The Vancouver Canucks did something unusual ahead of Wednesday’s preseason game against the Edmonton Oilers. In warm-ups, Quinn Hughes was partnered with Carson Soucy, who was expected to get every opportunity to earn that top-pairing role when he was signed in the off-season.
But when the puck dropped, Hughes was instead partnered with 22-year-old rookie Cole McWard.
This isn’t entirely surprising. McWard got a chance to play with Hughes at Tuesday’s practice after being one of the few Canucks to stand out in Sunday’s 10-0 shellacking at the hands of the Calgary Flames. It makes sense that the coaching staff would follow up that practice by giving McWard the same opportunity in a game.
The question is, why bother with the switcheroo?
Why did the Canucks act like Hughes was going to partner with Soucy in warm-ups and then change to McWard? Was it a small act of gamesmanship on the part of Rick Tocchet and the Canucks coaching staff? Were they trying to ensure that the Oilers didn’t somehow gameplan for a rookie on the top pairing in a preseason game?
Whatever the reason, it was a fantastic opportunity for McWard to prove himself against an Oilers team that dressed their entire top-six forward group.
While the coaching staff shied away from giving McWard defensive zone starts — on one shift, Tyler Myers came out for a defensive zone faceoff in his place and changed as soon as the puck was cleared — he wasn’t sheltered at all when it came to the competition he faced. McWard saw a steady diet of Connor McDavid’s first line and a decent chunk of Leon Draisaitl’s second line.
And he held his own.
At 5-on-5, McWard had the best corsi percentage on the Canucks, as they out-attempted the Oilers 15-to-9 when he was on the ice and out-shot them 6-to-4. Facing two of the most dangerous offensive threats on the planet, McWard didn’t blink.
It wasn’t a perfect game for McWard, by any means. He took a penalty in the defensive zone when he and the Aatu Räty line got hemmed in for a shift and he telegraphed some of his outlet passes, but that could come with settling into the pace of the NHL. But holding his own against McDavid and Draisaitl, even if only in preseason, shouldn’t be overlooked.
Of course, I watched more than just Cole McWard when I watched this game.
- Where McWard really adds to a potential pairing with Hughes and isn’t just a passenger is how he can move the puck up ice with his feet. Here’s one example from late in the third period where McWard faked coming out one side of the net, then nimbly evaded a forechecker to skate the puck out of the zone.
- That’s not a huge play but I’m not sure if Hughes has had a partner since Chris Tanev who could so comfortably break the puck out on his own. McWard is no Tanev, of course, but he showed in this game that he’s worth a longer look.
- Dakota Joshua was called out by Rick Tocchet, who said he had to “pick it up,” and Joshua made like a ska band and did exactly that. Joshua repeatedly took the body and even got the attention of McDavid, who gave him a few shots away from the play along the boards. Getting under the skin of the best player in the world is a decent way to get into the good books of your head coach.
- While Joshua delivered some solid checks in this game, he was also the recipient of the dirtiest hit in the game, as Darnell Nurse shoved him from behind well away from the puck, catching him completely off-guard and sending him hurtling into the boards. I found myself, in the same tone of voice Danny Pudi said, “Larry, I’m on DuckTales,” saying, “Darnell, it’s the preseason.” What in the heck are you doing?
- Nils Höglander is unlikely to land on the first power play unit to start the season but he showed a deft touch on the first unit in this game. In the first period, he made a nifty touch-pass to set up a Quinn Hughes one-timer that rang off the post.
- Hughes got a little luckier on a second period power play, opening the scoring with a shot through traffic that deflected in off Evan Bouchard in front. In his first (preseason) game as captain, Hughes had a game-high nine shot attempts, suggesting that he’ll be looking to fire a few more shots on goal this season.
- Carson Soucy may not have played with Hughes the way he lined up in warm-up, but he still proved something on the right side while playing with Guillaume Brisebois. On one penalty kill, he had McDavid bearing down on him at high (if not quite top) speed and Soucy used his reach, which is even longer on the right side with just his right hand on his stick, to neatly pokecheck the Oilers captain to thwart the zone entry.
- Soucy had a few other nice defensive plays, displaying the advantages of his reach in the defensive zone in a way that Tyler Myers never seems to. On the other hand, he got caught sleeping on the Oilers’ tying goal, completely missing when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins became his man in front of the net. Nugent-Hopkins was given the entire slot to work with, which is not a double-entendre — he was just really, really open.
- One of the few weaknesses in Elias Pettersson’s game has been his faceoffs, as he has a career faceoff percentage of 43.3%. With Bo Horvat, who has taken more faceoffs than anyone else in the NHL in the last five seasons, now gone, Pettersson will have to pick up some of the slack. That’s why it was nice to see him go 12-for-15 in the faceoff circle in this game, a winning percentage of 80%.
- Despite starting with possession so often, the Pettersson line struggled with possession overall. Plays like this one from Andrei Kuzmenko that help explain why. Tocchet was more incensed than an Orthodox church that Kuzmenko didn’t get the puck out over the blue line when he had the chance and instead passed it back, leading to a turnover and a long shift in the defensive zone.
- Teddy Blueger had a strong showing in his first time wearing a Canucks jersey. He was strong defensively both at 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill, where he nearly had a shorthanded goal. He also showcased some nice passing as well, though it didn’t stand out as much as his defensive effort, like his excellent backcheck in the third period to break up a 3-on-2, admittedly after he was the one to turn the puck over.
- A few other quick notes: Arshdeep Bains and Aatu Räty were pretty good on a line with Conor Garland, including a handful of shifts against the McDavid and Draisaitl lines. Nils Åman also looked pretty good on Blueger’s wing instead of at centre, making him a darkhorse to beat out some other bottom-six wingers for a roster spot.
- Things went awry in overtime when Quinn Hughes got stuck on the ice for nearly a full minute. Wanting to get to the bench for a line change, he tried to get the attention of Kuzmenko to cover the middle of the ice but instead let McDavid slip in behind him for a breakaway. One backhand move later and McDavid won the game for the Oilers.
- There wasn’t much Casey DeSmith could do when facing McDavid on a breakaway but he otherwise had a solid performance, stopping 27 of 29 shots, including 10 of 10 shots in the first period when the Canucks got out-shot 10-to-3. He was about as good as you can expect a backup goaltender to be.