where he should be in Vancouver once the whole D corps is healthy.
Of course, Myers’ $6 million salary isn’t in line with the 6D role, but that contract is almost over, and the cap isn’t something we’re considering when slotting out the blueline.
Like him or lump him, Myers is still a better option here than anyone else the Canucks can ice right now, and a fine enough one if the rest of the defense is balanced.
7D and Beyond: Take Your Pick
The Canucks do also, it’s worth mentioning, have ample defenders on hand that can serve as reasonable extra defenders on a contending roster. As of right now, Mark Friedman probably leads the pack, but there’s also the possibility of some ongoing promotion from within here, too.
The top- and bottom-ends of the depth chart are thus sewed up quite nicely.
It’s that mushy middle that remains, and will remain, the primary issue moving forward.
The Canucks’ blueline is miles better than it has ever been in recent memory.
The Canucks’ blueline is entirely absent of long-term options on the middle pairing.
Both statements can be, and appear to be, true.
But, like we mentioned at the outset, so too is the statement that the Canucks’ blueline is a work in progress, and we don’t think Allvin and Co. are finished with it quite yet.

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