Photo credit:© Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
With Soucy and Cole, the Canucks can effectively split OEL’s former minutes by committee while they plan for succession
7 months ago
A week back, we here at CanucksArmy asked the question of who was going to take on the more than 20 minutes of average ice-time per night that had been previously attempted by Oliver Ekman-Larsson, prior to his offseason buyout.
The answer, as far as we could tell, was that the Vancouver Canucks were almost certainly going to need to sign a veteran LHD to help cover those missing minutes. But perhaps GM Patrik Allvin wasn’t listening, because on Day One of the FREE AGENT FRENZY 2023, he did not sign a veteran LHD.
He signed three.
Now, the 35-year-old Matt Irwin will probably do what he’s done for the majority of his career, which is move in and out of the lineup as an extra defender throughout the entire year. The two that will really be expected to fill OEL’s role are Carson Soucy and Ian Cole, and their recent playing history suggests that they’ll be up to the task, so long as they do it by committee.
Cole’s own ice-time for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2022/23 was 19:23 per night, not far off from Ekman-Larsson at all, and with nearly a fifth of those minutes coming shorthanded.
That’s probably more than the 34-year-old should have been playing, and certainly more than the Canucks are going to want him to play in Vancouver. But he did it, and he did it with a decided amount more effectiveness than OEL. Cole was on the ice for 61 even-strength goals for and 52 against, a differential of +9 that compares quite nicely to Ekman-Larsson’s 41 goals for, 63 against, and -22 differential.
And, despite the bevy of all-star defenders available to the Lightning all season, Cole did all this while facing a stiffer quality of competition that Ekman-Larsson did for the Canucks, and alongside a lower quality of teammates.
All of that might lead one to believe that Cole could replace Ekman-Larsson singlehandedly — and given how poorly Ekman-Larsson played last year, that’s probably true. But the Canucks don’t just want to replace their blueline of 2022/23, they want to improve on it by leaps and bounds.
Which is why it won’t just be Cole replacing those minutes, but a conjunction of Cole and Carson Soucy.
The 28-year-old Soucy was the Canucks’ big-ticket signing of the day, though his own average TOI of 16:18 for the Seattle Kraken trailed Cole’s own by a significant margin.
The same could be said for Soucy’s quality of competition, which looks minuscule compared to what Cole and OEL faced last season.
So why is Soucy making more than either of them, and why did he get signed for three years as opposed to just one?
For one, as the youngest of the bunch, the Canucks are hoping that Soucy is going to provide a lengthier and more consistent level of performance in Vancouver. There’s also the fact that he brings a few things to the table — namely size, snarl, and physicality — that is quickly becoming a rare commodity in the NHL.
But in any case, the Canucks don’t have to choose which of Cole or Soucy will fill OEL’s role on the team in 2023/24. They’ve got them both under contract, and head coach Rick Tocchet is at liberty to split those minutes accordingly throughout the entire season.
Which, if one thinks about it, doesn’t have to be all that many minutes anyway.
Assuming that both Cole and Soucy spend the bulk of their time on their natural left side, they’ll be slotting into the depth chart below Quinn Hughes.
Now, most would like to see Hughes play a little bit less in the regular season, in order to save him up for a potential postseason run. But the reality is that a defender of Hughes’ quality is capable of and probably going to be playing upward of 25 minutes a night.
That leaves just 35 minutes for Soucy and Cole to battle over. They’ll take all the PK minutes, for sure, and plenty of the even-strength minutes, too. Perhaps an ideal spread might be about 24 minutes for Hughes and 18 each for both Soucy and Cole, though that might require some serious double-shifting on the part of the less-well-staffed right side.
Regardless, it’s safe to say that the arrival of these two defenders (and Irwin!) almost automatically constitutes an upgrade on the singular departure of Ekman-Larsson. It’s addition by subtraction followed by addition by multiplication, and we don’t know exactly where it will leave the Canucks’ blueline in 2023/24, but we can state with some certainty as to the direction it’s headed: much, much better.
(And that’s to say nothing of the shorthanded situation, which we’ve covered in a whole other article).
Then there’s the difference in term to consider. Prior to his buyout, OEL was on the books for an additional four seasons. That’s exactly what Soucy and Cole have been signed for, cumulatively, with Soucy picking up three years and Cole just one.
That means that the Canucks also have a plan for succession in place. Cole will age out and retire in the near-ish future. Soucy will stick around for a bit, but ideally, he’ll eventually be surpassed by someone from within the organization stepping up and stepping in to a long-term top-four role.
Is that Akito Hirose? The second Elias Pettersson? The recently-drafted Sawyer Mynio? Or maybe someone yet-to-be-drafted?
We don’t yet, but the key point here is that the Canucks have given themselves time to find out, and they’ve done so without signing any contracts that will get in the way when they do.
Which is a lot more than can be said about past attempts to retool the blueline.
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