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The Canucks are overplaying their stars in meaningless games

Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson have led all NHL defencemen and forwards in average ice time over the past two weeks.
Quinn Hughes has been playing big minutes in recent games under new Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet.

The Vancouver Canucks will not make the playoffs but that doesn’t mean their games down the stretch don’t have a purpose.

“All these games are important. We’ve got guys fighting for jobs,” said J.T. Miller recently. “We’ve got guys trying to prove something to the new coach.”

For a new coach trying to introduce different ideas about structure and establish a new culture for a team, this last stretch of games is almost like an extended training camp. There’s an opportunity to send the players into the offseason with new ideas of what it means to be a Canuck and new expectations for next season.

“It’s not just play out 20 games and let’s wait for next year. These are important games," said head coach Rick Tocchet. "Every day we come in, we're trying to become a team that we want to be, and we can't waste practices — you can't waste games."

Where these games don’t mean anything, however, is in the standings. Or, rather, the biggest impact of the two points gained in a win is worsening the Canucks’ chances of getting a high first-round pick in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft. 

Canucks' stars have led league in ice time in recent games

You can’t blame the coach and the players for trying to win every game — that is, in fact, part of the culture they’re trying to instill in the Canucks. The question is whether the Canucks need to run their star players into the ground to do it.

Over the last seven games, Quinn Hughes has averaged 28:35 in ice time per game, the most of any player in the NHL in that time span. Hughes is essentially playing half of every game, getting rolled out for 30 shifts per game as if they were in the midst of a playoff race, desperate for every point.

In that same timeframe, Elias Pettersson leads all NHL forwards in ice time, averaging 22:42 per game. J.T. Miller isn’t far behind at fifth among NHL forwards, averaging 21:58 in ice time over the Canucks’ last seven games — heavy usage for a player who dealt with a "week-to-week" injury during those games.

At one point, Hughes played over 30 minutes in back-to-back games. Both Pettersson and Miller played over 25 minutes in one game against the Nashville Predators.

You have to wonder what the purpose is in playing the Canucks’ best players so much. Obviously, they’re trying to win games, but to what end?

The Canucks and their fans are already well aware that Hughes can skate miles and eat up minutes — he has nothing to prove to anyone in that area. Pettersson has proven he’s one of the best centres in the NHL this season and everyone knows what Miller is capable of when he channels his emotion in the right direction.

There’s no point in them playing massive minutes as if the Canucks need to scrape and claw for every point. In fact, doing so could be detrimental to the Canucks’ future.

"You've gotta have a four-line team that can play."

What’s wild is that giving these three players so many minutes is in direction contradiction to what Tocchet has said he wants to do.

“I’m not sure, in today’s game, if you want to win, you can play 24 minutes — penalty kill, power play, five-on-five, six-on-five,” said Tocchet in his introductory press conference. “I think what happens, you get in the habit of pacing yourself. I’ve coached some elite players — Sidney Crosby plays 19-20 minutes.”

“There are times when elite players are out there and you have to use them,” he added, “but I think in the long run, in the long game, you’ve gotta have a four-line team that can play.”

This is not a time when the Canucks have to use their elite players. In fact, consistently giving them league-leading minutes seems like an unnecessary injury risk as the team plays down the stretch.

The Canucks might be better served in actually treating this last stretch of games like training camp and the preseason by giving their young players and prospects more opportunities to play. The team can still try to win while giving more minutes to younger players and would gain some valuable insight into how ready those players are to contribute to a winning team next season.

In those last seven games where Pettersson and Miller played a ton, Vasily Podkolzin and Vitali Kravtsov averaged around ten minutes per game. When Aatu Räty was briefly called up from the NHL, he averaged under seven minutes per game.

Even against the Predators on Monday, when Podkolzin and Kravtsov got a couple of chances to play late in the third period in a tight game and in overtime, they still finished with under 12 minutes in ice time.

"They were good. I don't know what they played — I probably should have got them out there for a couple more minutes," said Tocchet after the game about Podkolzin and Kravtsov. "I want to see those kids under pressure."

How can the Canucks know if they're going to be able to roll four lines like Tocchet desires if the players that might play on those lines don't get more opportunities?

AHL defencemen have outplayed veterans

The AHL defencemen called up from the Abbotsford Canucks have largely played better than Oliver Ekman-Larsson did this season before he got injured. Christian Wolanin, Guillaume Brisebois, and Noah Juulsen have held their own at the NHL level.

"They're taking it and running with it," said Tocchet. "I don't feel they're out of place. Sometimes, there's some moments of pressure and they've got to learn to do certain things."

But a true test of their abilities to play at the NHL level would be to challenge them with more minutes. Instead, Wolanin and Brisebois are averaging under 17 minutes per game under Tocchet, while Juulsen has averaged under 15 minutes per game.

Why not give Wolanin a true chance to prove himself after a stellar AHL season by playing him closer to 20 minutes per game and giving Hughes a break? Why not see if Brisebois can be an everyday NHLer or if Juulsen can handle playing more regularly against tougher competition?

These young players won’t play as well as Hughes, Pettersson, and Miller, of course. By giving them more minutes and their elite players fewer minutes, the Canucks will probably lose more games. But right now, the wins don’t matter and there’s no point in the Canucks overplaying their stars.