How I learned to stop worrying and love a left-side of Hughes, Rathbone, and Juolevi for the Canucks 2021/22
Photo credit:© Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports
2 years ago
The 2021 offseason is shaping up to be one of limited, yet not insignificant, change for the Vancouver Canucks. The onerous reality of the flat salary cap ensures that the roster will be tweaked, refurbished, and fiddled with, but probably not upgraded wholesale. Changes, minor though they may be, will be coming to the top-six forwards, definitely the bottom-six, the defence, and maybe even the crease.
But if there’s one column on the depth chart that is already filled out in permanent marker, it’s the left side of the blueline, where three defenders are already more or less locked into full-time roles.
And some in the fanbase and mediasphere are already bellyaching about it.
First, we’re going to explain why the left-side pretty much has to consist of a certain three players in 2021/22.
Then, we’re going to tell you why that’s not a problem, and why you should stop worrying about it — and maybe even, in time, come to genuinely appreciate it.
The trio that MUST make up the Canucks’ left-side in 2021/22
Bold declarations are in vogue these days — just check out any Toronto-based headline regarding Auston Matthews for evidence of that — and so we’ll start with one of our own: these three players WILL make up the left side of the Vancouver Canucks’ blueline in 2021/22. Here’s why.
Knocking on wood as we type this opening sentence, the only thing that’s going to keep Hughes off the Canucks’ blueline next season is a contract holdout. It’s true that his 2021 performance left plenty to be desired. Offensively, it was a slight step forward, and Hughes should finish the season just outside the top ten in league-wide D scoring. Defensively, however, Hughes was a mess, and he’ll almost certainly end up second in the league in even-strength goals against, behind just Brent Burns — a definitive step back for the sophomore by any measure.
All that said, Hughes is still just 21 years old, and he will be until the 2021/22 season starts. He’s still on pace to become the best defender in franchise history, and all he should need is a little time, patience, and perhaps a new voice or two in the dressing room to get him back on track. Hughes is simply too smart and too skilled not to figure his own zone out eventually, and the offence isn’t going anywhere.
In other words, the Canucks’ blueline is just fine with Hughes in the top slot on the left.
Technically speaking, Rathbone doesn’t have to be on the Canucks’ blueline in 2021/22. He’ll turn 22 next week, and will retain another full season of waiver exemption thereafter, so there’s nothing stopping the Canucks from demoting him to Utica next year. Nothing, that is, except good sense.
Rathbone dominated the NCAA, signed with the Canucks, didn’t play another game of hockey for a calendar year, and then proceeded to rip the AHL a new one with nine points in eight games. Since his recall to Vancouver, he’s notched a goal and an assist in five games, but more importantly, has already earned the trust of the coaching staff, and some looks on the power play.
Rathbone simply doesn’t have anything left to learn at any level below the NHL. Ergo, he’ll be a Canuck in 2021/22.
There are those already squeamish at the idea of two similar players taking up the top-two slots on the left side of the blueline — and we’ll get to those concerns in a moment — but it’s important to note that Rathbone is far from a Hughes clone. Not only is he already larger than Hughes, but he’s also shown a greater adherence to two-way play at lower levels, and in his brief NHL audition. The notion that Rathbone will be an offence-only defender for the Canucks is a misnomer. Here is a player that, in time, might just be able to “do it all.”
The Canucks have already invested a high draft pick, a contract, and five years of development into Juolevi — and they’re about to burn an Expansion Draft protection slot on him, too. That alone is probably reason enough to count him in for 2021/22, but Juolevi’s on-ice performance has also played a major role in this projection.
Juolevi’s play in 2021 hasn’t blown the doors off, but it has led many to scratch their heads as to why he’s had such trouble getting into Travis Green’s lineup. His Corsi For percentage of 46%, for example, doesn’t look too hot, but it is second on the team amongst regular defencemen, and that should count for something.
More than anything, Juolevi offers a decidedly different flavour to the left-side than Hughes and Rathbone. Whereas they are, at the very least, offence-first thinkers, Juolevi is dedicated to his defensive play, only jumping up when it’s nice and safe. Instead, he mostly relies on strong positioning and above-average playmaking to get the job done.
Juolevi’s still adjusting to the pace of the NHL game, but he showed off his shutdown sensibilities on numerous occasions this year — most memorably when he spent a whole game planting Matthew Tkachuk on his Matthew Tka-tuchus.
If there’s one thing holding Juolevi back from long-term NHL success, it’s his pivoting. In part due to the damage left behind by multiple lower-body injuries, Juolevi has a tough time turning off the rush, and that has led to a tendency to get turnstiled by opponents with speed. If we’re being frank, it’s the trait that kept him in the pressbox for much of the 2021 season. What Juolevi needs now is the opportunity to either iron that issue out, or the time to adapt his game to compensate for such an obvious shortcoming.
But that’s just all the more reason to pencil him in for NHL ice-time in 2021/22. And if it doesn’t work out, we’ve got a backup plan ready below.
The Canucks will need some calm and steady bodies to even out the breakneck pace of Hughes and Rathbone, and calm and steady is what Juolevi does.
That all sounds pretty great, then, no? Believe it or not, there are those who look at the above left-side and still see nothing but problems and holes. Well, we’re here to poke holes in those holes (forming some sort of super-hole?).
This is why you shouldn’t worry about the Hughes/Rathbone/Juolevi experience.
Nate Schmidt: Saving grace of the left side
We’ll pre-empt all this by specifically calling out Nate Schmidt as the saving grace of the left side, because most of these answers are going to come back to Schmidt anyway.
The truth of the matter is that the Canucks have another top-four quality, two-way, left-handed defender that we have yet to mention in Schmidt, and that’s because the ambi-talented Schmidt is already pencilled into the top spot on the right-side. But he’s not stapled there, and he’ll definitely spend his fair share of time on the left in 2021/22.
How do we know?
Because the Canucks will need him to.
“Who’s going to kill penalties?”
The vast majority of Vancouver’s left side penalty killing was done by Alex Edler, who is a pending UFA and might not be back.
This right here is Juolevi’s greatest area of potential growth in responsibility.
He’s killed penalties in every other league he’s played in, and it’s the part of the game that best plays to his strengths — and away from his weaknesses.
But Juolevi won’t have to fill Edler’s PK shoes by himself. Schmidt is perfectly capable of sliding over to the left for PK duties, and it’s something he already did plenty of in 2021. A PK “core four” of Schmidt and Juolevi on the left, along with Tyler Myers and a returning Travis Hamonic (or whoever they sign to replace him) is reasonable.
Over time, we’d love to see both Hughes and Rathbone start getting some reps on the PK. You don’t have to be a behemoth to kill penalties — just look at Jared Spurgeon in Minnesota. And you can’t learn to do it if you don’t get the chance.
“They aren’t big enough!”
A left-side of Hughes, Rathbone, and Juolevi would have an average listed height of about 5’11.5”, with Juolevi and his 6’2” frame carrying most of the weight. Speaking of weight, the trio will still average out to well under 200 pounds, even after a summer of weight training.
But is that really an issue?
The top-three defenders on the Colorado Avalanche — Cale Makar, Sam Girard, and Devon Toews — actually average out to be a little smaller than Hughes, Rathbone, and Juolevi, and they’re Cup contenders.
As the league has evolved, it has trended ever more in favour of the fleet-footed defender, not the one with the longest reach or the heaviest shoulder. Sure, you might want some beef on the blueline, but the Canucks should have that in Myers and Hamonic/Hamonic’s replacement. A big body is also something they should target for whoever winds up on the left-side depth chart below Hughes, Rathbone, and Juolevi.
But size isn’t the be-all and end-all anymore, and it certainly wouldn’t be wise to confuse the Canucks’ lack of physical stature with their stature of the figurative variety.
“Who is going to play the tough matchups?”
Previously, the answer to this one was obvious. Edler played the tough matchups on the left side, and he did so fairly ably for someone of his age and reduced footspeed. Even in 2021, Edler maintained the best Expected Goals Against rate on the blueline. If he does not return, someone is going to have to line up against the league’s best and brightest.
But eating tough minutes and succeeding in tough minutes are two distinct things. Edler did plenty of the latter, and increasingly little of the former. In replacing him, you’re ideally looking for someone who is better at handling those matchups and actually capable of shutting down some of the best players in the league.
The simplest and most immediate solution here is, again, sliding Schmidt back over to the left. Despite an up-and-down first year in Vancouver, he was one of the NHL’s best shutdown defenders in Vegas, and if he can rebound to anywhere near that standard next season then the Canucks are in luck.
But Schmidt can’t play both sides at once, and having him in a shutdown role on the left just opens up a shutdown hole on the right.
Instead, why not let the young guys take a crack at it?
Sure, putting the likes of Hughes, Rathbone, and, to a lesser extent, Juolevi out on the ice against opponents’ top lines might be painful at first. But the Canucks aren’t legitimately contending yet, anyway, and it’s what is absolutely necessary for those players to learn how to do it in the long run.
Here the Canucks could look at it situationally. Up against Connor McDavid? Hand it over to Hughes, one of the few defenders in the league capable of actually keeping up with him. Facing the potent but not-so-defensively-reliable Matthews/Marner connection? Give Rathbone and his cerebral, turnover-forcing game a chance. The plodding but deadly Matthew Tkachuk is in town? It’s Olli time, baby!
The fact of the matter is that if this particular version of the Canucks is going to contend, it’s going to do so with Hughes and Rathbone playing big minutes. Some of those minutes are going to have to come against other stars.
Giving them some tough assignments in 2021/22 could hurt now, but it could also pay off huge come 2024/25.
Again, we’ll recommend signing a sizeable vet with a shutdown mentality for that #7 spot, just to provide coverage for those inevitable rough patches.
“What if Juolevi can’t figure out how to pivot?
This is the thing that could blow up the whole damn premise of the article. It’s what caused a certain editor to say “Dude, really?” when this author proposed writing it. It’s the deciding factor on not just whether a left-side of Hughes, Rathbone, and Juolevi succeeds, but in whether Juolevi has a long-term NHL career or not.
To this question, we’ll leave it at “Let’s find out.”
The organization has already invested far too much in Juolevi to bail on him now. Sunken cost fallacy, blah blah blah, it would still smack of asset mismanagement to part with him without giving him at least a chance to fix his rotational shortcomings with consistent ice-time.
Hook him up with Bo Horvat’s skating coach. Do a drill in every practice where everyone tries to blow off Olli’s doors until he figures it out. Research Beyblades. Do everything you can to turn Juolevi into a defender who can turn, and if it still doesn’t work out?
You can find another Juolevi. Heck, you can probably find a better Juolevi without too much trouble. Someone who can eat some tough minutes, kill penalties, and ride all the rides at Disneyland.
But you know what you can’t find out there on the open NHL market?
Hugheses and Rathbones.
Not believing in Juolevi is no reason not to be all-in on a top-four that includes Hughes and Rathbone on the left-side. He deserves a chance to complete that trio, but if he can’t, someone else will.
Hughes/Rathbone/Juolevi is only locked in for 2021/22. But Hughes and Rathbone are locked in for a lot longer than that, and that’s the real truth that Canucks fans should start getting comfortable with.
“Where does this leave Alexander Edler?”
Alas, poor Eddie, we knew him well.
Most would be sad to see Edler go on at least a sentimental level, but the reality is that the Vancouver blueline can’t take a step forward without him taking a step back. The players that they need to get better won’t have the space to if Edler plays the same role in 2021/22 that he did this year.
You may have noticed that most of the qualities we’ve listed for our perfect extra defender — big, defensively-oriented, able to kill penalties — applies to Edler, and he’d be a fine fit for that role. But if he does come back, he has to be willing to accept an assignment in which he regularly sits in lieu of the younger defenders — and a sizeable pay-cut, of course.
If he’s not, that’s well within his rights, but the Canucks should move on and pick up someone similar from free agency.
Even Alex Edler has to come to terms with the future of the Canucks blueline.
So say we all.
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