The Vancouver Canucks entered their 2023 training camp with many, many options for defencemen to try on a pairing with Quinn Hughes. Of all those potential partners for Hughes, Cole McWard wasn't even on the radar.
The Canucks signed McWard out of the NCAA in April and gave him a five-game audition in which he scored his first NHL goal. Still, he looked like a player who still needed some seasoning in the AHL, with some not-so-pretty underlying numbers in his five games with the Canucks. It seemed certain that McWard would start the season with the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL so he could play some big minutes and refine his game before getting another shot in the NHL.
The 22-year-old defenceman came into training camp with a completely different plan in mind. He was a clear standout at the Young Stars Classic in Penticton, not only because he put up four points in the three-game tournament but also because of his tremendous poise in the defensive zone. He faced down odd-man rushes with aplomb and was a revelation in transition, skating the puck up ice with smooth, powerful strides.
In the Canucks' embarrassing 10-0 loss to the Calgary Flames in their first preseason game, McWard was one of the few Canucks who looked legitimately good at both ends of the ice. In a Canucks lineup largely composed of AHL players, McWard looked like he belonged in the NHL.
The Canucks' coaching staff seems to agree because when they took the ice for their first practice after that loss, McWard wasn't just with the main group — he was on the top pairing with Quinn Hughes.
That's quite the vote of confidence for the young defenceman. It's also perhaps indicative that the Canucks are not quite sold on Carson Soucy, who has largely played on the third pairing in his career, stepping up to play on the top pairing on his off side.
"It's an amazing opportunity, obviously he's one of the best players in the world," said McWard. "He was a lot of help today, talking to me, making sure I knew what was going on, and making sure I was in the loop."
Trying McWard with Hughes is unexpected but it also makes sense. McWard is a capable puck-mover himself, which doesn't leave the burden of transitioning the puck up ice entirely on Hughes' shoulders. He's also shown that he is very good at defending against the rush, even when he's the last man back, which is something that can happen when you have a freewheeling defence partner like Hughes.
"I don't think I'm trying to change my game too much," said McWard. "You've got to have that awareness. You've got to know he might jump up in the play and you always need one guy back."
If McWard can play on the top pairing, that would be massive for the Canucks' defence corps. That would bump Soucy to the third pairing with Tyler Myers, while allowing Ian Cole to stay with Filip Hronek on a shutdown second pairing.
It certainly helps that Hughes can elevate seemingly anyone he's paired with, as he showed when he was partnered with Noah Juulsen last season. For McWard, he knows what he has to do to succeed with Hughes.
"I think I've just got to read off him, back him up, and give him the puck as much as possible," he said. "He's a great player and can do some pretty crazy things with it. So, just trying to keep my head up and move the puck over to him and read off his plays and try to play my own game too."
McWard even got some advice from his mom — a high-level athlete in multiple sports — on how to deal with the 10-0 loss. She echoed the advice of Ted Lasso.
"I was talking to my mom and she said, 'Be a goldfish — short memory,'" said McWard. "I'm trying to wash that one away."
He might not want to wash it away completely; his standout performance is likely what got him an opportunity with Hughes.