The Vancouver Canucks’ unsung hero award is a bit of an odd prize. To win it, a player’s contributions are meant to go unrecognized but, at the same time, have to be recognized in order to get enough votes from Canucks fans to win the award.
The winner of the Fred J. Hume Award must be stuck like Schrödinger’s Cat in a quantum superposition, simultaneously sung and unsung at the same time.
Dakota Joshua won the award for the Canucks this past season after his new head coach, Rick Tocchet, frequently praised him and bumped him up the lineup to get opportunities in the team’s top six. Fans loved his physical game — he led all Canucks forwards with 222 hits, good for 12th among all NHL forwards — as well as his double-digit goals, as he finished ninth in Canucks scoring with 11 goals and 23 points.
Not bad for a bottom-six forward.
But Tocchet tempered his praise for Joshua, putting it more in terms of his potential rather than praising the player he is now. As much as the big forward caught the attention of his coach and captured the hearts of fans, Joshua’s overall impact across the entire season was underwhelming.
"You can play him with great players"
According to Natural Stat Trick, among the 16 Canucks forwards who played at least 200 minutes at 5-on-5, Joshua was 13th in corsi percentage at 43.81% and he was tied with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser with the worst 5-on-5 goal differential at minus-14 while facing significantly weaker competition. By Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) statistic, Joshua was minus-1 — essentially, a replacement-level player.
Those numbers come with some context, of course. Joshua’s most frequent linemates were Nils Åman, Curtis Lazar, and Jack Studnicka, all three of whom received D+ or F grades in PITB’s season report card.
Joshua, for his part, is well aware that he needs to take another step. This season was mostly about establishing himself as an NHL forward.
“This year was obviously a big year for me in playing the majority of the games and getting a full season under my belt for the first time,” said Joshua. “It did a lot of good for me but I still feel like there's a lot more to my ceiling that I haven't reached yet. And that's what I'm looking to do this summer, hopefully just to build off this year personally and bring it into next year and be more impactful.”
There’s reason to believe that better bottom-six linemates could help elevate Joshua’s game and give the Canucks the forward depth they need to take some pressure off of their stars.
Tocchet believes, however, there might be something even more to Joshua’s game than just an effective bottom-six forward. He thinks that Joshua could play a complementary role on a top-six line.
“I just think, around the net, there's some tricks of the trade to learn how to position yourself to get those goals,” said Tocchet. “Being a wall guy, he's getting even better at that. If he can get to that level, you can play him with great players, because the great players want to play with north-south type of players that will get you the puck and go retrieve the puck. So, there is a spot there, and if he can grab it, we'll see.”
"I'd like to be involved in his training"
When it comes to the “tricks of the trade” of being a power forward, Joshua couldn’t ask for a better trickster — er, teacher than Tocchet, who made his living as a player in front of the opposition net. Joshua, despite his 6’3” stature, has work to do in those net front and board battles.
Tocchet suggests the issue for Joshua is a misapplication of his size and that he doesn’t need to be quite so tall on the ice. It’s something that he can work on during the off-season.
“I'd like to be involved in his training. I think he's got to train a little bit lower. Sometimes he's upright too much,” said Tocchet towards the end of the season. “And if you can just train a little bit lower, I think that's going to really catapult his game. You know, around the net stuff, body position, getting those loose rebounds — I think that's a main focus for our organization is to see how he trains.”
The organization was perhaps a little too involved in Joshua’s off-season training — he was one of the players on the ice with the Sedins during a CBA-violating training session that led to a $50,000 fine.
But Tocchet’s point about Joshua needing to get lower is an intriguing one. Working on bending his knees more and getting stronger in that position could only help. A lower body position would help him gain leverage in battles and prevent him from being top-heavy and, as a result, too easy to knock off the puck.
Getting a deeper knee bend could also help Joshua’s explosiveness and improve his already strong skating.
The issue isn’t just the details in front of the net and on the boards that would take Joshua’s game to a top-six level, but consistency from night to night, as identified by both Tocchet and Joshua.
“Consistency is the main thing — just being somebody that you're gonna get the same thing out of every night,” said Joshua. “I did take big strides this year, but just being accountable and being productive right from the get-go instead of kind of feeling it out as I felt like I did a little bit at the beginning of the year. Just being ready to jump into my role right away.”
It’s an element he improved towards the end of the season, according to Tocchet.
“He'll tell you, when I first got here, I thought he got sleepy every once in a while, like you didn't notice him,” said Tocchet. “But I'm not seeing that much anymore. I'm seeing a guy that has really added to our team what we were lacking."
"I like his deceptive speed"
So, what are the elements that fuel Tocchet’s belief in Joshua? It starts with his skating.
“I like his deceptive speed,” said Tocchet. “I'm telling you, I didn't know his speed through the neutral zone as he gets his feet going, where he can separate himself…He's just a big guy that can skate.”
Joshua’s speed on the ice is unusual for a player his size and it can catch opponents off-guard, as his long, loping strides don't have the look of a typical speedster. It led to breakaways multiple times last season.
That speed, combined with his size, has the potential to make Joshua a menace on the forecheck, as he can throw crushing hits that lead to defencemen looking over their shoulder every time he’s on the ice.
But there are two elements that set Joshua apart from other similar “big guys that can skate.”
The first is that Joshua does not just blindly throw hits. Instead, he takes a measured approach, skating in hard to play the body when the situation calls for it, but also using a smart stick to disrupt the breakout and either create turnovers or prevent opportunities in transition, such as this example against Colton Parayko.
“It's more of a thinking process — process of elimination,” said Joshua. “Sometimes, there is only the big hit you can go for but then other times if I notice it, I have a long reach so I can get on you quick and try to throw that as a surprise to some people. It just depends — depends on the puck placement and who the defenseman is with the puck.”
Even when throwing a hit, Joshua pays attention to his stick placement and looks to disrupt the puck or a passing lane before he takes the body, which is something Tocchet has noticed.
“If you watch him he strips a lot of pucks,” said Tocchet. “He gets his stick in the puck lane.”
"He's a hell of a player"
Where Joshua also sets himself apart is what he can do with the puck once he retrieves it on the forecheck. Joshua has surprising finesse to his game, as well as excellent vision.
This play against the Columbus Blue Jackets is not one you would typically see from a fourth-line forward, as Joshua swoops in to pick up the puck after a J.T. Miller hit, creates space with a quick change in direction and some deft stickhandling, then sets up Conor Garland for a high-danger scoring chance with a great pass.
That’s what makes his potential so exciting. If Joshua can be more consistent and refine the details of his power forward game, he has the puck skill to play a complementary role with top-six forwards.
It’s not just skill either — Joshua has the hockey sense to play with top-six forwards, with the patience to wait for a better play where a typical fourth-line forward might otherwise rush things.
“He's a hell of a player. I think he's only gonna get better,” said J.T. Miller. “He has a lot of good qualities to make a good hockey player and he uses his size really well, knows how to hold on to the puck, and he's got skill too. He's easy to play with.
“I played with him a couple of games here and there and guys that are easy to play with like that are contagious in the room.”
"It's his job to bang the door down and go grab it"
So, what do the Canucks have in Dakota Joshua? He's a forward coming off his first full season in the NHL entering the most important off-season of his career, one that he was so enthusiastic to get started that he violated the CBA to get extra ice time with the Sedins.
His head coach loves him and believes he has more to give. He has the size and speed to be an effective bottom-six forward, with the puck skills and hockey sense to potentially play in a top-six role.
So, what will the Canucks get from Joshua next season? Does he have another level that he can get to? Can he be a top-six forward, the type of complementary north-south winger that can make great players better?
“I think he sees a spot, whether it's this year or next year," said Tocchet. "Is there more ice time for him, is there more responsibility? Is he a guy that you can put him on the second unit of the power play? These are certain things that they're up for grabs. Now it's his job to bang the door down and go grab it.”