Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Can the Canucks get through this season without another addition on the blueline?
2 months ago
Last week, we took an updated look at the Vancouver Canucks’ long-term outlook on defense, and found that while the situation has been drastically improved upon, there are still some obvious gaps in the depth chart.
Namely, an entire second pairing.
But that’s just the long-term outlook. For the first time in a long time, the 2023/24 Canucks could also be said to have genuine short-term goals. The organization has some serious designs on getting at least a little something out of this current campaign.
Which raises a slightly different question. The Canucks may not have long-term solutions at 3D or 4D on their active roster right this moment, but is it possible that they’ve got short-term solutions? Is it possible that this team could “get by” for the remainder of the regular season, and have a reasonable shot at some success in the postseason, with what they’ve got on hand, and without the benefit of an additional blueline acquisition?
It’s a directly relevant concern.
News broke over the weekend that the Ethan Bear sweepstakes were heating up, and that even a little bit of a bidding war for his services would likely leave the Canucks priced out. Previously, many had been counting on Bear as a cheap and free-to-acquire shot of mid-season RHD depth. Now, that seems unlikely to come to pass, as does any blueline acquisition of similar quality.
Which brings us back to that question of getting by with what they already have.
Which, for the record, is still a collection of six NHL-quality defenders. In Quinn Hughes, Filip Hronek, Ian Cole, Nikita Zadorov, Carson Soucy, and Tyler Myers, the Canucks have a significantly stronger D corps than they have had at any point in the last decade.
The challenge comes in arranging four LHDs and two RHDs, one of whom is in need of some sheltering, into three balanced pairings.
Prior to this point, head coach Rick Tocchet has been reluctant to play any of his LHDs on the right side for any significant stretch of time. As soon as Soucy returns to the lineup, however, we posit that he’s going to have to get over that stumbling block and start trying some dual-leftie duos.
Carving a second pairing out of the trio of Cole, Zadorov, and Soucy seems like the Canucks’ only path to blueline success right now.
Let’s hash out the bare facts.
The Canucks have two defenders in Hughes and Hronek that, whether they’re paired together or not, are capable of playing around 24 minutes per night (although, in an ideal world, that average ice-time is a little less).
They also have at least one defender who realistically needs to be kept in as limited a role as possible in Myers. The unfortunate bit comes in Myers being the second-highest ranking natural RHD on the depth chart.
Therefore, additions and acquisitions aside, the potential answers are few, and all of them involve a LHD playing on the right.
Either one of the three of Cole, Zadorov, or Soucy joins the top pairing alongside Hughes, leaving on of the remaining two to form a second pairing with Hronek and the other to support Myers on the third pairing.
Or, alternatively, the Hughes-Hronek pairing sticks together, and two of the three need to combine to form a secondary shutdown pairing.
None of which sounds ideal, nor, as we pointed out in our previous article, like anything approaching a long-term solution. But while the Canucks do have some short-term goals for this season, they aren’t so vital and pressing as to throw out the long-term goals entirely. There’s an element of whether or not the current situation is “good enough” to take a shot with this season and this season alone, and the answer to that might be a cautiously optimistic “yes.”
We already covered in the offseason how both Cole and Soucy have an extensive history of playing on their off-side.
The same is true, to a slightly lesser extent, of Zadorov.
The challenge, then, is arranging the three of them in a way that allows for maximum effectiveness.
And on this subject, we have some thoughts.
We’ve already seen evidence that the 13-foot experiment of a Zadorov-Myers pairing is exactly as chaotic as many expected it to be. Leaving those two together, even in a third pairing situation, could be courting disaster in a way the Canucks can’t particularly afford.
Myers needs to stay on the bottom pairing. That puts Zadorov into potential top-four minutes, which has us leaning toward leaving him on his natural left side.
All of which makes Cole all the more important. Of this trio of LHDs, Cole is the one with the most right-side experience, and especially the most right-side experience within the top-four. He’s also the one with the most experience handling heavy minutes, having averaged 19:23 through 78 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning last season.
Whether it’s on Hughes’ flank or next to Zadorov on a makeshift second pairing, if one of the LHDs is going to get a semi-permanent turn on the right, it almost has to be Cole.
Which fits with what we’ve seen already. Soucy, when healthy, has shown a real aptitude as a Myers whisperer. Most will agree that Myers’ best stretch of play this year came while paired with Soucy, and while both remain questionable top-four options, they have potential as a strong bottom pair.
Strong enough? That would depend on how the other pairings gel, largely. But the shape of something that might just work is beginning to form.
The two scenarios, as we’ve laid them out, look like this:
Whether or not such a setup proves good enough for the Canucks’ competitive purposes in 2023/24 is really something that can only be determined on the ice. And, of course, to even get to this point, the Canucks are going to have to achieve some measure of full health on their blueline.
But that one can look at the Vancouver D corps, and even idly wonder whether or not it might be adequate for the time being, is evidence enough of how far this group has come.
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