Quinn Hughes is already one of the best defencemen in the NHL — how much better could he be if with the right defence partner at his side?
The Vancouver Canucks have tried all sorts of defencemen with Hughes on the top pairing. Over the past two seasons, eight different defencemen have spent at least 100 minutes with Hughes at 5-on-5: Luke Schenn, Tyler Myers, Ethan Bear, Tucker Poolman, Kyle Burroughs, Noah Juulsen, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Travis Hamonic.
Of those eight, just three are still with the Canucks — Myers, Poolman, and Juulsen — and one of them might not ever play in the NHL again.
The Canucks have radically overhauled their defence corps but it’s still uncertain just who exactly is going to play with Hughes on the top pairing. The Canucks are likely hoping that their 2023 first-round pick, Tom Willander, can be the long-term solution on Hughes’ right side, but Willander is at least a year away from playing in the NHL.
So, who is going to play with Hughes next season? Let’s run through some of the possibilities.
1 | Ian Cole
The most obvious choice to play with Hughes on the top pairing is Ian Cole, a veteran with plenty of experience playing in a top-four role during his 13-year career. He’s got some size, plays a physical game in his own zone, and has the right style of game to complement a swashbuckling offensive defenceman like Hughes.
Cole isn’t a perfect fit, by any means. While he has played on the right side in his career, he’s a left-shot defenceman. He’s also 34 years old and likely to see his play decline simply because of the passing of time but he’s at least a decent option for the Canucks on his one-year deal.
2 | Carson Soucy
The 6’5” Soucy is bigger and younger than Cole and has a bit more offensive spice to his game, with 10 goals in just 64 games two seasons ago. Like Cole, Soucy is also a left-hand shot, so he’s not ideal, but he has some experience playing on the right side.
The Canucks also made a bigger commitment to Soucy, signing him to a three-year deal. It doesn’t seem outlandish to suggest that the Canucks might be thinking that Soucy could play with Hughes until Willander is ready in a few years.
The one catch with Soucy is that he hasn’t really played in a top-four role thus far in his career, primarily playing on the third pairing with the Minnesota Wild and Seattle Kraken. The Canucks believe that he can be a top-four defenceman, but asking him to not only make the jump all the way to the top pairing but also on his off-side might be a bit too much.
3 | Filip Hronek
Why not put the Canucks’ best right-shot defenceman with their best left-shot defenceman and load up the top pairing?
The Canucks acquired Filip Hronek with the first-round pick they received from the New York Islanders in the Bo Horvat deal, sacrificing a significant asset to fill a major need. While it might be best for the Canucks to use Hronek on the second pairing to create two balanced pairings, there’s something to be said for putting the two puck-movers on the same pairing to create a dynamic duo that can wreak havoc on opposing teams.
That would leave Cole and Soucy to form a second pairing, which might not be terrible. They actually have experience playing together back when they were both with the Wild.
4 | Tyler Myers
Looking at the revamped Canucks defence, it’s easy to relegate Myers to the third pairing, but let’s keep in mind that Myers was second among Canucks defencemen in ice time last season behind only Hughes.
What if the way to get the best out of Myers was to play him with Hughes? In the past two seasons, Myers and Hughes have had a 54.4% corsi percentage together and the Canucks have out-scored their opponents 27-to-18 when they’ve been on the ice together at 5-on-5.
Sure, that’s partly because they’ve primarily been paired together in offensive situations when the team is trailing, making it more likely that they would out-shoot and out-score their opponents, but details, details.
Just think: if Myers is with Hughes, how good could their second and third pairings be? Maybe Myers with Hughes is the key to creating a balanced, dynamic defence.
5 | Noah Juulsen
Maybe the solution to who to play with Hughes can’t be found in one of the team’s new acquisitions or Myers. Maybe the Canucks need to look internally and promote someone from the AHL.
There are options there, including the revitalized Jett Woo, the intriguing Cole McWard, or reclamation project Filip Johansson, but the best option might be Noah Juulsen.
Juulsen spent some time with Hughes last season after injuries and trades left an opening and he comported himself well in the role. He’s a big, physical, stay-at-home defensive defenceman who kept things simple and let Hughes do his thing. And it worked.
Juulsen and Hughes had a sparkling 54.6% corsi percentage together despite not really being sheltered at all. In fact, they started the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone but rarely spent much time there.
While Juulsen has never been able to stick in the NHL in his career, playing on Hughes’ right side might be the perfect situation for him to do so.
6 | Brett Pesce
Maybe the Canucks still don’t have the right defenceman to play with Hughes. The solution might be to look to the trade market to find a natural right-side defenceman, who could be the right fit.
For instance, Brett Pesce could be available from the Carolina Hurricanes. With the Hurricanes signing Tony DeAngelo, their right side got a bit more crowded, and Pesce might be the odd man out. Rumours suggest that the Hurricanes would be looking for a forward in return and the Canucks have some wingers to spare, such as Conor Garland, Anthony Beauvillier, or even Brock Boeser.
Pesce plays the type of complementary game that could make him a great fit with the dynamic Hughes. He’s got a solid shutdown game but also shows flashes of offence and moves the puck well.
7 | Ethan Bear
The Canucks didn’t give Ethan Bear a qualifying offer after he got injured playing for Team Canada at the World Championship, but that doesn’t entirely close the door on Bear’s potential return to Vancouver.
With his injury delaying his potential return to the ice next season, the Canucks might be hesitant to give Bear a contract, but what if none of the Canucks’ other options to play with Hughes work out?
Bear and Hughes worked well together last season, with a 56.0% corsi percentage and plus-8 goal differential when they were on the ice together at 5-on-5, so bringing back Bear on a one-year contract after the season starts might be their best bet.
8 | Adam Foote
An ideal partner for Hughes would be a big, physical, gritty, stay-at-home, right-shot defenceman, who can also skate well, move the puck effectively, and eat up big minutes.
Turns out, the Canucks already have someone that fits that exact description in the organization. The only problem is that he’s behind the bench.
Sure, Adam Foote is 52 years old and has been retired for over a decade, but that just means he’s had a lot of time to rest and recover from the injuries that ended his career. That’s how that works, right? Your body doesn’t just continue breaking down forever, eating away at your physical abilities until you no longer feel like yourself, right? Right?
9 | A hologram of Chris Pronger
The in-game entertainment crew at Rogers Arena has created some incredible spectacles on the ice and video board in recent years but now it’s time for their greatest challenge yet: an on-ice hologram of Hall-of-Fame defenceman Chris Pronger.
The magic of holograms has allowed Tupac Shakur to take the stage again, so why not use them to put Pronger on the ice in a Canucks jersey? All they need is thousands of projectors that can be built into the new video board to create a realistic image of Pronger.
The Canucks have lots of leftover footage of Pronger to use as reference from the videos they showed Nikita Tryamkin and Vancouver has a wealth of visual effects houses that could help with the work. Mix in some AI algorithms to react to what’s happening on the ice and we’re all set. Sure, the AI might cause Pronger’s number of teeth and fingers to fluctuate wildly, but that would just make him all the more fearsome to behold.
Yes, opposing forwards can skate right through the hologram but they can already skate right through Tyler Myers, so it’s not that much of a difference.
10 | A tall defencemen who definitely isn’t two kids in a trenchcoat
An ideal partner for Hughes would have the size to make up for Hughes’ lesser stature, so this defenceman seems perfect. He’s certainly tall, even if he’s on the slender side and is awfully wiggly in the middle.
Also, he never takes off his trenchcoat.