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Who should be Quinn Hughes’ primary partner in 2023/24?

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Photo credit:© Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
8 months ago
The Vancouver Canucks have rebuilt their blueline almost in its entirety over the past calendar year. As a result, no one really knows how it’s going to all shake out or who’s going to slot where on the depth chart, aside from one shining beacon of certainty: Quinn Hughes.
We know that Hughes is going to be the Canucks’ top defender. We know that he slots neatly into the top-left of virtually any blueline chart in the league, and certainly Vancouver’s. We know that, at a minimum, Hughes is going to take on about 24 minutes of ice-time a night.
Which means that, when it comes to examining the other lingering uncertainties on the Canucks’ blueline, there’s no more important question to answer than “who is going to play with Hughes?”
Or, if you’re a fan of brevity, you could just ask “WHughes?!”
The Canucks currently have just two RHD that are guaranteed to make the roster in Filip Hronek and Tyler Myers. Many expect Noah Juulsen to also crack the lineup, although he’ll have competition from a couple of younger RHDs in Jett Woo and Filip Johansson, and maybe a PTO or two, as well.
But over the past week, we’ve dove deep into Ian Cole and Carson Soucy’s history of playing on their off-side, and now we definitely need to consider them as potential Hughes’ partners, too.
Below, we’ll go over all five of the major candidates to be Hughes’ primary partner for the 2023/24 season, the pros and cons of each of them, and the impacts up and down the lineup.

Ian Cole

Cole becomes the senior member of the blueline at the age of 34. While he is a LHD by nature, Cole also has an extensive history of playing on his off-side and, even better, he has a moderate history of doing so in a top-pair role.
Cole has played on the right side of defenders like Victor Hedman and Jaccob Slavin before, and done fine. Last season, he averaged 19:23 in ice-time per night, the third-highest average of his career. Make no mistake here, Cole is the best fit as a partner for Hughes on paper and the most likely candidate to skate out of Training Camp with the job. He’ll be able to complement Hughes’ game without getting in the way of it, and is more than responsible enough to cover any uptick in Hughes’ offensive focus.
But there are potential downsides at play. At 34 and signed to a single-year contract, Cole definitely cannot be counted on as a long-term solution, so placing him with Hughes is just kicking the “permanent Hughes partner” can down the road again.
There’s also the issue of load management. Cole handled those minutes fine in Tampa Bay last year, but that was when he was surrounded by one of the best bluelines in hockey. Cole might be able to handle 20 minutes of even-strength ice with Hughes each night, but then he’s also going to be asked to be the Canucks’ primary penalty killer on the back-end, and those are hard additional minutes.
One suspects that a partnership with Cole probably means having Hughes double-shift with other RHDs on occasion, and that’s perfectly alright.

Carson Soucy

Perhaps the second-most-likely candidate for the job is another newly-signed LHD in Soucy. While Soucy hasn’t played anywhere near the 13 years in the league that Cole has, he’s still cobbled together plenty of experience on his off-side, including lengthy stints alongside such LHD luminaries as Jonas Brodin and Mark Giordano.
In fact, Soucy and Giordano formed one of the expansion Kraken’s most effective pairings in the franchise’s first year of existence, with Soucy taking almost all his shifts on the right.
So, while he may not have the same right-side resume as Cole, Soucy still makes some sense as a Hughes’ partner. He skates and moves the puck well enough to keep up, his primary focus is always on his own end, and at 29 with three years left on his contract, he’s far more of a long-term solution.
There’s also the fact that Soucy is 6’5” and frequently mean, which should help keep any flies off Hughes’ back. We kind of like the idea of an opposing forward having to keep track of both Hughes covering the whole ice with his skating and Soucy always lurking somewhere ready to unleash a big hit.
Placing Soucy with Hughes also allows for the creation of a dedicated shutdown pair in Cole and Hronek.
But if Soucy is capable of top-pair minutes, it would be a first for him. His ice-time has been in the range of about 16 minutes a night for his entire career. Being Hughes’ full-time partner would ask more of Soucy than has ever been asked of him before, and there’s no way of knowing whether he’s up for the task until then.

Filip Hronek

As the team’s best RHD by a longshot and fairly easily their second-best defender after Hughes, Hronek looks like the natural partner. And, indeed, there’s little reason to think he couldn’t do the job.
He’s averaged more than 22 minutes a night in his five-year NHL career thus far, easily top-pairing numbers. He’s partnered with smooth-skating puck-movers in Olli Maatta and Nick Leddy. He’s more than skilled enough to skate with Hughes up the ice and in the offensive zone, but defensively-oriented enough to cover when necessary. Hronek is physical, but not so physical as to attract unwarranted attention for his smallest partner.
He and Hughes, on paper at least, would be excellent partners, and there’s no doubt that the two will share the ice plenty in 2023/24.
The issue with them being primary partners, however, is what it does to the rest of the lineup. Put these two together, and you’re virtually guaranteed to have a second pairing of Soucy and Cole. Those two fit fine, having already played an entire season in Minnesota together, but as a dedicated top-four pairing? Whenever Cole or Soucy have taken on top-four minutes in the past, they’ve done so with the benefit of a partner that was clearly a notch or two above them in skill level. Could they do the same why relying on one another? That remains unclear.
Hughes and Hronek will take reps together when the situation calls for it, but the overall depth of the roster probably requires them to skate most of their shifts separately.

Tyler Myers

On occasion, the Hughes-Myers pairing has actually worked out pretty well in the past. At other times, it’s been an unmitigated disaster. Look, there’s every chance that, if tasked with the assignment, Hughes could figure out how to turn Myers into an effective season-long partner. He’s become secure enough in his own game to do so.
But would that assignment really be the best use of Hughes’ talents? Probably not.
As well, the Canucks simply cannot afford to have Myers playing as heavy of minutes as he has been for the past couple of years. With Hronek in the mix and one of Soucy or Cole on the right, there’s no need to play Myers upward of 20+ minutes a night, and so they really should not.
Minimizing Myers’ roles and responsibilities should allow the Canucks to get the most out of the final year of his contract, and perhaps maximize his value for an eventual trade. At the very least, it will reduce his opportunities for his infamous gaffes.
Having Myers on the ice for 22 minutes a night just causes innumerable problems, and that alone precludes him from partnering with Hughes.

Noah Juulsen

Everybody seems to forget Juulsen as a genuine RHD option, but the Canucks have not.
Last year, Juulsen got into 12 games for the Canucks, more than anyone expected him to get at the outset of the season.
He spent about 75% of his ice-time while up alongside Hughes. And the results were…not bad. The two enjoyed a 54.55% Corsi, a 59.70% rate of expected goals, and a 62.50% control of high-danger scoring chances.
And, sure, we’re only talking about a sample size of 121 minutes here, but Juulsen’s qualcomp chart shows that those minutes came against a quality of competition slightly greater than the league’s average, so they were definitely not sheltered.
Is Juulsen an ideal partner for Hughes? No, far from it. But the two do seem to work well enough together that the possibility lingers.
If Hughes partnered with Juulsen, he’d almost certainly need to double-shift with other partners. But that could still leave the Canucks with the ability to form a dedicated shutdown pairing of either Cole or Soucy and Hronek, and then leave Myers with a strong partner on the bottom pair.
The ice-time and deployment could thus be distributed more evenly, freeing Hughes up for more offensive opportunities…even if he’s got to drag Juulsen along with him to get to them.
 
Who do you want to see as Hughes’ primary partner in 2023/24? Sound off in the comment section!

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