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Can Filip Hronek carry a defence pairing? Does it matter?

The Canucks' biggest decision this off-season surrounds 26-year-old restricted free agent Filip Hronek.
Does Filip Hronek need to be able to carry his own pairing to justify a big contract?

The biggest decision facing the Vancouver Canucks this off-season is what to do with Filip Hronek.

The 26-year-old defenceman will be a restricted free agent this summer in line for a major raise from his previous $4.4 million cap hit. Hronek ate up major minutes for the Canucks this past season, averaging over 23 minutes per game. He put up 48 points this past season and has consistently scored at a 40+ point pace throughout his career thus far.

Those are bonafide top-pairing numbers and he’s going to get paid like a top-pairing defenceman. That’s not to mention that he’s a right-shot defenceman, which can be painfully difficult to find. He’s liable to end up with a cap hit of $7-8 million on a long-term deal.

That makes some Canucks fans nervous. After all, Hronek’s game tailed off hard this past season. Hronek had 36 points in his first 42 games, then saw his production fall off a cliff, with just 12 points in his final 39 games. He then had just two points in 13 playoff games. Keeping in mind that he was likely playing through an injury, that’s still a disappointing second half of the season.

More importantly, Hronek excelled this season in a plum position as the partner for Quinn Hughes, who took his game to another level this past season. It’s almost impressive how Hronek failed to pick up points in the second half of the season while playing with Hughes.

So, how much of Hronek’s success was based on playing with Hughes? If you’re going to pay Hronek first-pairing money — the type of money that would make him one of the top-30 highest-paid defencemen in the NHL — shouldn’t he be able to carry his own pairing rather than simply riding the coattails of Hughes? 

Hronek's numbers without Hughes are ugly

The issue is, there are some indications that Hronek cannot, in fact, carry his own pairing.

For instance, if we look at how Hronek performed with and without Hughes, it doesn’t look pretty.

There are a series of important underlying statistics at 5-on-5 here: shot attempts, aka. Corsi (CF%), shots on goal (SF%), scoring chances (SCF%), high-danger chances (HDCF%), expected goals (xGF%), and goals (GF%). 

Hughes and Hronek together had mostly excellent numbers in every underlying statistic at 5-on-5. The Canucks outscored their opponents 72-to-46 at 5-on-5 when that pairing was on the ice together, making them one of the most outright dominant pairings in the league.

And yet, when Hughes played without Hronek, his numbers were even better. Conversely, when Hronek played without Hughes, his numbers, apart from goals for and against, dropped precipitously. 

It’s the kind of thing that might make you wonder if the Canucks would be better off trading Hronek to fill a need elsewhere in the lineup and replace him on the top pairing with someone who Hughes could carry equally as well, perhaps in free agency.  

But there are a few things to keep in mind. 

The context for Hronek without Hughes

The first is sample size. Hughes and Hronek spent 1183:15 together at 5-on-5 this season. Just four other pairings around the NHL spent more time together. 

Hronek played just 323:36 away from Hughes at 5-on-5 and the most he spent with any other Canucks defenceman was 121:12 with Ian Cole. When we talk about Hronek’s numbers apart from Hughes, it needs to be kept in mind that we’re not talking about a lot of time.

It should also be kept in mind that a lot of those minutes away from Hughes were very situational. Most of them are not minutes where Hronek was intentionally put on a different pairing but are more likely minutes where Hronek ended up with a different partner by happenstance. These are minutes where Hronek was stuck on the ice after a penalty kill or temporarily played with a different partner after a power play.

Oftentimes, Hronek would change after the puck was cleared out of the defensive zone but Hughes would stay on the ice, pushing the puck up offensively. As long as the puck remained in the offensive zone, Hughes would stay on, improving his underlying numbers offensively while Hronek was on the bench.

Other times, Hughes would double-shift in games where the Canucks coaching staff thought they could get him a weaker match-up or more time in the offensive zone. Those situations would also skew Hughes’s underlying numbers positively.

Do those types of things explain away all of the numbers? No, but they provide some context. 

But here’s where the criticism that Hronek can’t carry a pairing on his own really breaks down for me: he never really had a chance to do so.

There were just six games all season where Hughes and Hronek spent less than ten minutes together at 5-on-5. Within those six games, Hronek spent at least eight minutes at 5-on-5 with a single defence partner just four times: two games on a pairing with Nikita Zadorov and two games on a pairing with Ian Cole. 

How can we say that Hronek can’t carry a defence pairing on his own when he never had an opportunity to prove that he could?

Incidentally, in those four games where he actually spent a full game with a different defence partner, Hronek carried a 58.7% CF% and a 58.7% xGF% in his minutes with those partners. 

In other words, in games where Hronek actually played a full game with a defence partner other than Hughes, his underlying numbers are actually fantastic — better than his numbers with Hughes. But, again, we’re talking about very small sample sizes.

Hronek doesn't have to carry his own pairing

So, maybe Hronek can carry a defence pairing without Hughes; maybe he can’t. The bigger question is whether that matters at all.

If Hughes and Hronek are going to be joined at the hip for seasons to come, then Hronek doesn’t need to carry his own pairing. He just needs to be a complement to Hughes to help him be the elite, game-breaking, number-one defenceman that the Canucks need him to be.

Judging from this past season, Hronek is certainly capable of doing that.

Hronek may not win a lot of board battles in his own zone or clear the crease in front of his goaltender but his ability to move the puck up ice and make plays in the offensive zone means that he doesn’t need to. Hughes is the engine that drives the Canucks and Hronek’s ability to make plays and get Hughes the puck was key this past season.

At the very least, Hronek proved that what Hughes needs most is not a steady defensive defenceman to back him up as he freewheels up the ice but instead an active partner in moving the puck. Would Hughes have had such a monstrous season if he didn’t have Hronek running shotgun on his right side? 

With all apologies to Thatcher Demko and the Canucks’ coterie of core forwards, Hughes is the Canucks’ most important player. He’s the one driving puck possession and creating scoring chances more than anyone else on the team. The Canucks should be doing everything possible to make him more effective in that role.

We have an entire season — nearly 1200 minutes at 5-on-5 — that strongly suggests that Hronek helps make Hughes more effective. Do the Canucks really want to risk trying to find someone else to play alongside Hughes who might not help him nearly as much?

It's  important to note that Hughes loves playing with Hronek, who gives him more opportunities to make plays with the puck than any of his previous partners.

Let’s keep in mind, Hughes’ two most frequent defence partners in the last three seasons before Hronek arrived were Luke Schenn and Travis Hamonic. With those two partners, Hughes had a sub-50% corsi and expected goals — the Canucks were out-shot and out-chanced when they were on the ice at 5-on-5. It's possible for a defence partner to drag Hughes down.

In Hronek, Hughes had a partner who could keep up with him for 23+ minutes per game against all kinds of competition and heavily tilt the ice in the Canucks’ favour. The Canucks shouldn’t be too quick to throw that away.