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Canucks going to need “next man up” mentality during Quinn Hughes’ absence

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Photo credit:© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Noah Strang
9 months ago
In what can only be described as a devastating piece of news for the Vancouver Canucks, superstar defenceman Quinn Hughes has entered COVID-19 protocol. Hughes will now be forced to miss at least the team’s next three games with a February 17th matchup against the San Jose Sharks being eyed as a potential return date.
This is terrible timing for the Canucks who are still on the fringe of the playoff race. Hughes has been one of the team’s best players all season, ranking second among all skaters in points, and shoulders a massive load in terms of the Canucks’ transition game. He has two fewer assists than all other Canucks’ defencemen’s point totals combined so far this season.
His absence is going to leave a massive hole in the Canucks’ lineup that will be impossible for one player to step up and fill. Instead, it’s going to take collective action from the other left-handed defenseman on the roster to even attempt to replace half of what Hughes does when on the ice.
From Brad Hunt to Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the Canucks are going to need improvement from the top and bottom of the defence group. If the team wants to steal four of the next six points up for grabs before the Sharks game — the absolute bare minimum to stay in the race — they’re going to need to adopt a “next man up” mentality.

How the Canucks might try to replace Hughes

Fully replacing Hughes is going to be an impossible task for the Canucks. He does too much and too high of a level for the team to not feel his absence, after all, there are only a few players in the league with anything that resembles his unique skillset.
One thing that Hughes does well is quarterback the Canucks’ top power play unit. It seems logical that Ekman-Larsson will now take over that role, but that marks a large drop-off. Hughes is scoring power-play points near three times as often, and that can’t all be attributed to the units they play with.
Canucks Power play defensemen
Key stats for different Canucks’ defencemen on the power play. Stats from Natural Stat Trick.
The hardest pill to swallow will be the obvious lack of puck-moving defencemen left on the roster, not only for the power play  but also at even strength. While Ekman-Larsson has been very  solid in his own zone, he hasn’t been able to rediscover the puck-moving ways of his youth since coming to Vancouver. However, the organization has a wildcard that might help them partially solve this issue in Jack Rathbone. Unfortunately, he wasn’t recalled on Monday night and remains with the minor league team in Abbotsford.

Big test for the depth pieces

This will also be a good test for the depth defencemen in the Canucks organization. Ashton Sautner and Noah Juulsen are two players who’ve spent a lot of time in the AHL this season but will get a chance to play solid roles with the Canucks for the next few games.
Juulsen was acquired earlier this year alongside Juho Lammikko from the Florida Panthers for Olli Juolevi. Juulsen is interesting as a former first-round pick right-handed defenseman, but a string of bad injuries has led his career astray. While many were hoping the change of scenery might be helpful, in his five games for the Canucks this season he’s been caved in at 5-on-5.
However, he has performed well at the AHL level this season and has shown flashes at the NHL level. His sample size with the big squad is too small to draw any real conclusions from and perhaps with a few games to settle in, he can turn those numbers around.
Sautner is a player that has been in the Canucks’ system for a little bit and as a left-hander is a more natural fit to take a left-defence spot. He hasn’t had that great of a season thus far in the AHL, both his CF% and GF% sit below 50% , and now he will likely get to make his season debut.

Potential long term effects of Hughes’ absence

There are some large potential ramifications of Hughes’ absence over the next week. We’re rapidly approaching the trade deadline which marks a big day in the direction of this franchise. Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin need to make a decision on if they’re going to be sellers, and if they are, which players are going to go. Rutherford said today that the team didn’t need to trade one of J.T. Miller or Brock Boeser to achieve cap flexibility, but if they did choose to go in that direction, it would be a lot simpler and return some good young assets.
If the Canucks struggle mightily without Hughes in the lineup and fall out of the race completely, does that make Rutherford and Alvin realize that they may need a more substantial retool of the roster? Maybe it results in more deals being done at the deadline as they realize just how much Hughes carries the lacklustre — yet very expensive — defence group?
This also marks a good opportunity for the Canucks’ depth defencemen, Juulsen, Sautner, and even Kyle Burroughs, to get a larger audition and prove they belong. The Canucks are in a tough spot with the salary cap and finding a dependable 7th or 8th defenceman that doesn’t cost too much would be a good way to make the best of a bad situation.
How do you think the Canucks will perform while Quinn Hughes is missing? Are there any specific storylines you’re going to be following? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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