Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
The Vancouver Canucks suddenly have a lot of minutes to fill on their blueline for 2023/24, so who’s going to take them?
8 months ago
Time. Sometimes, it’s hard not to think about it as it pertains to the Vancouver Canucks.
There’s the hours left until the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.
Then the days remaining until the annual Free Agent Frenzy.
After that, it’s really just a matter of weeks until the 2023/24 season kicks off in earnest.
And then we know it’s only a few months until the whole thing wraps up again.
In the meantime, however, we’re thinking about minutes. Specifically, in all the minutes that have suddenly disappeared from the Canucks’ blueline, and how the Canucks are going to cover those minutes, and with whom.
On this front, we’re of course talking primarily about the recently bought-out Oliver Ekman-Larsson. But we’re also talking about Ethan Bear, who is scheduled to be recovering from surgery until at least December, and who know there are whispers about not even receiving a qualifying offer.
We’re also potentially talking about the impending departure of Tyler Myers, but more on him later.
In 2023/24, for all his warts, Ekman-Larsson was still one of the defenders that the Canucks relied on the most. He played a grand total of 1089:30, one of four D to crack the thousand-minute mark, and he did so in just 54 games. OEL averaged 20:11 a night, third-most on the team after Quinn Hughes and Tyler Myers (and Filip Hronek, too, if you count his four games.)
And believe it or not, but Bear actually played more, at least in total. He cobbled together 1130:09 in ice-time after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes, edging out OEL’s total minutes through 61 games, but falling a little short on his nightly average of 18:32.
|Percentage of Total TOI
|Average Even-Strength TOI
|Canucks Totals/ Avg
|Total of 5280:19
|Avg. of 17:34
|Avg. of 15:29
Put in terms of percentages, Ekman-Larsson and Bear each covered more than 20% of the Canucks total blueline ice-time for 2023/24. That’s a considerable amount of have disappear from the lineup.
In terms of averages, each played considerably more than most Canucks on a nightly basis. OEL played almost three minutes more per night overall than the average, and a full two minutes more at even-strength. Bear exceeded each average by a full minute.
In any case and by any numbers, it’s relatively indisputable that Ekman-Larsson and Bear were the blueliners that the Canucks used third- and fourth-most last season, just like it’s indisputable that the Canucks will at least be starting 2023/24 without them, definitely continuing on without Ekman-Larsson from there, and quite possibly without Bear, too.
Which leads us to our central question: who’s going to take those minutes next year?
We’ll start on the left-side, which is also the reason why we included Quinn Hughes’ ice-time in the chart up above. The tempting thing to think is that Hughes will simply take on more minutes to cover any gaps in the depth chart, but that’s probably not the case.
Ask Hughes to play another minute or so per game, and all of a sudden he’s leading the NHL in average ice-time. To ask Hughes to take on a considerable portion of OEL’s missing minutes, like those three extra minutes OEL played over the average Canucks defenders, is almost certainly a bridge too far.
Someone else is going to have to come in and eat up a good chunk of these minutes.
Anyone else set to hit the Canucks’ left side this upcoming season, however, seem destined for bottom-pairing minutes at the most. None of Guillaume Brisebois, Christian Wolanin, or Jack Rathbone are even certain of maintaining a consistent big league role, never mind putting up the kind of TOI that OEL did last year.
The only one of the bunch who might look poised to handle anything more than 15 minutes a night is Akito Hirose, and with only seven games on his professional resume, the emphasis is heavily on the might. Chances are good that Hirose will start next season in Abbotsford, and chances are better that he won’t be thrown right into a top-four role as an NHL rookie.
All of which means that the Canucks are probably going to have to look outside the organization to fill the second-most slot on their LHD minute-chart.
The simplest and likeliest way for this to happen is via free agency. Pundits seem to believe fairly strongly that the Canucks are looking to use at least some of the spending space afforded them by the OEL buyout to replace Ekman-Larsson’s role on the team, and a few names have been attached to them via rumours.
However, few or perhaps none of those names have proven themselves all that capable of handling 20 minutes per night.
Take Carson Soucy for example, someone that Rick Dhaliwal recently reported the Canucks “really like.”
For all the ballyhoo about 2022/23 being a breakout campaign for Soucy, he still averaged just 16:18 in average TOI and 14:24 in even-strength TOI.
Those rates had him ranked sixth on the Seattle Kraken. They’d also have Soucy playing less than even the average 2023/24 Canuck, and several minutes per game fewer than either of Ekman-Larsson and Bear.
Could Soucy handle more minutes on a weaker blueline in Vancouver? Probably. But if what the Canucks intend to do is elevate another team’s bottom-pairing defender into their top-four, can that really be called improving the blueline?
And for all the rightly-earned criticisms leveled at Ekman-Larsson’s play last season, is someone being asked to play more minutes than they can handle really going to perform much better?
It’s food for thought, at least.
It seems reasonable to say that to truly replace Ekman-Larsson’s role on the team, the Canucks are either going to have to wait for another free agency class, draft and develop a replacement on their own, or find the right fit on the trade market. Each path will require patience, and it’s highly probable that said patience will have to extend beyond this offseason.
Thankfully, the right side of the equation is a lot easier to figure out.
That’s because the Canucks already have someone on hand capable of taking all of Bear’s minutes, and then some, in the form of Filip Hronek, who averaged 21:32 a night for the Red Wings last year, and 17:30 at even-strength.
So, Hronek takes Bear’s minutes and someone else like Kyle Burroughs, Noah Juulsen, or Jett Woo hops onto the bottom-pairing (or perhaps a UFA like Luke Schenn or Troy Stecher), and the right side is complete.
But that only really works if Tyler Myers remains in the fold.
Remove Myers from the equation via trade, and suddenly you’ve got an even bigger minutes-crisis on the right as you did on the left. Again, for all Myers’ faults, he covered more ice-time than anyone not named Hughes in 2022/23. Those minutes cannot be filled by just about anyone, and right now, the simplest solution for the Canucks is to just have Myers continue to fill them himself.
There’s no one available in free agency worth signing to take on those minutes, and the trade market for RHD is a pricy one, to be sure. Myers is already here, he’s already signed for the year, and with the OEL buyout, the Canucks can far more easily afford to keep his $6 million on the books.
Toward the Trade Deadline, if things aren’t going so well, the Canucks can then take another look at putting Myers on the block. No one is going to care much about who’s taking his minutes in March with the playoffs out of reach.
But right now, pre-October, with the entire 2023/24 season left ahead of us? The Canucks need a more clearcut plan of attack, especially with lingering uncertainty on their left side, and right now the only real plan they have available to them is keeping Myers for the time being.
So, who’s going to eat all the minutes on the Canucks’ blueline next season?
The real answer is a bunch of people that they already have stepping up, and probably one considerable new addition being asked to step into a larger role.
This is an issue that will largely be solved by committee.
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