The Hughes/Hronek pairing is already one of the NHL’s best, but is it a long-term solution for the Canucks?
Photo credit:© Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
1 month ago
Through five games on the nascent 2023/24 season, two things — and two things only — have been made clear about the Vancouver Canucks’ blueline: Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek are the team’s most consistent pairing, and that pairing is playing exceptionally well together.
How well, exactly?
Well enough to have a genuine claim at being the best-performing D duo thus far in the regular season.
As of this writing, Hughes and Hronek have played 77:52 of even-strength ice together, approximately 80% of each of their totals. During that time, Hughes and Hronek have allowed exactly zero goals against.
There are 33 other D pairings in the NHL that have played at least 60 minutes together thus far. All of them have been scored on…except Hughes and Hronek.
And that’s against some of the toughest competition in the entire league, with the bulk of the pairing’s minutes coming against first and second line opponents, with minimal time against bottom-sixers.
Tack on Hughes’ five points in five games and Hronek’s own three points and the early returns are both strong and obvious. The Canucks’ own version of a super-pairing is working, it’s working well, and all indications are that it will keep working. Hughes and Hronek’s games seem to complement each other’s, and each player’s history suggests they’ll be able to maintain their current clip of about 25 minutes of ice-time per game.
Which is why it’s so strange to look at this situation and wonder: is this a long-term solution for the Vancouver Canucks?
There’s little doubt about Hughes and Hronek’s ability to continue to work together. Those 25 minutes are in the bag. It’s the issue of the other 35 minutes in the game, and who is willing and able to take those minutes, that has many worried that the most responsible option is still placing Hughes and Hronek on separate pairings to better balance the blueline.
But is there another way?
The Canucks definitely have an abundance of defenders on hand that can handle a solid 15 or so minutes in a bottom-pairing-type role. Count Carson Soucy, Ian Cole, Mark Friedman, Akito Hirose, a healthy Guillaume Brisebois, and, yes, even Tyler Myers in that number. The sheer number of defenders available is not the issue.
The issue is the pairing in between Hughes/Hronek and the bottom-pairing. There are still about 20 odd minutes left unaccounted for, and those minutes are the single biggest obstacle in the way of Hughes and Hronek making their partnership last all 2023/24 season (and beyond.)
This was a known issue going into the season. The Canucks had two clear-cut top-four defenders, and lacked depth behind them. To shore up that depth, GM Patrik Allvin signed Soucy and Cole to UFA contracts, and the search for a middle-pairing solution probably still begins and ends with them.
Fortunately, Soucy and Cole do have some history together as a pairing. Back in 2020/21 season, the two LHDs shared almost all of their minutes for the Minnesota Wild, with Cole usually the one to slide over to the right side.
The good news is that Soucy and Cole were effective together then, carving out a bit of a soft-shutdown role for the Wild and clicking well defensively. The bad news is that they each only averaged about 16 minutes of ice-time per game throughout that entire season.
Cole has gone on to play an average of about 19 minutes a night since leaving the Wild. Soucy hovered closer to the 17-minute mark in his two subsequent seasons with the Seattle Kraken.
Can the two reunite and take on slightly more minutes as the Canucks’ dedicated second pairing?
That remains to be seen, and would require head coach Rick Tocchet to get over his whole left-hand/right-hand thing. But at the same time, this pairing also represents the Canucks’ only real chance to keep Hughes/Hronek together and have the rest of the blueline be at least functional. Any other solution has someone playing minutes they’re not prepared for, and then the Canucks are right back where they started with a major balance issue.
Get Soucy/Cole rolling, and the team might just have three-quarters of its 60-minute gameplan taken care of. Any ol’ pairing can take the rest. Keep trying to throw players like Myers and Noah Juulsen into those middle-six minutes, and watch chaos continue to ensue. The choice is obvious.
Even if a top-four of Hughes/Hronek and Soucy/Cole works out, however, can that truly be deemed a long-term solution?
Soucy was signed to a three-year free agent deal and, at the age of 29, should still have plenty left in the tank. He’s a “young” 29, too, only on his sixth NHL season. At the same time, expecting Soucy to step into and stay in the top-four would require him to reach a new level of effectiveness and then maintain it for a few years running. It’s not an impossibility, but it is a big ask.
Cole, on the other hand, has proven capable of that top-four play in recent showings for the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning, but is 34 years old and will be 35 before the season is done. Cole was signed to a one-year contract, and there’s always the chance of an extension, but nothing about his situation can really be called “long-term.”
Internal options beyond those two are pending. The Canucks do have some stellar D prospects on the way in Tom Willander, Elias Pettersson the Second, and Hunter Brzustewicz, but all of them will need at least a couple more seasons to be ready for NHL minutes, assuming they ever are.
Could Soucy and Cole provide a stopgap for long enough to allow a couple of the prospects to take over? That seems unlikely at this juncture, but it becomes all the more likelier if the two can at least fill that role for the bulk of the 2023/24 season.
What we’re left with is this:
The Hughes and Hronek pairing works.
But for it to continue to work, now and in the future, the Canucks need at least one more pairing to “work,” and that pairing pretty much needs to be Soucy and Cole.
If that doesn’t work, the Canucks will be all but forced to split Hughes and Hronek eventually, and continue to either look outside the organization for answers (difficult and uncertain) or wait for their prospects to develop (takes too long and uncertain.)
In other words, Soucy and Cole should be put together soon and given every chance in the world to succeed as a pairing, their natural handedness be damned.
Long-term solution or not, every other on-hand option doesn’t work out nearly as neatly for the blueline of the Vancouver Canucks.
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