Could the Canucks be “overplaying” Pettersson and Hughes because they’re still in the running for major NHL awards?
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
7 months ago
You may have noticed the “scare-quotes” in the headline. They’re intentional.
That’s because “overplaying” is a purely subjective notion, and not one that we’re entirely sure applies to the Vancouver Canucks and their two top stars at the moment.
Yes, there are some fans who believe that Quinn Hughes (29:38 against Los Angeles) and Elias Pettersson (22:50) are currently playing too many minutes for where the Canucks are in the season.
The argument goes that, since the Canucks are now officially eliminated from the playoffs and have functionally been so for weeks, there’s no real reason to keep riding individual players so hard.
There are those who would like to see these stars rested, so as to avoid risk of injury. There are those who would like the team to “play the kids” in an effort to further jump-start the retool. There are definitely those who would like the Canucks to slide further down the standings so as to up their chances of Connor Bedard, and don’t enjoy seeing Hughes and Pettersson contributing to so many wins.
And they’ve been vocal about it, too.
But to say that Hughes and Pettersson, specifically, have been “overplayed” might be a bridge too far.
For one, neither of them has seemed to have much issue handling the minutes, and both are still playing extremely well. Pettersson is nearing 100 points on the season, and Hughes has never looked better.
Any accusations of “overplaying” are obviously purely situational, and have nothing to do with the on-ice abilities of either player.
For two, it’s not exactly true that Pettersson and Hughes don’t have anything to play for right now.
Hollywood just went through its “Awards Season,” in which the production teams of various films campaigned for their casts and crews to win a variety of Academy Awards this past month.
And while we’d never suggest that Awards Season-style campaigning is the primary reason why the Canucks are playing Hughes and Pettersson so much (it’s probably still a desire to win games), we’re also not saying it’s not a factor.
Point blank: both Hughes and Pettersson are shaping up to receive major votes in two major award categories this season. And that makes shaving their minutes down the stretch run all the more difficult to justify.
Now, we should be clear here when we’re assuming motivations, and this is one that is probably mainly coming from the players themselves. Sure, the organization would also like to see its players awarded at the year’s end, but we don’t think it’s something Rick Tocchet is thinking about mid-game.
It’s the players that really seem to care about stuff like this. They’re aware of the personal stakes. We saw how hard Pettersson fought to keep that near-franchise-record point streak alive. The players want the trophies on their mantelpieces.
And, more importantly to our point, they definitely want the opportunity to earn them.
Hughes is going to receive Norris Trophy votes this season, and a lot of them. He’s not the odds-on favourite to win it, but he’s decidedly in the running. Hughes is second overall in defence scoring with 73 points to Erik Karlsson’s 95. But while Karlsson often operates as a fourth forward, Hughes has spent the season cementing himself as his team’s top defensive defender, too.
Hughes also currently ranks sixth overall in NHL assists, and that’s among all players, forwards and defence. Points, especially when combined with heavy minutes and sound defensive results, go an awful long way toward earning Norris votes.
It now looks like Hughes is a good bet to at least receive a nomination, something that’s never happened before in franchise history. A string of 19-20 minute games to end the season, however, would, if not hurt his chances, certainly not help them. How can a coaching staff ask Hughes to start sitting more when he’s chasing something that no Vancouver Canuck has ever achieved? Especially in an award category so closely tied to minutes played?
The correlation between ice-time and award-chasing is less direct when it comes to Elias Pettersson, but then Pettersson is probably the more likely of the two to actually take home hardware this year.
Pettersson has been in the conversation for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward all season. It’s often seen as a reputation award, and Pettersson has never before been nominated, so he’s already fighting uphill. But it is quite a reputation that Pettersson has been building for himself throughout 2022/23, and that’s continued all the way through the stretch.
For Pettersson to actually crest 100 points goes a long way toward his Selke argument, which has always been more of a two-way play award. Never mind that cresting 100 points is a worthy milestone in and of itself.
Defensive matchups, situational deployment, and, yes, heavy minutes are all also important factors in the Selke discussion. Pettersson is up against the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Jordan Staal, and other frequent nominees in this category. He needs every strong showing he can get if he actually wants to win the darn thing, and he’s still piling them up.
So, we have a situation in which both Hughes and Pettersson have something to play for, and clearly want to be on the ice as much as possible. We also have an organization and coaching staff that wants those players on the ice as much as possible.
Hughes and Pettersson want to play. The team wants them to play. Some fans remain upset, but they’ll get over it if the Canucks are well-represented at Awards Night.
While it may go beyond the bounds of this article, we’re also prepared to say something about any accusations of JT Miller and Thatcher Demko also being “overplayed.”
Miller, too, has plenty to play for. He’s got that impending seven-year extension hanging over his head, and is already hearing it about his statistical regression from that 99-point season last year. He’s aware of what’s been said about him. For Miller, keeping up and over point-per-game status matters a lot heading into 2023/24, and he’s receiving the opportunity to maintain it.
Demko, on the other hand, had an abysmal start to the season and then missed months of consecutive action. He’s still only got 29 starts on the year. Getting Demko reps in now, especially now that he’s rehabilitated his health and his performance, makes plenty of sense, what with the goal presumably being for him to have a much hotter start to next season.
Then there’s the added bonus, and Tocchet’s own stated aim, of setting the overall tone for 2023/24. Tocchet has described this whole segment of the season as an advanced training camp, but he doesn’t mean in the traditional sense, in which case it would make sense to “play the kids.” He means that he’s trying to get the team to start playing the way it will need to in order to be competitive next season way ahead of time.
And, one way or another, this team being competitive requires Pettersson and Hughes (and Miller and Demko) to be playing heavy minutes.
So, don’t expect them to be benched anytime soon. They’ll get plenty of rest in a week’s time.
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