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Paterson’s Point: Zadorov’s arrival gives Hughes and Hronek much needed breather

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Photo credit:© Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Paterson
2 months ago
In just one game, Nikita Zadorov’s impact on the Vancouver Canucks was abundantly clear. And it had nothing to do with the bruising blueliner crushing opponents or clearing guys from the crease. Officially, Zadorov didn’t even register a hit in his debut with the Canucks. Perhaps he was taking it easy on his many friends on the Calgary Flames. 
Still, Zadorov’s arrival was an overwhelming success. Not only was he asked to protect a final minute lead, he managed to pick up an assist on an empty net goal first thought to be his yet ultimately – and correctly – credited to Elias Pettersson.
However the newcomer’s bigger helper on the night was found on the scoresheet. It came in the form of reduced ice time for Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek.
The Canucks turned in a thorough road performance and did so with Hughes playing 22:40 while Hronek logged 21:32. And to further that point, Hughes and Hronek saw the third and fourth highest ice times of the Canucks defenders in the third period in Calgary as the team protected a lead and secured two big points in the standings.
This is a significant development for a hockey club that has pushed both Hughes and particularly Hronek to the limit and sometimes beyond in recent weeks. Hughes is on another level this season and showed down the stretch last season that he can handle a remarkably heavy workload. The jury is still out on Hronek who has been sensational in the first two months of this season, but questions remained about his ability to shoulder such a heavy burden over the duration of the season and be able to keep his level of play where it has been through the first 25 games.
In his busiest month last season in Detroit, Hronek logged 289:43 of ice time in all situations. Last month, he played 372:16 and the only player in the National Hockey League that took more ice in November was Quinn Hughes at 377:57. Hronek’s month included a career high 29:03 of ice in a November 18th home loss to Seattle. And that came in the middle of a stretch of 10 games in 17 nights in eight different cities.
At 5-on-5 last month, Hronek ate up the the third highest ice time total in the league behind Colton Parayko and Rasmus Dahlin.
Hockey players want to play and if they’re asked to hop over the boards, they’re going to jump at the chance. But a big part of any coach’s role is to put players in a position to succeed. It just didn’t seem sustainable to test the boundaries with Hronek night after night especially if the hope is to have key players fresh and ready and able to withstand the challenge of the postseason should the Canucks be able to use their strong start as a catapult to the playoffs.
The less is more approach seemed to reap the intended results on Saturday at the Saddledome. In his third lowest ice time total of the season and his lowest since the team’s 10-1 win in San Jose on November 2nd, Hronek at one point had three assists but that was reduced to two at night’s end. He had a glorious second period scoring chance that was thwarted by Jacob Markstrom’s best save of the night. And at the final buzzer, he had turned in another strong showing in a season that has been full of them. 
What’s curious now is how Zadorov’s arrival will impact the allocation of special teams minutes on the Canucks defence. While Hronek has a bomb of a shot, the power play has hit its first rough patch of the season with a three forward, two defence set up. The player and puck movement that served the Canucks so well in their first 15 games just isn’t as effective with two defencemen out together. It’s probably time for the Canucks to return Andrei Kuzmenko to the top unit and let Hronek run the second grouping.
The Canucks can reallocate some of the lost ice time from the power play to the penalty kill which is quickly becoming the biggest sore spot for the hockey club. After Calgary scored twice with the man advantage, the Canucks penalty kill has now dropped to 25th overall in the NHL at 75% for the season.
Hronek saw just 17 seconds of penalty killing duty against the Flames, although he and Hughes were on the ice for Elias Lindholm’s goal that made it a 3-2 game with four minutes to play. The club needs to take a long, hard look at what’s going on – and what’s going wrong – with the penalty kill and quickly figure out which defenders give the team the best chance of keeping opponents at bay. 
It’s clear the Canucks miss Carson Soucy in that role, however he’s injured and likely won’t be back until early in the new year. In the meantime, the club needs to prioritise fixing the penalty kill and Nitika Zadorov gives the team another option. On Saturday, Zadorov stepped into the line-up and saw 3:19 of his 17:35 while the team had a man in the penalty box.
It may take a few games for Zadorov to settle in and for the Canucks to figure out where he can contribute most. But based on his first game with his new team, this much is clear he’s going to allow the coaching staff to lower the demands on both Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek. As good as they’ve both been to this point of the season, playing the long game with those two is clearly in the best interests of the hockey club.
And in that sense, the timing of the Zadorov addition couldn’t have come at a better time for the Canucks.

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