Who’s taking the final three spots on the Vancouver Canucks’ blueline?
Photo credit:© Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
2 months ago
We’re one game into the 2023/24 preseason (if you can even call that a game), but we already have a very good idea of what this year’s edition of the Vancouver Canucks is going to look like.
There are 13 forward jobs available, and there are 13 forwards pretty much locked into position: Elias Pettersson, JT Miller, Andrei Kuzmenko, Brock Boeser, Ilya Mikheyev, Anthony Beauvillier, Conor Garland, Pius Suter, Teddy Blueger, Nils Höglander, Vasily Podkolzin, Dakota Joshua, and Phil di Giuseppe.
There’s always the possibility for surprises to emerge from the exhibition schedule, but suffice it to say that it’s a forward corps that will be tough to crack.
The goaltending position, meanwhile, is even more sealed up. Thatcher Demko is the starter, and Casey DeSmith will be his backup.
Heck, even the power play and penalty kill units seem to be nearly set at this point. Which brings us to the blueline…which is almost, but not entirely, set.
There’s little doubt as to who will be occupying the first five slots on the Canucks’ blueline depth chart. It’s Quinn Hughes, Filip Hronek, Ian Cole, Carson Soucy, and Tyler Myers; and it’s in that exact same order.
All of which adds up to there only really being three jobs up for grabs on the entire roster. There’s the 3LD position, for which the competition will be fierce. And then, given that the Canucks now have enough cap space to ice a 23-player roster, there’s also the two “extra” defence gigs at 4LD and 4RD.
That’s it. There are 60 players in Canucks Camp right now, and only three spots that can be said to be well and truly open.
Let the battle begin, and let us examine the odds.
Matt Irwin, LHD
On the whole, Irwin barely makes this list, but not because his odds are long. Rather, he almost qualifies as someone with a spot locked down. The 35-year-old vet of 461 NHL games hasn’t been sent down to the AHL in over six years, and he’s unlikely to break that streak this season.
Irwin is reliable, he’s physical, and he’s got some serious penalty killing aplomb. All those traits, combined with his experience, put him significantly ahead of the rest of this crowd. The only real question is whether Irwin opens as the 3LD or the 4LD.
Noah Juulsen, RHD
Having closed last season and opened up Training Camp as Hughes’ partner, one could say that Juulsen is getting every opportunity to succeed as a Canuck. Then again, that may be a bit of a default scenario, what with Juulsen being probably the third-highest ranked natural RHD on the depth chart.
Assuming that coach Rick Tocchet, who describes himself as a “righty-lefty” kind of guy, wants one extra LHD and one extra RHD on the roster, Juulsen’s chances of making the team are high. Aside from Hronek and Myers, there are simply no other RHD in the system with NHL experience or that have shown they are ready to earn some.
Which is not to take too much away from Juulsen’s own qualifications. He showed well enough in limited minutes last year, and although he had at least one embarrassing gaffe in the first preseason game, he’s usually at least somewhat reliable in his own end, and excels at playing the physical game. Chances seem good that Juulsen breaks camp with the Canucks.
Christian Wolanin, LHD
Wolanin came into camp determined to finally land himself a full-time NHL gig after six seasons of trying, and he’s definitely got a shot at it. Last season’s AHL defenseman of the year did everything he could in Abbotsford to earn a look, and didn’t appear out of place during the 2022/23 stretch run in Vancouver.
Of the defenders listed here, Wolanin probably qualifies as the most offensively skilled, but he’s put in the work to round out his game to the point where he (hopefully) won’t be a liability at the NHL level.
Plus, at the age of 28, there’s not much worry about developing Wolanin any further. Thus, it’s no problem if he starts the season in the pressbox and stays there for as long as he needs to. That, and the decent likelihood of him being claimed on waivers, gives Wolanin the inside edge on earning the 3LD or 4LD gigs.
Jack Rathbone, LHD
In many ways, Rathbone has become the forgotten man on the Canucks’ blueline. A few summers ago, we were all panicking at the possibility of prospect Rathbone playing out his NCAA eligibility and walking as a free agent. The Canucks managed to get him under contract, but little of note has happened since then, and Rathbone is running out of time.
Another thing Rathbone has already run out of is waiver exemption. To be sent down to Abbotsford, he’d need to clear waivers, and his former accolades might mean there’s some danger of his being claimed. But that’s not enough to keep him on the roster if he doesn’t start showing more.
Last year, Rathbone declined from 40 points in 39 AHL games to just 14 in 37. No player should be experiencing that much regression at the age of 24, even one who has suffered as many injuries as Rathbone. He was virtually invisible against Calgary in exhibition. Rathbone has at most a couple more games left to impress before he’s chucked on the waiver wire without too much apprehension.
Akito Hirose, LHD
Hirose is pretty much the polar opposite of Rathbone. Hirose has done nothing but impress since signing out of the NCAA last season; from his NHL audition to the Penticton Young Stars Tournament, and even into that dreadful 10-0 exhibition loss where Hirose arguably showed better than any other defender (not that that’s saying much).
On skill and stability alone, Hirose should probably make the Canucks’ roster. He could easily step into the 3LD role, for example, and stay there all year without much issue. Then again, Hirose is still a rookie pro and still retains his waiver exemption, and that will work against him. The possibility of having Hirose play all or most of the season on Abbotsford’s top pairing is probably better for his development than playing behind Hughes and Cole/Soucy in Vancouver, and that waiver exemption means that the Canucks are free to recall and demote Hirose to their hearts’ content as injuries inevitably occur.
Chalk Hirose up as the defender most likely to earn a spot without actually receiving one.
Guillaume Brisebois, LHD
This isn’t an original observation by any means, but gosh does it feel like Brisebois has been around for a decade at this point. In reality, it’s been eight years since he was drafted and five since he played his first games for the Utica Comets, but that’s still a sizeable run, and Brisebois is still standing.
At the age of 26, Brisebois has almost, but not quite, settled into the role of NHL/AHL tweener; always high on the recall list, but never quite cracking the team out of camp. It seems highly probable that this year will be more of the same for him, but a particularly strong showing in exhibition could change that. Brisebois offers more stability than Wolanin, more experience than Rathbone, and makes more sense as a pressbox staple than Hirose. In other words, his odds aren’t great, but they’re probably better than they’ve ever been.
Jett Woo, RHD
A year ago, the notion of Woo even being in this conversation would have been silly. At that point, he was struggling to establish himself as an AHL defender, never mind someone with a shot at cracking the big league lineup.
But what a difference a year has made. Woo finally found his footing in Abbotsford, and in doing so, he’s given himself a legitimate chance at some NHL minutes in 2023/24, including a real possibility of cracking the roster out of camp.
It all comes down to handedness. The Canucks are going to carry eight defenders, and it makes ample sense for the two extras to be one LHD and one RHD. If that’s the plan, then Woo just has to beat out Juulsen and he’s in.
Waiver status further complicates the issue. Woo is no longer waiver exempt, and if he continues to show well, there’s every chance a team grabs him on the waiver wire to shore up their own RHD depth. The desire may be for Woo to keep the good times rolling in Abbotsford for another season, but that has to be weighed against the risk of losing him.
In other words, if Woo shows well enough in exhibition to consider keeping up, the team might as well just do it.
Filip Johansson, RHD
As far as we can see, the 4RD job is a two-horse race between Juulsen and Woo. On the outside of that inside track is Johansson, who is the same age as Woo, but significantly less experienced with the North American pro game.
A former first round pick, Johansson still possesses abundant talent, but remains a “project” even five years past his draft date. He looked a little iffy in Penticton and didn’t exactly impress in a short Abbotsford audition last year, so the odds are currently stacked against his making the big league roster. Add in the fact that, unlike Woo, Johansson is still waiver exempt, and it all adds up to him heading back down to the AHL for additional seasoning.
Cole McWard, RHD
McWard is the youngest player on our list at the age of 22, and is fresh out of the NCAA. He showed well enough in an NHL audition last season, but didn’t show anything to suggest that he couldn’t benefit from some time in the minors. A strong performance in Penticton doesn’t change that, either.
The only way in which McWard cracks the opening night lineup at this point is if the other RHD ahead of him (namely Juulsen and Woo) play bad enough in exhibition to make the coaching staff reconsider. That seems unlikely, and so the odds are high that McWard is Abbotsford-bound for the time being.
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