The Vancouver Canucks have one of the best goaltenders in the league in Thatcher Demko. After a few free agent signings and the decision to keep J.T. Miller, they have a solid forward group, with an intriguing combination of top-tier talent and depth.
The big question mark heading into the 2022-23 season is the defence.
TSN’s grade for the Canucks’ defence this offseason landed them in the fourth of five tiers, suggesting they will “underperform” in the coming season. If not for Quinn Hughes, the Canucks would have landed in tier five.
It’s not just defensively that the defence corps is concerning — offensively, they don’t provide much outside of Hughes and struggled to break the puck up ice to create chances in transition or to move the puck effectively during offensive zone possessions. A lot of offence for the Canucks was generated off the forecheck or on quick neutral zone regroups, with little influence from the defence beyond Hughes.
"We have to address our defence."
That defence is a concern is not just the opinion of NHL pundits but of the Canucks themselves, or at least of president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford.
“We have to address our defence,” said Rutherford earlier in the offseason before admitting it’s been “harder” than they anticipated. “There were some defencemen available in free agency. It didn’t work for us, whether it was term or what they were looking for. It appears that it’s going to take longer to address the defence than we would have liked. We’re going to have to do it through trades.”
For whatever reason, there haven’t been any trades this offseason either and the Canucks look like they’ll head into training camp with the exact same defence corps as last season — minus Brad Hunt. The only potential addition is prospect Jack Rathbone, who has yet to prove himself at the NHL level despite excellent numbers in the AHL.
That means that Hughes won’t be getting a true, top-pairing defenceman on the right side and will likely have Luke Schenn or possibly Tucker Poolman as a partner, unless Travis Dermott or even Oliver Ekman-Larsson switches to play on their off-side on the right.
"I'm happy with the defence group we have."
When general manager Patrik Allvin was questioned about the Canucks’ defence, however, he sounded optimistic and equivocated when asked if they plan to make any more changes.
“I guess you never know. We’re still looking at all our options,” said Allvin. “I’m happy with the defence group we have. I think when everybody’s healthy, I think we’re a very competitive team.”
Health is a key term. Apart from Poolman, the Canucks’ defence largely stayed healthy last season. Hughes missed six games, Ekman-Larsson missed three games, and Tyler Myers played in all 82 games. Schenn missed a handful of games as well, but most of his time out of the lineup was as a healthy scratch.
If those four can maintain similar health next season, Poolman can avoid triggering his migraines, and with a full season from Dermott, the Canucks have a respectable top-six, albeit with some issues on the right side. It’s if and when injuries strike that the Canucks might struggle. After Kyle Burroughs, the Canucks don’t have anyone truly trustworthy on the right side and Rathbone is their only real option on the left.
But perhaps this concern is overblown. After all, the Canucks had the second-lowest rate of goals against in the NHL at 5-on-5 last season, albeit aided by the league’s best 5-on-5 save percentage by a wide margin. With Demko in net and hopefully a more consistent backup in Spencer Martin, maybe the Canucks don’t need anything more than an average defence corps.
"It was our team play that bit us in the butt."
According to J.T. Miller, it’s not just about the defencemen either.
“It’s a five-man unit,” said Miller. “If the forwards have a bad night and turn the puck over, we’re putting a lot of pressure on our defensive players and our goaltender. I think a lot of the time, I think defending wasn't really our issue, it was our team play that bit us in the butt and we kind of were our own worst enemy. So, I'm not worried about our defence at all.”
Miller has been blunt about his own need to improve defensively and play a stronger two-way game. It’s certainly true that forwards play a significant role in effective defence and the addition of strong defensive forwards like Ilya Mikheyev and Curtis Lazar should help the team defensively.
“I think when we played well last year, everybody was defending well,” said Miller. “You have to play a good five-on-five, 200-foot game, then everybody’s gonna look good. You can’t just take the bad nights out of that in my opinion. I think it’s a team-defence game and when we’re on top of our game, like every good team in the league, we’re hard to play against defensively.”
If defence has to be played as a five-man unit, the converse is also true: everyone has to be involved in the offence, which starts from the defencemen breaking out the puck. For the Canucks to be successful next season, they’ll need more than just the forwards helping the defence but also the defence helping the forwards.
With a full team effort, the Canucks could erase any concerns about their defence corps.
"I think the sky's the limit."
There's one other possibility — can Quinn Hughes can take his game to another level?
If Hughes continues to progress into the complete, all-situations defenceman that he's shown signs of becoming, he could carry the defence on his own. He added penalty killing to his repertoire last season, made significant strides defensively, and has the potential to put up more points than the franchise record 68 points he scored last season.
"He's extremely competitive — he wants to be the best," said Boudreau of Hughes during last season. "He could be the best passer this side of Nick Backstrom that I've seen...I think the sky's the limit. He's still young, he's going to get better."
If Hughes is good enough, it might not matter that the rest of the team's defence barely contributes offensively. All that will matter is that they can hold their own on defence.