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Whether Hughes plays on the right could depend on Poolman

Vancouver Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau suggested that Tucker Poolman may have a say on whether Quinn Hughes plays on the right side on defence.
Canucks: Is it up to Tucker Poolman to decide if Quinn Hughes plays on the right side or not?

The Vancouver Canucks’ solution to the dilemma of who to play with Quinn Hughes on the right side of the top pairing is an ingenious one — simply play Hughes on the right side.

It’s tough to find a top-pairing right-side defenceman in the NHL for a number of reasons. There are fewer right-handed defencemen in the NHL to choose from, for instance, and the Canucks haven’t drafted many of them to give themselves a homegrown option — the last time they drafted a right-handed defenceman that played even 50 NHL games was Kevin Bieksa in 2001, over 20 years ago.

As a result, the Canucks have had to pay a premium in free agency and on the trade market to acquire right-handed defencemen like Erik Gudbranson, Tyler Myers, Travis Hamonic, and Tucker Poolman, or get fortunate with undrafted free agents like Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher.

"I feel just as comfortable on the right."

When they drafted Hughes in 2018, however, he quickly made it clear that he was comfortable on either side of the ice.  

“I feel just as comfortable on the right as I do on the left,” said Hughes. “There’s positives and negatives to both. If I’m a rightie on the blue line, I can just walk in on my forehand. if I’m a leftie, I have to skate over. I don’t know if I explained that the best, but trust me, there’s positives and negatives to both.”

Hughes expressed the same to the Canucks’ management in the offseason and, heading into training camp, it was clear that Hughes was going to get every opportunity to prove he can be just as good on the right as he is on the left. Right from day one, Hughes was skating on the right side on a pairing with fellow leftie Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

That pairing will make their preseason debut on Thursday night against the Seattle Kraken, giving fans their first chance to truly see how Hughes plays on the right side. 

"I'm interested more to see how Poolman reacts."

But a somewhat innocuous aside from head coach Bruce Boudreau on Thursday morning suggests that whether or not Hughes plays on the right side might not entirely be up to him.

“He’s getting really comfortable with it — he moves to the middle and gets his shot away quicker from there,” said Boudreau. “I’m also interested more to see how Poolman reacts — probably, he’ll be playing all the games. That’s going to be more of an indication whether Quinn plays the right side or not.”

In other words, if Poolman is fully healthy and able to handle regular game action without a recurrence of the migraine that plagued him last season, then the experiment of Hughes on the right side might be over before the regular season begins. 

If Poolman can play, the Canucks have four right-handed NHL defencemen: Poolman, Tyler Myers, Luke Schenn, and Kyle Burroughs. None of them are truly a top-pairing caliber defenceman, but it does create a bit of a logjam on the right side if Hughes slides over and potentially means exposing someone like Burroughs to waivers.

If Hughes plays on the left side, the plan might be to play him with Poolman. That pairing played together quite a bit last season and they’ve been paired together on the penalty kill during training camp.

Hughes and Poolman, however, were very poor together last season — bad defensively and even worse offensively, as Poolman provides next to nothing at the offensive end of the ice. 

If a healthy Poolman means Hughes goes back to the left side, the Canucks would be better served putting Schenn on the top pairing with Hughes and using Poolman on the third pairing with Jack Rathbone. That would mean a second pairing of Ekman-Larsson and Myers once again.

With Hughes on the left, the Canucks' defence will essentially look exactly the same as last season, just with the addition of Rathbone in place of Brad Hunt. Hughes on the right at least gives the Canucks a different look.

The Canucks might be better off leaving Hughes on the right side even if Poolman is 100% healthy. Even playing on his off-side, it seems likely that Hughes will be better than any of the Canucks' right-handed defenceman. The question then is if the Canucks have the right caliber of left-side defencemen to play behind Ekman-Larsson.


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