When we say that the Vancouver Canucks are on the lookout for a long-term defence partner for Quinn Hughes, we’re not saying anything you haven’t heard before.
In fact, if we’re being totally honest, this is something that the local fanbase and mediasphere have been fretting about since before Hughes ever skated for the Canucks, and that hasn’t changed much four years into his NHL career.
The Canucks have found approximately one effective partner for Hughes in Luke Schenn, who sheltered Hughes when he first entered the league in 2019 and then returned in 2021/22 to pick up where he left off.
The only problem is that Hughes has since evolved into a clear-cut number one defender, and Schenn is still best-suited for a bottom-pairing role — and just weeks away from his 33rd birthday.
In other words, the long-term part of the equation is yet to be solved.
Talk of finding a present and future partner for Hughes has dominated most offseason discussion. Such a player was at the top of fans’ wishlists at the 2022 Entry Draft, and was identified by most as the primary sort of asset to ask for in a potential JT Miller trade. Each and every UFA defender on the market was analyzed under the lens of “could they work on a pairing with Hughes?”
But, in the end, no new answers were found, and so Hughes skates into the 2022/23 season with Schenn once again pencilled in as his partner.
Other internal options have been floated. Hughes flirted with switching sides, setting up a possible pairing with Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Tucker Poolman once again took some preseason reps alongside Hughes, and Travis Dermott probably would have to, had he not been injured.
Even the Hughes-Tyler Myers pairing has been trotted out a time or two, despite proving traditionally disastrous.
But what if the real answer to the conundrum of finding a partner for Hughes was staring us in the face this entire time?
What if it really was as simple as avoiding the multiple choice altogether and just circling the “all of the above” option?
Maybe, the best defender to pair Quinn Hughes with is…every defender.
By the very nature of his role, Hughes is already going to hit the ice in multiple different situations. Last season, he led the Canucks in average ice-time with a staggering 25:15 per game, nearly three full minutes more than the second-place Ekman-Larsson and good enough for tenth overall in the NHL.
In contrast, Schenn averaged 17:13, which is a lot for him, but still eight minutes fewer per game than his partner.
Now, some of that discrepancy can be explained away by power play shifts, during which Hughes is often the only defender on the ice. But Hughes “only” averaged 3:28 of power play time per game, so there’s definitely some double-shifting going on, as well.
It’s worth noting, too, that Hughes wasn’t exactly stapled to Schenn’s side in 2021/22. While Hughes did spend about 40% of his even-strength shifts partnered with Schenn, he spent the other 60% of them either with a different partner or flying solo.
From Dobber’s Frozen Tools
It’s also worth noting that Hughes produced at more-or-less the same rate no matter who he was out there with, with the notable exception of Poolman.
From Dobber’s Frozen Tools
Thus, all of the pieces are already in play for what we are about to suggest. Hughes already double-shifts on occasion, and he already spends portions of any given game playing with multiple different partners in multiple different situations.
All we’re really suggesting is that he starts doing that more.
To be clear, we’re not advocating for (much) more ice-time for Hughes. He’s already over 25 minutes a game, and last year Seth Jones led the entire league at an average of 26:13. At most, the Canucks could squeeze another minute per game out of Hughes, but that’s not really what we’re focusing on here. The real point to be made is about how those minutes are arranged.
The cold, hard truth of the matter is that no other defender in the organization is anywhere near capable of keeping up with Hughes’ ice-time over the long-term — nor is it particularly likely that the Canucks are going to find someone capable of doing so in the near future.
Instead, we propose that the role be filled by committee.
The Canucks could simply stop worrying so much about who Hughes’ partner is, and more about just getting Hughes out on the ice as often as possible. Get him used to playing with multiple partners per game, and everything else just sort of slides into place a little better.
Our ideal deployment plan looks a little something like this:
- Take some even-strength ice-time away from Schenn, who has been overleveraged since returning to Vancouver.
- Take some even-strength ice-time away from Myers, who is at his best when he’s not asked to do too much.
- Have Hughes play a little bit more at even-strength. Accomplish this by handing off some of his power play minutes to Jack Rathbone (ideally) or OEL (if need be).
- Have Hughes semi-regularly take shifts on the right side, eating up some of those RHD minutes taken away from Schenn and Hughes. Partner him with OEL as often as possible.
- Regularly double-shift Hughes on the left with partners like Myers, Dermott, and Kyle Burroughs. Use that method to keep OEL and Rathbone’s minutes at a reasonable level.
The whole point we’re trying to make here is that the Canucks are far better off with Hughes on the ice than off it, and so the whole gameplan should be to get him on the ice as often as possible.
And, sure, the best way to do that would be to find Hughes a rock-solid RHD partner who is capable of pairing with him for 25 minutes a night in the long-term. But that option just isn’t on the table right now, and who knows when — or if — it ever will be.
For now, the best bet is to spread Hughes’ talents around a little bit more, so as to let him singlehandedly paper over as many of the holes in the blueline as possible.
There is some precedence for this. Older fans will no doubt remember Todd Bertuzzi double-shifting on the West Coast Express and alongside the Sedin twins before they were able to land a long-term winger.
The notion of asking your best player to play more than one role on the team isn’t exactly a new one, and it’s one with a decidedly better track record than asking someone like Schenn, Myers, or Poolman to suddenly become top-pairing defenders.
It looks like the Canucks’ best option in the present moment — and perhaps their only option.