Quinn Hughes has said multiple times that Filip Hronek is the most skilled defenceman he’s ever partnered with.
“Probably haven't played with a player as good as him,” said Hughes ahead of the first game of the season. “He's really skilled, can move the puck, can see things, can defend, can skate… They wanted to maybe split us up but I'm happy we're together.”
Playing Hughes and Hronek together wasn’t the plan heading into training camp. Or, at the very least, it wasn’t Plan A.
Pairing Hronek with Hughes felt like a fallback plan
Hronek spent almost all of training camp and the preseason paired with Ian Cole, seemingly their best bet for a shutdown second pairing who could match up against tough competition, freeing up Hughes for a more offensive role.
Hughes started training camp alongside right-shot defenceman Noah Juulsen, with whom he saw some success last season. That didn’t last long, but the next man up was Carson Soucy, a left-shot defenceman playing on his off side.
Soucy was signed in free agency and part of the appeal of the 6’5” rearguard is that he can play both sides of the ice, with many wondering if he would be the right fit to play on the top pairing with Hughes. There was only the slight problem that the 29-year-old defenceman has spent pretty much his entire career on the third pairing for various teams. To not only jump up to the top pairing but to do so on his off side was always going to be a tough ask.
Soucy’s turn with Hughes didn’t even make it to a preseason game. But even then, Hughes wasn’t with Hronek — he was paired with rookie Cole McWard.
It wasn’t until McWard was cut and sent to the AHL that Hughes and Hronek were paired together for the Canucks’ final preseason game. At that point, pairing Hughes and Hronek felt like a fallback plan for when everything else they tried didn’t work.
They’ve been together ever since.
Hughes and Hronek have excelled together
The partnership between Hughes and Hronek is really starting to click. Hronek is learning that his best play in most situations is putting the puck on Hughes’ stick, while Hughes is enjoying the luxury of having a partner who is able to skate and move the puck nearly as well as he can.
The Canucks have yet to give up a goal when both Hughes and Hronek have been on the ice at any strength and they’ve been dominant in puck possession at 5-on-5. Shot attempts have been 122-to-85 for the Canucks when they’ve been on the ice together at 5-on-5, a corsi percentage of 58.9%.
Among the 79 defence pairs around the NHL who have played at least 50 minutes together at 5-on-5, Hughes and Hronek’s 58.9% corsi ranks eighth, according to Natural Stat Trick.
The most impressive part is that they’ve excelled in puck possession despite heavy usage against top forward lines. They’ve essentially been used in a match-up role against everyone from Connor McDavid to Brayden Point and yet the Canucks have outscored their opponents 8-to-0 at 5-on-5 when they’re on the ice.
In other words, the pairing is working really, really well. They’re tilting the ice in puck possession, creating offensive opportunities, and defending effectively.
The question is, can it last?
Can the Canucks make a second pair work without Hronek?
Obviously, the Canucks will eventually give up a goal when Hughes and Hronek are on the ice together — the goaltenders can’t maintain their 1.000 on-ice save percentage forever — but that’s not the issue. There’s little reason to be concerned about their chemistry either, as they just seem to be getting better together.
Whether Hughes and Hronek stick together is less about them and more about the rest of the defence.
There’s something to be said for spreading the puck-moving wealth and having the team’s two best transition defencemen, Hughes and Hronek, on separate pairings. Putting them together theoretically means having a second pairing that is less effective at moving the puck up ice.
That seemed to be the case to start the season, as Ian Cole and Tyler Myers were put together on the second pairing and struggled.
When Cole and Myers have been on the ice together at 5-on-5, shot attempts are 52-to-33 for the opposition, giving them a corsi percentage of 38.8% — the worst of any Canucks defence pair that has spent more than 20 minutes together at 5-on-5.
Among the 79 NHL pairings that have spent at least 50 minutes together at 5-on-5, Cole and Myers have the eighth-worst corsi percentage. Even worse, they’ve been on the ice for the highest rate of expected goals against and highest rate of high danger chances at 5-on-5 in the entire NHL.
In other words, Cole and Myers, at least in the small sample size of the first seven games of the season, have been one of the worst defence pairs in the entire NHL.
Mark Friedman has been remarkably steady
Fortunately for the Canucks, they went out and got another right-shot defenceman.
The 27-year-old Mark Friedman has had a relatively non-descript professional career, spending most of it in the AHL. Last season was about an even split between the Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and, when he was in the NHL, he generally played in a very sheltered role on the third pairing.
In that sheltered role, however, Friedman had some very solid underlying numbers: a 53.8% corsi, a 2.20 expected goals against per 60 minutes, and a 10.95 high-danger chances against per 60 minutes, all of which led all Penguins defencemen.
Bumped up to a pairing with Cole to replace the demoted Myers, Friedman has continued to play a very steady game with sparkling underlying numbers.
Cole and Friedman have almost the exact opposite corsi as Cole and Myers: the Canucks have out-shot their opposition 52-to-32 when Cole and Friedman been on the ice together at 5-on-5, a team-leading corsi percentage of 61.9%.
Cole and Friedman also have the lowest rate of expected goals against and, like Hughes and Hronek, have yet to be on the ice together for a goal against.
To be fair, Cole and Friedman have played more sheltered minutes, with Friedman facing opposing first lines far less than league average. But even with that in mind, there’s no denying that Friedman has been a far better partner for Cole than Myers was.
A steady Friedman might keep Hughes and Hronek together
Friedman’s unexpected steadiness has been a major boon to the Canucks’ defence. It’s too much to expect him to play on a second pairing all season — he’s really been playing third-pairing minutes despite playing with Cole — but having him as an option allows the Canucks to divvy up the minutes among the defencemen according to what works best each game.
On Saturday against the New York Rangers, that meant more minutes for Myers, as he played arguably his best game of the season, with him and Soucy each scoring big goals. But, when Myers struggles, Friedman has shown that he can step up in his stead.
The best part of having that versatility to rotate minutes among the bottom-four is that Hughes and Hronek can potentially stay together and provide them the type of dominant top pairing that the Canucks haven’t had for years.
Maybe it won’t last all season but it’s working for now.