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Guessing at the Vancouver Canucks’ new defence pairings post-free agency

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Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
8 days ago
The 2023/24 season was a sea-change for the Vancouver Canucks and their blueline. Having been traded for at the previous deadline, Filip Hronek more formally joined the team. Carson Soucy and Ian Cole were added to the roster via free agency. Noah Juulsen made the squad full-time, and Mark Friedman was picked up via trade. Then, in late 2023, Nikita Zadorov was brought in for what proved to be a few very memorable months.
 
The 2024/25 season will not bring near as much change to the Canucks and their set of defenders. But it might bring a touch more stability.
The only blueliners still around from prior to all that change are Quinn Hughes and Tyler Myers, and they’re not going anywhere, with Myers having re-upped for three more seasons and Hughes on the books until 2027.
Speaking of sticking around, Hronek extended for eight years, instantly tying him as the longest-signed member of the team with Elias Pettersson. And Soucy is just one year into a three-year contract. Juulsen still has a year left on his, and Friedman just extended for a year himself.
The new guys, then, are thus far just Derek Forbort and Vincent Desharnais, each signed by GM Patrik Allvin and Co. on the first day of Free Agent Frenzy 2024.
It’s decidedly less overturn than the Canucks are used to of late, but it’s overturn all the same, and it’s going to necessitate the coaching staff doing some re-thinking of the defence pairings. With that in mind, we thought we might as well get an early start on the related speculating.
The Big Question: Who plays with Hughes?
The Vancouver blueline revolves around reigning Norris Trophy winner Quinn Hughes, as it rightfully should.
The first question that needs to be answered, then, is who plays on Hughes’ right side at 5-on-5.
The easiest answer, of course, is Hronek.
Hughes and Hronek played some 1227 even-strength minutes together last regular season, and in doing so formed one of the strongest pairings in the entire NHL. They were on the ice for 80 goals for and only 53 against playing against the very best opposition on many nights, and held down fancy stats in the mid- to high-50s throughout.
Hughes/Hronek works. But the team’s management and coaching staff have indicated that they want to see if Hronek is more capable of headlining his own pairing. That could lead to the two of them being broken up for the 2024/25, as they were in the 2024 Playoffs when things got tough.
If that’s the case, the Canucks have at least two other RHDs to consider placing alongside Hughes – and Juulsen, too, though he seems destined for a pressbox job to start.
The first is Myers, the only D-man who’s been around almost as long as Hughes.
The two have certainly done their share of partnering up in the past, and played 152 even-strength minutes together in 2023/24. In those minutes, Hughes actually had a higher Corsi (57.2%>56.3%), and a better ratio of goals with nine for and three against.
But that’s a small sample size in the face of several years worth of evidence that a Hughes/Myers pairing doesn’t really work in the long-run. It simply requires Myers to play minutes and opposition he’s better off avoiding, and the consequences thereof outweigh the benefits.
Hughes and Myers did also share 26 minutes of ice-time in the playoffs (felt like more) and never got scored on, but didn’t score any of their own, either. Perhaps there is potential there for more occasional, circumstantial pairings, but Hughes/Myers is not an every-night solution.
That leaves the newly-arrived Desharnais.
Despite only being in his first full NHL season, Desharnais occasionally pulled down some major minutes in 2023/24, including ample time with Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard. But he spent the vast majority of his even-strength minutes (738:29, to be exact) paired with Brett Kulak on the Oilers’ ostensible bottom-pairing.
Now, that might not lend itself to a new assignment with the Norris Trophy winner on the top-pairing, at least not at first blush. But one has to understand that Kulak’s player profile is very much that of a poor (or downright destitute) man’s Quinn Hughes. Kulak is a defender who defends with his skating, moving quickly and efficiently around the zone to take away space. Kulak covers well, skates the puck effectively in transition, and makes smart outlets.
Furthermore, those who watched the Oilers regularly last season will tell you that Kulak’s skating-based skillset meshed well with Desharnais’ own game, and acted to cover up some of the talent deficits in the enormous blueliner.
If Kulak can do that for Desharnais, imagine what Hughes can do.
There’s an obvious comparison to be drawn here between a potential Hughes/Desharnais pairing and the pairing Hughes once formed with Luke Schenn. Of the two, Schenn undoubtedly remains the more skilled, but there are some real similarities between his game and Desharnais’, and that’s a style that Hughes has worked very well with in the past.
What else do we know works?
Aside from Hughes/Hronek, the Canucks don’t really have any other consistent pairings left to fall back on.
One exception may be the Soucy/Myers pairing. Despite Soucy’s many injuries, he still wound up being Myers’ most frequent partner in 2023/24, with the two skating some 389 even-strength minutes together in the regular season.
The eye-test says that Myers looked at his best when placed next to Soucy’s calming presence. The numbers don’t exactly bear that out, however. It’s true that Soucy/Myers were on the ice for 16 goals for and only 12 against, which is a decent return. But almost all of their advanced analytics (45.9% Corsi, 47.4% xG) were on the wrong side of breaking even.
Here, we have to consider deployment, and that Soucy and Myers saw an above average quality of competition and more defensively-focused assignments when together.
That’s probably why Soucy/Myers remained together for most of the playoffs, where their fancy stats cratered even more (35.8% Corsi) but they still managed to be on the ice for more goals for (8) than against (6).
Soucy/Myers, then, are probably best pitched as a pairing that can work, and that can usually manage to keep their heads above water while handling a tough deployment.
But it’s not a pairing that the Canucks need to be overly dedicated to keeping together, either.
What other pairings might work?
Let’s go down two different avenues here as we move into the realm of pure speculation.
The first is the avenue down which Hughes and Hronek are separated, at least to start the season.
We think that probably puts Desharnais on Hughes’ right side to start, and that leaves Hronek looking for a new partner.
Soucy/Hronek did not play exceptionally well together in the regular season or the playoffs, but we’re talking a very small sample size of about 50 cumulative minutes. One wonders what they might be able to accomplish as a sort of dedicated shutdown duo with more time to build chemistry.
That would leave behind a bottom-pairing of Forbort and Myers, which seems fine enough.
The other option would be to pair Hronek with Forbort. We have no real idea how that pairing might work out.
Forbort is used to playing with high-quality and high-skilled RHDs, having paired up with the likes of Charlie McAvoy semi-regularly in Boston. He spent his time before the Bruins pairing with RHDs like Neal Pionk and Drew Doughty, who might be on opposite ends of the talent spectrum, but who both profile at least somewhat similarly to how Hronek plays the game.
A Forbort/Hronek pairing leaves Soucy/Myers as the third pairing, which is a role we have to think they’d absolutely thrive in.
The other avenue is one in which Hughes/Hronek stay together. In that case, you’re down to either sticking with that Soucy/Myers pairing and a big, tall bottom-pair of Forbort/Desharnais, or you’re mixing it up into Soucy/Desharnais and Forbort/Myers. All are worth a shot, but those last two combos don’t sound particularly appealing to us.
Another option: FOUR pairings?!
Here’s another option that falls decidedly outside of the box.
The team wants Hronek to headline his own pairing.
The team is also at its best when Hughes and Hronek play together.
So why not both?
Look, no matter how well Desharnais meshes with Hughes, the Canucks probably don’t want him piling up the same sorts of even-strength minutes that Hughes usually does.
Why not, then, employ a system in which there are effectively four pairings at play:
Hughes/Desharnais
Soucy/Hronek
Forbort/Myers
Hughes/Hronek
Hughes is no stranger to the double-shift, nor is Hronek. The strategy here would be to roll the top three pairings as regular units, and then slip Hughes/Hronek extra shifts in wherever possible and/or necessary.
It’s something that already happens quite naturally in-game, with Hughes often asking to either skate double-shifts or just stay out there for multiple shifts without a break. Making it a more formal thing could really allow the Canucks to make the absolute most of the various blueline parts they’ve assembled for 2024/25.
Or, and this is important to mention here, they might just go ahead and add another defender between now and October, in which case we’ll just have to do this mental exercise all over again.
Which is fine by us. It’s a long summer.

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