Cole McWard on the Canucks’ roster makes some sense, but only as a short-term measure
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
1 month ago
The Vancouver Canucks having issues at the position of right defence is a lot like Doctor Manhattan dropping photographs on Mars. No matter where you are in the timeline, it always seems to be happening.
And, here at the outset of the 2023/24 season, the cycle certainly seems to be continuing.
Last year, the Canucks took a big step toward shoring up their RD situation by acquiring Filip Hronek. This offseason, many assumed that they also took steps toward a solution in signing Ian Cole and Carson Soucy, two LHDs with plenty of experience playing on the right. But head coach Rick Tocchet has proven reluctant to play defenders on their off-side, and so that’s left the Canucks with Hronek, an expiring Tyler Myers, and a whole bunch of question marks on the right.
Filip Johansson didn’t look close to ready after finally making the journey over to North America.
Jett Woo had a disappointing exhibition showing after his first strong one in the AHL.
Noah Juulsen noticeably struggled after a solid run with the Canucks late last year.
Emerging from the pack to seemingly claim a spot for himself has been Cole McWard, an undrafted 22-year-old fresh out of the NCAA.
But being the best of the Canucks’ RHD depth and being truly ready for NHL primetime are two entirely different things.
To be clear here, no one is saying that McWard has been bad. Quite the opposite. He’s been a little too jumpy at times, earning a streak of minor penalties, and a little too tentative at others, probably a result of trying to avoid said penalties. But, overall, he’s essentially looked as good as could be expected for someone jumping from the NCAA right into the NHL. Heck, McWard is only two years removed from playing in the USHL.
The key point here is this: what McWard does not look like is someone who is 100% ready for the big leagues. He absolutely still looks like someone who should be spending their rookie pro season in Abbotsford, learning the ins and outs of pro hockey. Prior to this year, the most games McWard has ever played in a season was 52. The learning curve is going to be steep, and to expect McWard to climb that curve while playing against the best players in the world might be a bridge too far.
Really, this isn’t how it is supposed to work. Prospects are meant to win their spots in camp, but get them by the default of being better than the rest of an uninspiring collection.
But McWard’s current spot on the roster starts to make a lot more sense if it’s seen as a short-term, or temporary, solution.
Let’s imagine that GM Patrik Allvin and Co. have another RHD solution on the burner. It could a trade or, perhaps more likely, it could be the long-rumoured signing of Ethan Bear after he gets healthy. Whatever it is, if they’ve got a reason to believe that another RHD will be arriving at some point in the future, then suddenly having McWard start the season with the Big Canucks is far less of an issue.
In fact, it could be construed as a huge positive. With Tom Willander unsigned and just entering the NCAA himself, there’s little doubt that McWard is the best RHD prospect available to the Canucks at this moment. Far more than any of Johansson, Woo, or Juulsen, McWard might have a genuine future with this franchise, and getting him NHL minutes now — complete with a pre-set plan to send him down whenever that new player arrives — could be seen as beneficial to his development.
It’s important to remember that McWard is not a typical prospect. Even though he’s new to the organization, he’s already 22 years old, and thus a full four years past his expected draft date.
If the Canucks had drafted McWard back when he was 18, this would be right about the time that he’d be expected to break onto the scene.
Getting NHL exposure right now can be a good thing. Getting handed an NHL job and being expected to keep up with it all season would probably be a bad thing. The two are not the same, and fans need to hope that it’s the former when it comes to the club’s intentions for McWard in 2023/24.
The basic plan, as far as we see it, should be like this:
- Start the season with McWard on the roster. This carries the added benefit of his larger-than-most-prospect’s cap hit getting the Canucks closer to that “magic number” of maximizing Tucker Poolman’s LTIR relief space.
- Start McWard in the top-six, ideally with a strong veteran partner in the form of Ian Cole or Carson Soucy. Play them lots, as there’s no point having McWard in the lineup if he’s not going to play.
- Leave a Juulsen or whoever on the roster as an extra, ready to spell McWard off whenever needed for a night or two.
- Eventually, and preferably within a month or two, sign Ethan Bear or complete a trade to bring in another RHD.
- At that point, send McWard down to Abbotsford. Let him know it’s coming and all part of the plan well ahead of time.
- McWard stays down in Abbotsford for the rest of the year, playing on the top-pairing with a head full of knowledge about what he needs to improve upon at the NHL level.
Put it that way, and McWard starting the season with the Canucks doesn’t just look like a workable solution, it looks like the best path forward possible with what the team currently has on hand.
Of course, there’s also the strong possibility that the team makes a waiver claim in the next couple of days that renders this all moot. But, thus far, most of the intriguing RHDs on the waiver wire have been snatched up before the Canucks even had a chance to grab them.
If that continues to be the case, the McPlan should work just fine.
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